How I made my pictures

A non-violent approach to photography

by Jacob Holdt

I was hitchhiking from Canada on my way to Latin America, arriving in the USA with only 40 $ and no intention of staying. I immediately fell in love with the American people, but already on my second day I got robbed by 3 blacks. Having never experienced violence before, I was curious to find out where all the anger and pain in the American streets came from. Most whites, whom we Europeans first live with, instilled fear in me of blacks with the result that I constantly sent out signals of fear, thus basically telling the children of pain that “you are a bad guy, I have reason to fear you.” Through our ghettoization of them, street criminals already feel “bad” about themselves, so inevitably my racist body language inflamed their self-hatred thus making them explode in anger and attacking me. From 1970-72 I was mugged 4 times by gunmen and countless times by knifemen not to speak of hostile, verbal abuse. And this was before I even entered the ghettos.

But gradually I made friends with some blacks and lived with them. Without myself at first knowing it, this started giving me a positive view of blacks whom I could no longer see as monsters I should fear, but as human beings I could trust. As I thus freed myself of the white racist fear, my body language apparently changed so that I now sent opposite signals to the children of pain such as “You are good, I have reason to trust you.” All people are starving for positive encouragement, but nobody as much as those who have suffered rejection from our aversive behavior since childhood. For them this was a message of love and from the moment I learned such non-violent communication even the worst ghetto criminals - and later even mass murderers and KKK-people - took me by the hand to show me around in their world of pain. Feeling safe everywhere I could from now on travel as a free human being and started living in the ghettos. From 1972 until today I have not been attacked or robbed a single time even though the crime and murder rate exploded in the intervening 35 years. 

My photography is thus a result of non-violent communication with the victims of a violent racism. My parents - in disbelief of my written accounts - sent me after one year a pocket-size Canon Dial for my birthday asking me to send some pictures home. I had never photographed before and saw it first as my visual diary helping me to remember all the people who gave me hospitality and food in more than 400 homes over 5 years as a “vagabond”. This is my term for a hitchhiker who with no exception says yes to every invitation he receives and thus throws himself into the arms of many abusive people whom - at least I - had been brought up to avoid in my safe Danish rectory. The half-frame camera took 72 pictures on a roll, so by selling my blood plasma twice a week for $5 each time, I could afford 2 rolls of film a week. Often I hitchhiked enormous distances to go to e.g. New Orleans, where the blood banks paid $6,10, but during the last two years I made small picture books to show to better-off drivers after which I often got small donations – the highest was $30 from a businessman in Philadelphia.

Since I had to economize with the film I often sat for days with people whom I lived, not using the camera before I saw “the right face” which I felt showed the situation before the interference of a stranger – and then shot just one or two pictures. My first priority was always survival - housing and food – and the photography only my extravagant hobby. Since American Pictures became a success in 1976, I have of course for 30 years been re-visiting all those friends – including my former muggers and rapists – and found it interesting that only a few of them can remember that I discretely had photographed them the first time, I stayed with them.

I have at times – not least by West Indian blacks in England – been criticized for showing American blacks as passive victims. The truth, as I see it, is that through my non-violent approach to photography the pictures show the peaceful harmony I myself found with the ghetto. Thus they usually don’t portray the (counterproductive) anger which most (American) whites see, expect and especially fear in the victims of their own racism. Exactly for that reason - since they “humanize” ghetto blacks in the eyes of whites – they have been an enormously effective educational tool for unlearning the racism of students in American universities for the last 30 years. “I feel liberated,” enthusiastic students often exclaim after my presentations, demonstrating the enormous burden involuntary negative thinking of other people is. While my pictures thus can be “liberating” in an educational context, I have some fears that by standing alone in a book, in an exhibition or on the Internet without my words, they may seem “oppressive”.




Other pages under this menu:

Hitchhiking stretches         
Map of the 400  homes I lived in
American Pictures Foundation       
My non-violent approach to photography

Future of American Pictures        
Sponsors of my travel photography



  This page in Danish

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