"Earth is a sinful song"
- "American Pictures" in 25 years

Jacob Holdt's photos from the USA and the Third World

Exhibition in Rundetårn, Copenhagen 23. June-19. August 2001

Photos in the exhibition (site still under construction):

{ USA1 - USA 2 - USA 3 - Africa - Bolivia - Nepal - Haiti - Guatemala - Jamaica  
- Nicaragua - Thailand - Cambodia - Kosovo -
Home }


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From Rundetårns brochure:

Jacob Holdt exhibits for the first time the original photos used in "American
Pictures" – first published 25 years ago. The exhibition also has photos from his
travels in Bolivia, Nepal, Thailand, Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Kosovo.
Jacob Holdt became known when he returned in 1976 from the USA with his
slideshow "American Pictures." The show is a selection of the 15.000 pictures he
made during his 5-year journey as a vagabond in USA.

The photos attempts to describe the effects of racism on the black ghettos in which he felt that "blacks from the very first day took me by my hand to show me their deep pain – a pain I could as an outsider soon see was caused by the white
oppression." He decided to devote his life as bridge builder between the separate
black and white worlds.

For 6 years he toured with his American volunteers in 14 countries to educate on
the great human costs of ostracizing and ghettoizing huge population groups. The
money from his shows and his best-selling book was spent fighting apartheid in
South Africa – primarily by giving humanitarian aid to liberation groups in the
frontline states around South Africa. 

The condescending attitudes of European audiences towards America when seeing the show and the growing racism in Europe itself, however, soon became too much for Jacob Holdt and his black coworkers. In 1982 they moved their operation to the USA, where he since has used his slideshow along with his therapeutic racism workshop in American universities. With the experiences gained from this work he began again after a 10 years break to use his slideshow in European schools – now as a far more effective "therapeutic" tool to help heal racism. Racism had in the meantime exploded all over Europe, resulting
in a similar ghettoization – here of Muslim immigrants.

Through all the years he has resisted attempts to exhibit his photos. He is not an artist, he says: "But I am a good vagabond – good at getting inside to live with people of whom any idiot could take a good picture." First of all, however, he feared that the photos – without the explaining words of the slideshow – could help strengthen negative stereotypes in Europe towards the USA, and in America towards blacks. He explains in details about this well-founded fear on his homepages. 
Through all the years he has maintained his friendship with the photographed families and one of the most moving aspects of the exhibition is in fact the photos of them 25 years after – often in the same depressing circumstances.

The idea of making the exhibition came when the development organization CARE made an exhibition of Jacob Holdt's pictures from Bolivia, Nepal and Thailand. His previous involvement in Africa had aroused his interest for development aid. For many years he has made voluntary work for CARE, which he feels "makes the least racist damage – primarily by using local native employees rather than sending trampling white elephants without local
sensitivity." With a smile he justifies his own photographic presence on the account "that he is not there to help the natives, but to inform the Danes about the need to help them."

There are also photos from Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, where he often travels in his idle moments in the USA to offer the local CARE-offices his assistance and from Kosovo, where he helped CARE USA during the clearing of land mines and rehousing of refugees after the war. Like his original photos from the USA – financed from selling his blood plasma twice a week – the photos from the Third World are of varying quality "often photographed on sunburned, expired films bought from local street sellers." But – unlike American Pictures - they reveal his optimistic belief that it is possible to affect change. The answer is more likely that he as a "leisure photographer" usually forgets everything about photo technique during his long lecturing periods. 

Also it is difficult for him to reconcile his two roles as "the passive dissociating photographic exploiter" and "the active, sympathetic wandering social worker." Thus he doesn't know if he has greatest meaning as an entertainer and court jester for the better off citizenry at home or for the long tail of children, whom his long breaded beard everywhere is
dragging behind him in slums and ghettos. Without their wonderful interaction and help to get in touch with the adults, he would never be able to make his pictures. Therefore many of his photos are about these children – and their future!

  Copyright © 2001 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.