Interview written for photo magazine, 1993
by Ronald Netsky
In the early 1970s, while vagabonding around the United States, Jacob
Holdt would write to his parents in Denmark about the unspeakable poverty
he witnessed. But his parents didn't always believe what he wrote.
Holdt, 44, sees America through the eyes of an outsider. From his initial
travels as a penniless vagabond two decades ago, to his campus lecture
tours of today, he has used photography to drive home a powerful message.
Holdt approached the United States as a citizen of the world who would not accept the limitations society usually imposes. He lived with the underclass in the one-room shacks of the rural South and the urban slums of the North, but he has also slept in the homes of Rockefellers and other wealthy families. He photographed the protests at Wounded Knee by Native Americans in the early 1970s and secretly photographed and recorded Ku Klux Klan rallies.
An outsider in the fields of photography and sociology, Holdt offers
a raw, personal exploration of the relationships between black and white,
poor and rich. He documents the lives of people he refers to not as subjects
but as friends. On every trip to the U. S. he re-visits the people who
took him in.
Although he has had no training in the technique or aesthetics of photography,
Holdt has produced no shortage of arresting images. Most of them were taken
with a $30 snapshot camera.
Holdt was on his way from Canada to Latin America in 1972 when he stopped in the U.S. He never got to Latin America. After photographing the poor for several years he realized he was working on a project. He began making books of his prints and showing them to people on the road. By doing so he convinced those who picked him up hitch-hiking to support his work financially. He also earned the trust of blacks.
"I had to have some proof that I was doing something all right," said Holdt. "The more pictures I had of black homes the easier it was for me to open people up, come in to any small town after midnight in a ghetto and in half an hour have a place to stay. I was so good at it in the last few years I could could into any town and have a place to stay."
Getting people to invite him to their homes was no small accomplishment.
Holdt is six-foot-three-inches tall, has very long hair and a beard with
a 17-inch braid at its center. He valued any prejudice he encountered because
of his looks.
Because Holdt was surveying the American experience it was sometimes necessary to disguise himself to gain entrance to places like Republican Campaign Headquarters. With his hair tucked under a wig and his beard rolled up he managed to discuss Richard Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign with Nixon's daughter Tricia. And he spoke to Ronald Reagan about health care at a campaign stop in 1980.
Holdt, 45, was kicked out of high school in Denmark in the mid-1960s.
Socially active since his teenage years, he was involved in protests over
the Vietnam war and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He spent eight
months in the army in Denmark before, "they kicked me out too." He is the
son of a Lutheran minister.
Holdt had a different view of the U.S. while growing up.
Although Holdt knew nothing about him until his own career was well
on its way, the great Danish documentary photographer Jacob Riis grew up
15 miles away from Holdt's home in Denmark and came to America 100 years
before him almost to the day. And another Danish photographer, Peter Seakjaer,
who worked with Walker Evans for the Farm Security Administration, came
to America from Denmark 50 years before Holdt.
Holdt believe that he and the other photographers have in common a Danish
way of looking at the world inspired by Nikolai Grundtvig, a 19th-century
In Denmark, and throughout Europe, Holdt is a celebrity. So last year when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the opened KGB's files named him as a KGB double agent, headlines broke out across Europe. The press was negative at first, but when he explained how his name turned up in the files, his reputation was restored. He had come back to Denmark in 1976 a tremendous success. Among the thousands of people who lined up to see his American Pictures shcw was a Russian diplomat who invited him to dinner. With the proceeds from his best-sel1ing book he planned to build a hospital in Angola. To deal with the Marxist state he needed Soviet help, so he had led the Soviets believe he was on their side. But he later learned they wanted to use his photographs as propaganda against President Carter.
"I wanted to work on racism in America, I did not want this to be seen
as anti-American propaganda. I did not want to be accused of undermining
Carter's human rights campaign. When I saw how the book was being used
I felt there was only one thing to do and that was to kill it. That's a
little hard to do when you've been poor all your life and you suddenly
stand to be a millionaire."
Holdt now travels with his show to American Universities where he aims his talks at "white racists" that is, all white. "I usually categorize people as old-fashioned racists and more liberal racists, people who are totally ignorant of their own racism."
Holdt believes Americans can not help being racist. "You see a system of oppression that works the same way from Alaska to Hawaii to Maine to Florida in the sense that it forces black children to internalize negative white thinking very early. They start to fall behind the whites after fourth grade and don't make it academically. When you live in such a society or travel in it for so many years you start having the same feelings that all Americans have, that somehow there's some inherent deficiency in blacks. Liberals would never admit to such feelings and this is why we're constantly locked up in guilt. That's why it takes journeys into other societies to see other systems of oppression."
In showing American Pictures, Holdt's goal is to let people know how they become racist and how it effects their lives. He especially wants them to recognize the destruction racism leaves in the black community. While two slide projectors run continuously, Holdt's narration is interspersed with socially conscious songs. Many of the pairings of photographs are ironic -- images of opulence next to images of abject poverty.
"As I was watching it was absolutely the most ashamed I'd ever been
in my life," said Debbie Strabone, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts
at Lowell. "I never thought something like that existed in this time. Seeing
something like that makes you snap out of your apathy."
Holdt finds it ironic that it is easier to shoot devastating photographs today than it was in the early 1970s. In his travels Holdt has also seen how the other half lives. His book discusses a night spent with Senator Edward Kennedy, who he says was involved in a drunken joy-ride. And he spent another night at the home of Senator Jay Rockefeller of Virginia. He had left Washington D.C. one spring morning in his shirt-sleeves, hitch-hiking to West Virginia to photograph coal miners.
"All of a sudden I stood there in a snow storm. And when you stand there in a snowstorm with very little clothes on people think you are nuts or a runaway criminal or something so they absolutely don't want to pick you up. I was freezing to death. But the key to understanding vagabonding is that you very soon develop a feeling that your suffering is good for something, that through your very suffering you will end up in heaven. If you don't have that almost religious belief you could never go through all the pain. So the more I was suffering the more I knew something fantastic was going to happen. And through that very conviction you can almost melt mountains around you."
He eventually got a ride with two lawyers who offered him a place to
stay. But during the drive they passed Buckhannon and mentioned that this
was where Jay Rockefeller lived.
Holdt believed the good will he found among most Americans he got to know would eventually lead to a healing of divisions. "At the time I made American Pictures and came back and saw the shock of Europeans I felt 'gee, did I exaggerate a little bit?' because when you have lived in these conditions for years you don't think of it being anything special anymore. I felt that these pictures would end up in the Schomberg collection in Harlem, I wanted to donate them because I thought soon they would be historical documents. But how wrong I was. Everything has surpassed what I see in American Pictures. I had no idea I'd ever be able to use this on a continuing basis."