Go back 

Interview in Das Buch Als Magazine, 2014 

 

Interview with
Jacob Holdt 

 

by David Benedek 
 

Interview from: Das Buch Als Magazine, Ausgabe "Canterville", Oktober 2014. David Benedek

Interview in Deutsch hier

 

 

Do you consider yourself a missionary?

No, I wouldn't say so. I feel it's always other people who've let me into things. Only after my vagabond years in the 70s in America, I really wanted people to see these pictures. But all of my work since, and the lectures that came out of it, they all expanded over the years through other people who have let me into their lives, and by saying yes to people. 

So rather than a missionary agenda, in the first instance your work comes out of your curiosity for humans you'd say?

Yeah. But, for instance, I didn't go out looking for the KuKluxKlan. It didn't interest me at first. It was only when a danish documentary film maker wanted to make a film about me and put me together with the biggest klan leader in America, that I thought it could be fun.
I had earlier tried to get a Danish Nazi out of the party, and it's very easy to get people out of those organizations with a little love and attention. And I thought it was interesting to get a klan leader out of the Klan.

So it was an experiment more than anything else?

I guess that's how I rationalize it later. I had been working with racist university students, so why not work on the racism of the KKK? But as I said, that's a later rationalization because I just thought: I have time, let's find out who they are. 
And I just liked them right away. 

Why did they agree to let you, an outspoken anti-racist, become a part of their lives in the first place?

The film maker had arranged a meeting but I couldnt go, so they did a recording in my appartment in NY, where they wanted me to say something to the klan leader. But what do you say to a klan leader? I just started saying: "I remember all these poor white hitchhikers that I picked up, who turned out to be klan members, and sitting there, talking to them in the car, about all the pain they in them from their childhood. Incest, beating, from stepfathers and so on - so I said - I can only have sympathy for the klan because this is so much of the same that I have seen in the black community." And then I started comparing the blacks and the KKK, thinking that he would probably be mad, but he was moved. Supposedly he stood up, in tears, and said: "You must promise me I meet this man."
And at the same time, I fired my old black agent, because he owed me a lot of money, and in turn he cancelled 40 of my university lectures, so suddenly I was unemployed, and i felt:  "wow,  heaven, I am free." I had been running that lecture show day after day after day for 20 years. That was in 2003. And suddenly felt I was a free person again, and instead of entertaining students I could go out and play with people again. 
But when I eventually went to see Jeff, the leader of the Klan, he had just been sentenced to 130 years in prison - and since he was the one who invited me -  I moved in with his wife Pamela.

You moved in with his wife?

Yes, that was my mantra, already from my years as a vagabond. If you really want to get to know people, you have to move in with them. And that's what happens when you do: You start seeing them as human beings. 
So I moved in with Pamela while Jerry, the Klan leader was still in prison and slowly I started putting together the pieces, of where their hate came from. I interviewed them about their childhood and I ended up finding all of these very similar stories in most of their pasts.  Pamela, Jerry's wife, she had suffered incest and the klan leader himself, his mother used to work as a prostitute with black customers and leaving him alone in the car out there for hours, neglecting him as a child. And that's probably how he rationalized racism later in life. Certainly there was a deep pain in him and that's what I found in all of them. And this is something you only learned by moving in with them: They aren't hateful, we are hateful towards them.

But can you just turn a blind eye to what the KukluxKlan did and what they stand for?

Of course that's important but you must never let your prejudice get in the way of reaching someone. 
And i could see this was the truth: only when they put up these hoods and burnt crosses, do we find them interesting. The minute they're just drug rehabs or alcohol rehabs, we won't find them interesting. And this is where their adrenaline drive is. When I talked to the klan leader in prison and he talked about giving up the klan, I think i was almost convincing him to stay in the klan, because i thought he was worth more as a Klan leader than being... a nothing. You know, when he was just poor white trash nothing, nobody would find him interesting. So I thought - I could see me inner thinking - maybe he's better off as a klan leader. And then another thing - I had already learned at that time, one klan leader goes down, another one will come up. There's enough poor white trash people in america who want an instant of fame and so on, and they're ready to get in these garments to get on TV and so on. 
And why not have a responsible klan leader (laughs), or as i started calling it: an anti-racist klan leader (laughs). I volunteered to become webmaster of the KKK and he had no problems with it.
I always say to my jewish friends: you had me as a guarantee that no racism or anti-semitism would come from the klan's website. And that power you only get by loving them, joining them, and working with them.... if you hate them, that just makes themselves worse. But never would I have thought in my youth that one day I'd be the one paying the electricity or web provider bills for the KuKluxKlan when they couldn't afford it... (laughs)... you have no idea how poor those people are.

Was that ever a problem? That you were basically coming in from above, morally and economically - That they felt exploited or exposed in their poverty? 

The KKK in general, they loved everything, because it was all about getting attention. It was exciting for them to have a camera there. 
After the Klan leader got out of prison, I convinced him to tour America with me and meet a lot of my black friends for a TV documentary and we had a lot of conversations about that, and occasionally something defensive would come out, like "Oh, don't feel sorry for myself. You're just playing god." 

Well, Were you?

He was very intelligent. I had hoped they would cut it out of the TV programme but they didn't. (laughs) But at the same time, I could see that people love it because there's some truth in it.
But see: when I am with the klan, i am just hanging out with them. I am doing nothing, i am just drinking beer with them. But when I come in and teach, yeah, then i put it up on these higher levels and then it can sound like i am playing god with people.

So when you say you have no agenda....

Well, the agenda is to always find the good in people (laughs)

See, then you do have a mission.

And I always find it! (laughs)
It's something I really picked up on when I started learning non-violent communication. You have to remember, I was vagabond, all day long, 30 rides a day, you have so much time to experiment with every car driver who picks you up and you know very much when you dont reach them. Every day I had to find a place to stay for the night. And if I didn't open them up in a short time I'd just be left out in the cold again. I became more and more aware of the fact that if you think positive and you have love for them, they will have love for you and then it just becomes an automatic process. It very seldom I meet people i can't think positively about. Because if I see negative traits I immediately think: this is a hurt person. but just the fact that I think this is a deeply hurt person already means i am thinking empathic about him and that makes him come out ... like Woody, the mass murderer i had sitting in my car. He would have never opened up to me about all the blacks he had murdered and so on.
So it's something you learn: you get so much love back if you give a little out. Just dont think negative about them or criticise them.

Isn't love and respect also about giving limits, or guidance?

Well, everyone knows it's wrong to kill people. So I don't sit there and say "this is wrong, don't do that". He already knows that. You must push your judgement aside and focus on helping a person get ouf their pain first, whatever pain that is.
But, of course, I dont' always have that love in me... i have a short, aargh, temper, and i still might pick up hitchhikers like woody, but then i sit there with my pain, and he sits there with his pain, and two people with pain can't open up to each other. And then i'll probably start thinking negative about him "...hm, maybe he's dangerous?" And then he'll become that dangerous guy. Then i reinforce those sides in him… but first, on a normal day. When he feels loved... when he sits there and tells me all about murdering blacks and all that, what you have to do in such a situation is say: "Oh, your'e god's own child" - really make them feel it, and then, wow, suddenly they become tall, and they feel good about themselves, and then they don't go out and murder someone... That day. (laughs)

I was just going to ask: feel tall for how long?

He did it two days later, I found out. He went in and stabbed a whole family. Two days later, after i dropped him off. Kicked in the door to a house, went around while people were sleeping and cut up their stomaches with a knive. 

Did it ever occur to you that you had a responsibility, on your end?

Yeee.... But I had no proof. No dead bodies... or whatever. I just maybe had a crazy guy in the car... and all the time you pick up crazy people. And I didn't know where he lived. 
But i was curious. Therefore i came back 5 years later. So after 3 days hunting in dense fog I found the mass murder family, deep in the swamp. In the end I became a messenger between him and his victims, in prison. 

Isn't there a moment for you where the understanding of others becomes obsolete, because too much damage has already been done? Where you decide to turn your back on someone?

Turn my back on them? Oh, no. I thought: wow, this is a family that needs help! You know, People have to take responsibility and all that, but for me what matters is to understand why people act like they do, in order for us to help them. 
And it was obvious. They were craving for my company, everyone in that family. In all those years, noone had ever even visited them. Everyone in the town nearby stayed away from them. And first of all: They were all very nice. People mainly explode when they are on alcohol and pills, they suddenly explode... that anger that is inside them all the time, suddenly they explode and do some terrible things... so, to answer your question: No, i never to this day, have met a bad guy, i'Ve only met deeply hurt people. And hurt people you help, like a doctor or nurse, social worker, whatever. Like a loving human being.. you just can't reject them you feel, you try to give them help... 
And again, to see where the pain is coming from, I can only forgive them.

But what happens if noones guilty?

We are all guilty for not interfering our neighbours hurt child, when we see what's being done and so on.

But to what social consequence?

I am an idealist, not a realist.
I am not saying they are not guilty... In the crimes they have done, they are, but in my opinion, they are still good people. And certainly good enough so we don't have to throw them away. Or give up hope. 

Do you feel there is a valid place for anger? For the right, not to forgive?

Oh, I am sure there is. There must be... but that's not the best way of surviving.

Where is jacob Holdt's aggression?

Ahhh.. it comes out in other ways. If you go out and love everybody, you know, it's coming out from yourself. It's easy to go around and preach all this stuff, but I am sure i could be put in many situations where i'd do terrible things but yeah... I don't know.

In Lars von trier's Film, "Dogville", he chose your images to run through the film's credits. It's funny that your images accompany a film that tells a story about someone who, at all personal cost, her own abuse, tries to be forgiving and compassionate, only to realize her own hypocrisy and that results in the ultimate opposite, revenge.

Well, you never know what Lars really is saying with his films (laughs). Him and I had long talks during the making of these movies, and I think we pretty much share the same views.

I guess what I am asking is: aside from the movie's potential commentary about morality - is it possible to live what you're preaching? An all encompassing grace? To forgive your own rapist, like you claim to have done?

Let me be clear, I would not say other people could do what I did. 
I am not saying women should be able to do that. I just got so much more out of being forgiving in a moment than from running away.

Is it the personal power you received by forgiving that matters? 

No, if we're talking about my specific rape... which happened on one of my first nights in America by a black man - forgiving him was such a revelation for me. And not because of the power it gave me but by what happened afterwards. The next day he took me into his community and I realized by having said yes to people and forgiving I was carried into these incredible worlds. I was rewarded by going through some pain. That's why from that moment on, I never dared to say no to people. I was scared of what I might miss. 

That is almost superstitious.

Yes, It was almost a little religious. You know, I am not a homosexual and I thought anal sex was just painful and degrading, so what I learned from this, was to never let it come this again. But also you know, as a vagabond on the highway back then, homosexual encounters were the routine. It was the cost of travelling, when you needed to go somewhere with one of the many truckers. So I've been through so many of these blowjobs and whatever, I just always felt: my body they can have, my soul they will never. (laughs).
But to go back to your question about all-encompassing forgiveness. Essentially I don't think that these cases, of rapists and mass murderers and the most extreme examples are the ones to discuss compassion with... because here we see the end result of when we didn't interfere earlier. 

So after all, your work's mission is more preventive than anything?

Yes, its preventive work we're talking about, to realize how easy it is to open someone up and what a difference it can make. That's why it's so important for us to reach out as saving angels to people.

 

 

 
Copyright © 2014 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.
American Pictures - reviews