Austin-based photographer John Davidson is not a Texas native. His own story travels across continents and countries, as he discovers new places and meets people at each turn. Originally from Manchester, England, John’s experiences around the globe have led him to develop his own visual narrative style that he brings to his commercial photography.
I consider much of the work I do to be about storytelling, perhaps because I come from a writing background.
In a unique assignment for Texas Monthly, John applies his visual storytelling skills to a piece on the recently solved case of a young woman found drowned in a motel pool over fifty years ago. John traveled to Pecos, TX, and back in time to photograph the places where the story unfolded. He follows the clues of the case and captures the present-day residents who aided in uncovering the identity of the woman known only as “Pecos Jane”.
I really welcomed the opportunity to be part of a story of such intrigue and substance, a detective piece about identifying a young woman after so many nameless years.
In 1966, a mysterious couple checked into the Ropers Motel in Pecos, a town with a few thousand oil and gas industry workers who never seemed to stay too long. However, the residents who have lived here for half a century know all about the story of the unknown woman who never left.
Before the shoot, John familiarized himself with writer Michael Hardy’s article. This provided him with enough context to photograph the assignment with the story in mind and be able to illustrate certain scenes from the case. He then took the six-hour drive west to the somewhat remote community where they’ve adopted Pecos Jane as one of their own.
I received an advanced draft of the article, which for some photographers can curb their ability to tell the story themselves. But I can’t help but feel that without knowing the story you’d miss an integral part.
While the old motel is no longer in use, John was able to tour the location and visit the now filled-in pool that appears haunted by the memory of her tragic death. It doesn’t look like much, but the stories of motel workers like Sandy Moore, one of the residents featured in the article, help the reader to see the blue waters that took a young woman’s life.
In 107 degree heat, John ventured to the old Fairview Cemetery, where Pecos Jane’s body was exhumed for the DNA testing that ultimately uncovered her true name. When she was first discovered, many parents came to view the body, hoping it was their own lost daughter, but none of the dental records matched. The devastated families were so moved by her resemblance to their children that they established the “Drowned Girl Trust Fund” to help pay for her funeral and tombstone.
At the cemetery, John met with local Pecos Chief of Police Lisa Tarango, whose interest in the cold case was first sparked when she received a call from a forensic case manager at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. As someone who has dealt with serious and urgent matters, John was moved by Lisa’s shy and humble nature and was patient in taking the time to connect with her.
Lisa was genuine, kind, and a very impressive woman. We spent a good amount of time chatting in her office before I even opened my camera bag.
As a mother, Lisa knew that reopening the case would provide closure to a family that never had a chance to say goodbye. She took up the challenge and didn’t rest until the DNA led her to a farm in Kansas that was once the home of the Hemmy family, and their missing daughter Jolaine.
Lisa’s determination enabled her to present the findings to the whole Hemmy family in the home of one sibling in Salina, KS. Through her brave retelling, she helped many of them feel more at peace knowing that Jolaine had been taken care of by the town of Pecos. As she stands tall in John’s portraits, it’s evident that she is a respected leader in her small community.
If I have a guiding philosophy, it is that the best work invariably comes from a place of authentic connection and engagement.
While the English-born photographer has lived a different life than the residents of Pecos, John had little trouble highlighting the empathy of this town in the wake of a tragedy from so long ago. His time spent with locals like Lisa provided the type of connection that makes photography such a rewarding experience for storytellers like John.
I enjoy meeting people whose lives are radically different from mine. Often, you end up finding surprising commonalities that you share and then you also get to marvel at just how different the lives of others are from your own.