From the catalogue of Museum of Modern Arts Louisiana:
"Faith, hope and love" by Jacob Holdt


Mette Marcus - interview with Jacob Holdt:

"the man who couldn’t say no"


The man who became synonymous with his slide-show and book “American Pictures” is presented at Louisiana; an updated look at Jacob Holdt’s highly personal yet universal world – America portrayed with sensitivity and rare glimpses into places where only those who say yes can go. Louisiana curator Mette Marcus, the exhibition’s organizer, spoke with the vagabond, artist and controversial public personality about his photographs and the fresh questions they continue to raise.

Mounting a show of your photographs, it’s hard to get around Jacob Holdt, the person, and the whole story of your background, your motivations and your American journey. The American Pictures project, already familiar to so many Danes, is such a landmark.

JH: When you tell me that you think a biography of some sort should be included in the show, that you want to give people insight into who I am as a person, we then need to consider what kind of biography we want to tell. I’ve spent so much time among black Americans and worked with the problems of black America that you might say I’ve ended up writing my own biography – for instance, in interviews – in terms of that. Then there was the recent movie Milk, about the gay American politician Harvey Milk, and Jyllands-Posten (the Danish daily – ed.) ran a debate that prompted me to sit down and write about my involvement with people in the gay movement. All of a sudden, I was able to see and define myself in an entirely different way. This is just to say that there are many ways of understanding a person. There are many angles on my life, too, but the focus was always on that (points to a copy of American Pictures). I’m even a bit surprised myself when I’m reminded that I’m other things besides what I’m best known for today. I have lots of pictures about other Americans than impoverished blacks.

MM: Your project was to fight inequality and racism in the U.S. and later use the pictures you took as a starting point for a general discussion about inequality. Why pick that and not another fight – after all, there were plenty to choose from back then, in the early 1970s?

JH: But, you’ve got a completely wrong impression of me as a person. I never picked anything myself. Nor am I now that Louisiana is picking me. I always just bent with the wind. I never really chose anything in the U.S. I was involved in a fight in Denmark. I was an anti-Vietnam war activist and hounded by the police. At one point, a American Vietnam deserter is staying in my back-alley apartment. He meets a Canadian girl and her parents are so happy about my taking care of her that they invite me to Canada. That’s how it all began. I work for a year or so up in Canada and get involved in various liberation movements. I meet an Argentinian and we dream about going down and supporting Allende’s revolution in Chile. It’s always my goal to hitchhike down to Latin America, but the trip through the States becomes decisive. First, a black gay man rapes me in San Francisco and three days later three black men rob me at gunpoint. The anger and pain I encountered at both these events was a watershed. I was launched in two directions at once. Gay liberation was just starting up in San Francisco at the time. Meanwhile, there was black liberation. But again, this wasn’t something I consciously decided to do. From the get-go, it was as if black people took me by the hand and led me into their world of pain. In retrospect, I can see it was incredibly exciting what was going on at the time, things like the Black Panthers. It was an exciting time. When the black political activist Angela Davis was jailed, I was staying with some of her friends. So I was suddenly caught up in something I hadn’t chosen myself. I was trying to hold on to my anti-war involvement, and when everyone was going to the big demonstration in Washington I got a ride – at the time, I was still too scared to hitchhike – all the way to Detroit, where I was invited to stay with some black men in the roughest part of town – including one who just befriended me on Facebook yesterday! He later fled to Europe. He was sick of teaching high school to kids who’d be polishing their guns in class. A week later, I went with them to Washington for the big anti-war demonstrations. I plan to go back to Detroit with them afterwards, but I keep getting drawn into one violent ghetto after another. Blacks are always drawing me into their world. So, I never picked them, they always picked me. Don’t make me guilty of anything, please!

MM: Then you start taking photographs. Often of situations that would be impossible for an ordinary tourist in the States to experience. You typically stay with the people you photograph. This picture, for instance, shows a despondent-looking black woman and we just catch a glimpse of her baby in the playpen. It doesn’t look like a happy situation. How did the picture come about?

JH: That’s Nell Hall, and her grandchild in the playpen. I met Nell’s daughter Evelyn at a bar in New York – she was pregnant. It’s interesting that you pull out this picture, because at the time I didn’t know that I’d be doing something on oppression. I had an idea of showing black life more generally. I already had “black death” represented and at some point I get the desire to show ‘black birth’, as well. I had seen W. Eugene Smith’s “Nurse Midwife” from the 1950s, of a midwife with women giving birth in shacks, and I thought I’d do something like that. Every time I met a black woman who would soon be giving birth, I asked for permission to photograph and waited up the last nights before they came to term to make sure I got everything – and at the last moment, they always decided to go to the hospital and have a C-section. So, one, I was denied that sort of shanty romanticism and, two, I was never allowed to go into the delivery room. Every time, I was denied a good birth picture.

MM: Why did you take this picture?

JH: Well, I could tell it was a disturbing image. At the time, I was obsessed with the image white people have of black people – the grinning character, the ‘pleasing nigger’, that black people have learned to play since slavery days. Pleasing the white man. I saw it when I worked with black people in the cotton fields. When the white boss came around it brought out the ‘happy clown’, one of the many stereotypes created by slavery. All of a sudden, some of them would start acting crazy. But what I saw when I lived with them was this unbelievable sadness and apathy. Case in point, when I lived with Nell and Evelyn – the first and second day, she sits there smiling and everyone’s having fun. As a rule, I had to stay with people two or three days before reality crept in, before they were suitably relaxed around the photographer to allow me to interpret what I saw and see the deeper, underlying reality. Then you may ask, Is this the true, deeper reality? And yes, it is. Some things whites didn’t see, don’t see. They see it as something else. So it was important for me to sit and wait for those moments that, so to speak, showed the reality before the photographing stranger intruded. And that takes time. So, I went to a woman’s home to take a birth picture and ended up taking a picture describing oppression. That, there, doesn’t exist out in the street. You simply don’t see it. But, again, I am drawn into it.

MM: So your intention actually was to take a positive picture, to capture a slice of life?

JH: Yes, you could say that. In this particular case. But then I am drawn into her reality. Today, that housing project is closed because of crime. Some of the few times I really had fear in me was when I walked out there.

MM: We can’t tell that from your pictures, though. We don’t feel a tinge of fear.

JH: If I’d really been scared, of course, I couldn’t have taken these pictures. Then I would’ve stayed away from those neighborhoods. It was only when I learned to tackle racism – that is, the fear of other people – that I could even do American Pictures. The first two years I didn’t dare go into Harlem at night. But, the moment I started thinking about black people in a positive way and have trust in them, that whole world opened up. Courage is about conquering your fear. People often ask me, “How did you get the guts to do it”? Well, I didn’t have (that racist) fear anymore, so I didn’t need as many guts as when I started out.

MM: In your book, there are two places where the film snaps, so to speak. One is where you describe the funeral of someone you don’t know. You can’t take any pictures, because you find it so awful. It would seem that, meeting people you don’t know, the misery becomes too overwhelming for you to take pictures, while you don’t have an issue about photographing the miserable situations of people you know? Does putting a camera in front of your eye act as a filter?

JH: I never thought about that. There is actually a situation where I tried to photograph a homeless man down on the Bowery in New York and he attacks me with a knife. I get this guilt and feel I need to make friends with him. I spend the whole night talking with him and eventually do make friends with him. So you have a point. In that case, I was photographing someone before I knew him. And I always thought that was exploitation, taking pictures of homeless people just lying in the street.

MM: Why is that?

JH: Well, I really felt that was taking advantage of people. On the other hand, if you do so based on a friendly relationship and people really take part in your pictures, that’s legitimate. But the whole thing about going out and photographing some suffering people and then exhibiting their suffering – anybody can do that, but to me it’s like cheating. I happened to do it that night with the homeless man, because I was with Marilyn and we were busy going somewhere, so I just took his picture without any kind of prior communication, because the situation was, I can use this picture. I really regretted it and felt guilty about it. It is clearly overstepping my boundaries to photograph someone before I have struck up a kind of friendship with him/her.

MM: The issue of exploitation, can’t that be seen from the other side, as well? That you, a white man, capturing the suffering of black people, are still somehow using them?

JH: That’s always an issue. I see the same thing in Denmark, too. If people who are ghettoized only meet contempt and rejection from the society, there’s a reaction. They have no faith in the white man, and ever so often when a well-meaning blue-eyed man like me comes in, there‘s distrust. Some don’t want to have anything to do with you at all, others can’t do without an alliance with white people who open up to them. At the time I was traveling, a lot of black people adamantly did not want to have a white man staying in their house. That was the attitude of a huge number of people. The poorest blacks were afraid of whites in a differ133 ent way, of course. But the middle class, which was in a period of powerful political liberation, often wanted nothing to do with white people. I remember when I was picked up by black middle-class families and they sometimes got so offended at what they saw in my pictures that they ordered me out of the car, saying things like, “Is that how you see black people?” or, “That is an exploitation of our pain.” This was expressed in all sorts of ways. So, I met resistance not only from white people – in some places I was a “nigger lover” and in a lot of places I couldn’t even say what I was doing. In the South, especially, I could never tell whites what I was doing on the black side of town. It was an incredible balancing act. If I was staying with a white family and I came in at night and they asked me, “Well, what did you do today?” I’d say something like, “Just hanging around.” And remember, I didn’t always get support from black people, either. The whole thing about palling around with the enemy is symptomatic for all oppressed people. You are ostracized if you do. And the “white devil” comes in many disguises, including that of good intentions.

MM: Still, you seem to have been very conscious about what kind of pictures you were taking, wanting to use them for something special. You also seem to be very conscious of stereotypes and what pictures are capable of doing?

JH: I was conscious of oppression. Increasingly so. It has to do with how I interpret this world, the world of poor black Americans – how shall I go about showing the oppression I see. Take those pictures there, with the wallpaper peeling down the walls. Very few underclass blacks were living like that at the time, of course, but it shows the state of mind I sensed among them. So I used such pictures to show a general state. Most people, after all, are able to hold on to their pride and their dignity. They are able to paper their walls. But the deeper apathy you find in a broken person – that’s what I wish to foster an understanding of. Being broken like that is expressed in many different ways, including escaping into drug abuse, or drug dealing and crime – as we see with immigrants in Denmark, gang wars, that kind of thing. I have myself discriminated in my pictures. I think I more or less subconsciously chose the more attractive members of a family and chose to take pictures of them. I’m not crazy about group shots with 10 or 20 people at once. So I sit there waiting – when is a single person alone with his or her thoughts? Simply because I knew that white racism discriminates against certain aspects of black culture, I always had to speak to the deeper humanity in whites – in that sense, I had to be racist myself.

MM: So you used your own prejudices about what a white person would think was esthetic or visually acceptable?

JH: No. I think you have to say I used my knowledge. When I was on the road and I showed my pictures to white people, I saw how they reacted to a certain kind of picture. “Argh, how can you be with this filthy….” So, perhaps I tended to seek out situations that they couldn’t argue against. I don’t know if that’s predicated on my own racism or the racism I saw in white people. I could never have interpreted that reality if I’d only been on the black side of society. Moving back and forth daily between whites and blacks, I had to translate in my own head how the other side would see my pictures.

MM: What do those pictures mean to you that aren’t about people you’re staying with but show police, landscapes, billboards, buildings?

JH: Generally, they have served as symbols for me, or as contrasts, to use as building blocks to construct a story.

MM: Do you, in fact, call yourself a photographer?

JH: It depends on the context I’m in. In literary circles, I call myself a pho-tographer. In photographic contexts I call myself a writer or, more neutrally, a vagabond. I called myself that for years, because that’s what I felt I was. For years after I returned from the States, I wanted to get back on the road, but I was simply sidetracked by having one succes after another. I was never a photographer, but I’ve often been labeled one. I’m constantly referred to as “the photographer Jacob Holdt” and I don’t really think that’s what I predominantly am. I never went to shows of photography, I would never personally go to Louisiana to see a photography show. I’ve always said I wasn’t a good photographer but a good vagabond. Good at getting into homes no one else could get into, but where anyone could have taken a good picture.

MM: For years, you wouldn’t show your pictures independently of your own words, as in your slide-show or book. What made you change your mind?

JH: A good friend, who needed a show, asked me if I would select some of my pictures for him to hang, and so I forgot my old principles – because I wanted to help him out, but again also because of my thing about saying yes to things.

MM: You’re okay with it now?

JH: Well, I’ve shown my pictures without my words in a few places now, including the Capitol in Washington, D.C. – where I invited poor people I knew over there to come. It’s fun to bring together people in power and people from the underclass – robbers and bandits. I’m always afraid that my pictures will be misunderstood. Without my explanations, I’m afraid they will only reinforce the racism that already exists. There are so many high schools in the U.S. where I can’t show my slides, because they’re afraid that my pictures will reinforce their students’ stereotypes about black people. Images of apathetic blacks tend to jog the stereotype of “the lazy nigger” in their minds.

MM: Is there something about the distance in time that makes it easier for you to exhibit your pictures from the 1970s today?

JH: Yes, it will be a bit easier for me to show them in the U.S.. Now that we have Obama, maybe it will be easier for people to see the connection between now and the oppression back then. 134

MM: Some consider your project to be a religious project. I personally see it as more of a political project.

JH: So do I, though you can’t slap a party label on it. It’s interesting to me that people so often call me a leftist. You could say that I have a leftist approach to humanity, but I never voted for a left-wing party. I was always there in the middle where I could have a dialogue with the right and the left. Or bring out such a dialogue.

MM: Were you ever tempted to use the influence you have on so many people in terms of party politics?

JH: Several parties have actually headhunted me and I tend to say, “Sure, that would be fun.” But thankfully, my family always put a stop on it, telling me it would ruin my message if I suddenly joined one or another party. That’s not for me. I’m no good at that kind of thing.

MM: What does religion mean to you, in terms of your pictures?

JH: My father was a minister and I was always there in church listening, until I rebelled and only went every other Sunday. Christianity was always a part of my childhood. I probably rebelled more against the rhetoric around it than the inherent message of Christianity. It meant a lot to me, I think, to see the difference between the rhetoric in church and the real engagement in people. What I really respected about my father’s work was his social work with people in the parish. I didn’t think of him as a particularly religious person. What counted was his human engagement. My father talked with people who were going through hard times. On the road in the U.S. that was my experience, too – that people had a need to talk to me. Sometimes, I almost felt embarrassed to tell them I’d been traveling around the country for close to five years and mostly had a really good time. But I could justify having so much fun by at the same time having a kind of mission as an itinerant social worker. I always loved the religious human being and it was great to live in a multicultural society like America. Then I could change faith by alternately living with Muslims, fundamentalist Christians or Buddhists. I think it’s a beautiful thing to share people’s faith and see how strongly faith lives in all people.

MM: But, why is that important? Is it because that’s where hope is, or a faith in change?

JH: What I saw, I think, was a way for people to deal with their misfortune, faith as a refuge, an escape from the pain we people make for one another. Even within individual families, there’s a need to escape or find a higher meaning. But I never made that escape. I never became religious myself.

MM: Let’s look at some of your pictures again. There is very little confrontation or judgment in your pictures. Take this picture of a mass-murderer with his young daughter on his arm. Clearly, he doesn’t treat her too well….

JH: Yes, people often ask me how I can just stand there and take pictures of the mother beating that girl. I just did. As I’ve said, it doesn’t do any good to rebuke the mother by saying, “Don’t whip your kids”, because that only makes her feel worse about herself. On the contrary, it’s about – by my presence, or anyone of us who has something to spare – helping them out of that kind of pain, so they feel better about themselves. I can’t judge them.

MM: This guy looks like nothing special, apart from the fact that he owns a lot of guns and is proud of it. He doesn’t look particularly aggressive or evil, in the posture you portray him in here.

JH:  Well, I couldn’t help but care about these people. They were so sweet, too – though I also have a picture of him gesturing with a knife to show how he murdered a black guy….

MM: Then there’s a picture like this [of a half-nude black couple kissing in bed]. It’s quite a relief to see a picture with some sensuality and love – at least that’s what it looks like to me. Apparently, it was important for you to include this kind of picture, of people having sex or generally expressing love?

JH: Well, it’s to show a broader range of human life. Plus, it was another aspect I experienced. After all, I had a lot of fun with these people, too. It’s important to show that side of life, too – if I didn’t show it, I’d be distorting the image. I think it’s important to show that people can contain different aspects at once.

MM: This picture (Churchgoers after church service) is interesting because you are suddenly looking at things differently than you usually do when you photograph?

JH: Yes, here I’m being judgmental.

MM: How come?

JH: Well, I always have the contrast of white people enriching themselves and not caring about what goes on right around the corner from them. So, sure, there’s some condemnation in that. Most white people see themselves as one big middle class and they’re shocked at the contrasts I show. We’re always reading about growing inequality in the United States, as the rich get richer and richer, but that’s not how you experience society when you’re inside of it. All you see, then, is working families all around. So, this is a very conscious attempt to shake people up to make them see the huge inequalities in the American society. As a Dane, coming from one of the world’s most egalitarian societies, I didn’t photograph the things that resembled my own society as much as the things that were completely different, the filthy rich and the filthy poor, which I’d never seen before. It was shocking to me. And I soon discovered how this was also a visually effective way to get my message out.

MM: Couldn’t a case also be made to pity these ladies? After all, their situation is as historically determined as that of poor black people – or is it?

JH: That was actually a standing question for me, which I very clearly express in American Pictures – what is a person’s responsibility in this? But in order to bring out different angles visually, I had to use condemning images.

MM: This is a very touching picture….

JH: Yes, the Klan leader’s grandchild swaddled in the “flag of hate.” The Confederate flag is used as a symbol of hate all over the world. But Catja, she doesn’t become a hateful person. She is swaddled with love. Abused people become haters, if we have to use the word hate at all – I call it pain. Even though she has grown up among the Ku Klux Klan, she got an endless amount of love. Today, she is out of the KKK and is a well-adjusted big kid, because she got the love she needed. And that’s really what this picture is about. The KKK may dress up in hateful symbols, but it isn’t always about hate.

MM: A lot of your pictures make me think whether you asked people, “Hey, move over into the sunlight, please”. Did you stage your pictures?

JH: No. I may at times have moved some things around, say, if there was a big garish plastic bowl in the middle of the floor that I thought would disturb the image, when I was shooting color slides. In that sense, sure, I cheated a little bit, but my goal was always to replicate the world the way it was. I was always working with 160 ASA film and didn’t have an extra camera with high-speed film. So I needed some light and I typically put the flash behind a lamp and sometimes wrapped it in a piece of pink toilet paper to make it look like the light from an oil lamp in a home without electricity. I was always going around to stores asking for pink toilet paper, to get that reddish glow. It was the only way I could make those shots. Shooting with the flash alone flattens everything out, and the mood of the moment before the picture wouldn’t come out at all. I was always trying to recreate that in different ways. After all, it was completely dark in a lot of these homes and I wouldn’t have been able to get a picture without using a flash – I wouldn’t have gotten any pictures at all.

MM: Are your pictures perceived differently in the U.S. and Europe?

JH: I’ve been subjected to an unbelievable amount of criticism in the U.S., especially from feminists who don’t care for the nude pictures I took. They call them sexist. I took a lot of nude shots out of the slideshow when I first showed it in the States. Violence doesn’t bother them – that’s only what they expect from black people. In Denmark, it’s the other way around: People are shocked by the pictures of violence. It was always the pictures of violence that shocked people, while no one ever commented on my nude shots. In the U.S., you can get arrested for breastfeeding your child in the street. There are a lot of toes you can step on in the U.S..

MM: People who visit Louisiana and see your pictures – what would you like them to think?

JH: I’d be happy, of course, if my message about oppression, etc., got through, but I don’t expect it to. I’d be happy if you, as a curator, make me think about something that hadn’t occurred to me before, if a new interpretation emerges. But I can’t pass judgment anymore, I’m so used to being led around the ring….

MM: Did you ever feel like showing all the other pictures, all the ones that weren’t included in American Pictures and show other sides of America?

JH: Well, as I told you earlier, it was always so that things that happened in my life only happened because someone came and asked me to do something. I’ve simply been busy saying yes to every offer I got. Now, Louisiana comes and asks me if I’d like to show some of my other pictures, too, and we’ll end up doing something with them. My life was always like that.

Mette Marcus (b. 1971) Is the curator of the exhibition Faith, Hope & Love – Jacob Holdt’s America. Marcus trained as an art historian at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, and the University of Copenhagen, and has been a curator at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art since 2003.

 Copyright © 2014