Conversation between Arthur Jafa and

Jacob Holdt for Jafaís exhibition in Louisiana

A message on love


Printed in the Catalogue for Arthur Jafa's exhibition
in MOMA Louisiana 2.3.21 - 9.5.21


Arthur Jafa:
I saw your slide show in a university in Washington DC in the 1980s and it made an indelible impression on me. When I talked about doing an exhibition with the Louisiana museum in Denmark, they sent the Louisiana Channel to videotape me in my studio in LA. And they brought me your book American Pictures as a gift and asked if I happened to know it. And I just started laughing, because I have several copies of it Ė I buy extra copies for friends every time I see it in a book store. The main thing that I was struck by from the first time I saw the book was that I just had never seen images that I felt were as accurate in their renderings of the South that I knew. I grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the middle of the Delta. I love William Egglestonís work quite a bit. And itís obviously very great work as political photography. But I always felt like thereís a wall of aestheticism between what it is he takes pictures of and the work itself. And thatís not a critique, thatís just a part of his work. But I just had never seen images of the South before I saw your pictures, outside of my familyís photo albums Ė that would be like the only equivalent of it. If I had to put one question to you it would be how did you get these pictures? How did you manage the level of intimacy or access?


Jacob Holdt:
Thatís a long, long story. First of all, I didnít know what the fuck I was doing in America at the time. I came hitchhiking down (from Canada) on my way to Latin America. And it seemed like from the first day, the blacks were taking me by the hand Ė both in a positive, loving way and also at a gunpoint. I was held up at gunpoint and raped by a black homosexual on the first day in America. Iíve never told it in my book, it was actually at the Louisiana museum the first time I talked about one night because I had such a shame for years and years. But I realized now that if that had not happened, I would not have ended up in America, because I felt I had to connect with this anger (to understand it). But I think an important answer to your question is to travel with no money. I came to America with $40 in my pocket, and they lasted for five years due to the enormous hospitality of Americans. The question for me daily was how to get in and stay with people. And the minute youíre staying with people making your way in one way or another, then itís easy for any fool to take some pictures. And little by little the project grew.

Iíll also say it took me a couple of years to learn not to fear the gang guys I met, because I was attacked at gunpoint again and again the first two years and it creates fear in you. Thatís one of the reasons I have related to white racism since then.
Since then Iíve learned that the best method of overcoming the racism, I so soon developed towards blacks from my fear was to simply to move in with those you fear. By first living with the ďniceĒ (well behaving) black students from the middleclass I began to build trust up, not least by meeting their criminal brothers and sisters who at first appeared ĒdangerousĒ as a result of their anger, but whom they loved which contaminated my own view of them. Itís the anger among ostracized people that has since inspired me most Ė the anger which kills their leaning abilities in school the same as we see among marginalized Muslims in Denmark right now. By moving in with those I had already learned to fear, I built up more and more trust in black people in general. So when I since went out in the streets and met all these gangsters and criminals and so on, without knowing it I now sent a completely opposite message out to the children of pain, like ďyou are good, I have reason to trust you.Ē

In the past, my fearful body signals had sent them devastating messages such as "you are a bad guy whom I have reason to fear" which dehumanized them and inflamed their bad sides. For if there is one thing that marginalized ghetto people all over the world crave, it is the feeling of being loved. Only when you in your inner thinking are capable of sending signals of deeper trust in them can you send them the message that makes them feel loved and included. From that moment on, even the worst criminals and murderers melted and took me by the hand to lead me around their world of pain. I was never assaulted again and was never since afraid even though the violence around me grew worse and worse. From that moment on, America opened up to me and I could travel freely among all. That is the short version of the story of how I got into their homes.


Arthur Jafa: Those are some fundamental insights. Iíve worked for most of my adult life as a cinematographer, particularly on documentaries, so Iíve been to a lot of different places. People who donít have a lot are always trying to get what they need, but theyíre not demons. In my own particular upbringing in the Delta, which is outside of the Appalachians in the poorest region in America, I feel like poverty was more defining than culture, so to speak, or even race. The culture grows out of the poverty, or is inflected or deflected or shaped by the poverty.

My dad grew up in Laurel, Mississippi, in circumstances that would have been considered rough. He was a person that you could drop in any situation Ė we traveled Chicago, St. Louis Ė and within 40 minutes, heís just sitting around talking to people like theyíve known each other for forever. And as his son, I always felt slightly deficient. When I was young, I didnít know how to do this. I felt uncomfortable. I always felt like an outsider. Even as a black person, I felt like an outsider.  I have complicated feelings about my relationship to all the spectrums of blackness. On one hand ďunderclassĒ, lower class, blackness, and black culture is something that supposedly weíre collectively trying to get away from. I think the reason I did was that my father tried to create this other reality for his kids. And it was another reality. But he was super protective, I would say he was over-protective. It was a reality that didnít provide us with certain kinds of skills. It wasnít until I got older, by the time I turned 20, and I started traveling to places like Jamaica and Brazil, and to Africa, where I lived in cities like Lagos that I learned to establish my own relationship with people.

When I was in my late 30s I asked my father if he wanted to work with me on a project, because as I said, he was just so fluid in terms of meeting people. I was in a car with him driving from Atlanta to Mississippi. Midway on the eight-hour trip, I showed him a photobook called Juke Joint by Birney Imes, and he very quietly flipped through the book. I asked him if he didnít think it was amazing, and he said ďI donít see any creativity in this book whatsoever, thereís no creativity in taking pictures of people who has nothingĒ. I began discussing theoretical things on black culture and black expression. And then he just went crazy and began screaming at me Ė Iíve never seen him so mad before. I had to drive with my head out of the window. Iíve never forgotten that. I canít imagine how he would have reacted if I had given him your book American Pictures Ė he probably would have strangled me.


Jacob Holdt: (laughing) What was your fatherís deeper problems with the pictures?


Arthur Jafa:  I never had a conversation with him about it afterwards, I felt like I had to respect his experience. I think it was too close to my dadís experiences, what he saw in the book was what he grew up around and what he had protected me from. I had learned to appreciate the pictures as aesthetical formulations, because I developed a real sensitivity to the things that black people do that are not mainstream. Thereís a kind of genius on display when people do things that are not what the ideal is. A lot of times people have a relationship to certain kind of images, but itís distanced. Pictures allow people to be close to things they are attracted to, but the pictures canít reach out and touch you. The most powerful pictures actually move you despite the fact that the people in the picture canít reach their hand out and touch you. In terms of the proximity of your photos, I guess I realized that those pictures were not pictures that could be taken at a distance. Even if you had a telephoto lens, it wouldnít be the same thing.


Jacob Holdt: I had problems almost daily when I made shoots, especially around the South. Sometimes I was picked up by black middle-class people. And I had made my little picture books with some of my pictures and I showed them these pictures, so hopefully they would give me a little donation. But often they got pissed and said ďDonít you see anything beautiful in black people?Ē What, Iíd said, I saw them and tried to show them as oppressed people. I felt that if white people had to understand what theyíre causing, how they oppressed black people, they have to see pictures and the stories about how their racism destroyed human beings. Only that way could I hope to deconstruct the negative stereotyping which fueled their racist thinking. And that view is something Iíve really been reinforced in by seeing exactly the same here in our relationships to immigrants here in Denmark. Here too we see how those we marginalize end up in gangs and so on.
So, people like your parents helped very early to shape my awareness that I was making a document about oppression, not about black people. I never felt it was a book about black people, I felt I always tried to show the structure of racism to whites to make them take responsibility for it. I was trying to show the worst conditions that came out of oppression and have since shown it for 30-40 years in American universities in order to shock the students into realizing how destructive their seemingly innocent racism is.

Arthur Jafa:
 I say Iíve never seen images like this of black people, for sure. Iím talking about the unvarnished rendering of black peopleís lives, how black people were living, the pain, the anger, all of that. But I also have to say, there are images of black love and intimacy, that are in those same pictures. Thereís a famous picture that you took Ė or at least it is famous in my own little Pantheon Ė of a black man at the top of the stairs with a black woman, and theyíre nude. Nobodyís ever taken a picture of black love like that before.


Jacob Holdt:
Yes, thatís Renť Yates in Philadelphia. I knew her since she was 13. I stayed with her mom Dorothy in Philadelphia and every year I came back and I told stories about hitchhiking all over America. ďTake me with you, take me with youĒ, Renť said. But you are too young, I said. Then once when she was 16, I finally said, Okay, if you can get your motherís written permission, because I knew what could happen when hitchhiking with a black woman, I had often enough seen that kind of aggressive sexism from drivers when I hitchhiked with black women. Renť got the written permission from her mother, and we took off. And then we hitchhiked for two months around to visit some of her family down in Richmond and the playboy millionaires and all over the place. Night after night, we shared beds, wherever we could sleep, but it was never a sexual relationship. But we developed an intimacy with each other. And after two months, we came back and she was so happy to see her boyfriend again, and because of the intimacy we had gradually developed, she didnít even think of me standing there photographing them in bed. This is the way you take such a picture: you take the woman on the highways for a couple of months to soften her up.

Here is the full story with pictures told on video.


Arthur Jafa:  (laughing) I will try to apply that on my next project. You say you never considered yourself as a photographer. And I can accept that in the beginning, but at a certain point you have taken thousands of pictures and then you are a photographer, itís impossible not to be. And Iím wondering if there was ever a moment where you had taken an account for kind of shift internally in your relationship to taking images of the people. At a certain point, itís not to say youíre no longer a participant, but you know, you are a photographer. Iím wondering if you could just talk about that?

Jacob Holdt:
  And thatís a good question. Because it came daily when I always felt the minute I took up the camera that I was exploiting people, especially when they were in really miserable situations. And thatís why I preferred to stay with them for a couple of days before that moment came and then I would be using the flash without actually taking a picture because I couldnít afford more than one or two pictures each place. I had to sell blood plasma and just the trip from northern Mississippi where you grew up down to the blood plasma banks in New Orleans is a whole day trip. Thatís where most of my money came from. I used the camera to give people attention. I know from ghetto kids all over the world that they love to be photographed, but I couldnít afford to take many pictures of them. So I always faked it. Unlike today, where you have digital cameras, you can just shoot and shoot and shoot.


Arthur Jafa:  And then people can see the result immediately. But itís very interesting what youíre saying, because if you were faking the picture that just shows you that the charge of it was just being seen, because they werenít even actually seeing the result.


Jacob Holdt: Yeah, but not only being seen, - living with them and being with them also meant a lot, I could tell. I felt like a loser myself, I was thrown out of high school. So I have always felt a little guilty about building myself up with people who were also feeling as losers. I was apparently so discreet photographing, or they were so used to me sitting in their homes, that when I came back the first time in 78, and over the years - because I stayed in touch with almost all of my friends - they were so surprised, because they couldnít even remember that I had taken the photos of them. That I was glad to hear, for that meant that it was our friendship they have valued the most, not my presence as a photographer. Iíve always said that the great art is not to take pictures like Iíve taken, but the art is to get in and stay with people for a long time, thatís what matters.

But I have felt guilty about benefitting from my white privilege, god damn it, Iíve heard it so much over the years. When I started presenting the show you saw I realized that the racism I met was basically my own racism, so I have changed the whole tone and narration of my show into saying we.

I always start talking in my lectures about my own racism, because I donít want my audience to feel ashamed of their racism. What matters is to become committed anti-racist racist by always acknowledging and understanding and take responsibility for how your inner thinking of other people influences those other people. Especially when you sit on a power, as I ended up doing, running this show all over America and flying around in airplanes, sitting day after day with white businessmen, and only one or two blacks and three or four women on each plane Ė there you see the power relationship in modern society.


Arthur Jafa:  Itís interesting that you talk about the guilt you felt taking certain photos. There is a story I think of in relation to you quite often. One of the most incredible experiences I ever had was when I was in the Howard University. I was in the film department at a certain point and they had an African film maker, now I canít remember his name. I was telling him about the, I wouldnít say guilt, but the pressure and the discomfort that I felt when I pointed cameras at people, but at the same time I felt compelled to point cameras at people. Like having claustrophobia and not wanting to go into elevators, but at the same time feeling compelled to get into the elevator. And he asked me if I knew what a griot is?

And I said, yes, it is an African oral storyteller. He then told me the story about how griots came into being: there are two brothers, who are taking a long journey, epic journey out in the world. Eventually, after years, theyíve been weakened by this long journey and are coming back to their home village. One of the brothers is much weaker than the other and he knows he doesnít have enough strength to make it home. He told his brother, look, Iím going to take a little rest, just keep on going and Iíll catch up with you. So his brother keeps walking. At a certain point he thinks, why hasnít he kept up with me? He goes back and sees his brother laying on the side of the road, unconscious. And he realizes that his brother is starving. He takes a knife, cuts his own calf off and makes a fire and cooks his calf. Then he wakes his brother up and says, Hey, man, look, I found some food. His brother eats the food and gets his strength back, and they continue their journey and eventually get home. All the villagers who havenít seen them in years are so happy to see them there. But at a certain point, people go from cheering to screaming, and they run away. When the one brother sees his brotherís leg is green, he realizes immediately whatís happened: Iíve eaten the flesh of my brother. He then turns to his brother and says, from this moment forward, I will sing songs of praise, praising you and your life. My sons and daughters will sing the praises of your sons and daughters and their sons and daughters will sing the praises of their sons and daughters. And he became the first griot.

The filmmaker told me that in this story you see the fundamental relationship between the griot and the community: the griots sustain the story, but they feed on the flesh of the people. He said if you didnít feel that guilt, what I call this discomfort, you wouldnít really be a true griot. And ambivalences that you feel is part of your function and you have to learn to live with it. He told me that if you donít have that youíre not going to save the stories of the people, youíre not going understand what youíre seeing. That had a profound impact on me because I experienced the discomfort about pointing the camera to people over and over in my career as a documentary filmmaker.

When I was a kid I was always a looker, even if I didnít literally take the picture, I was always taking the picture in my head. I remember one time my brother caught on fire. And at the same time I was trying to get him out of the fire, I was just looking and thinking it was fascinating, because I had never seen a person on fire. I always felt like I saw in my understanding of your art the same universal function. And when I started to read some of your interviews when you talked about being on the road, never saying no, being open to what happened, I thought, this is definitely a griot.


Jacob Holdt:  I donít even know what to say, because I never understood what I was doing in those years. I just hitchhiked around and it was a daily survival. I felt that higher forces were leading me into the right situations. Iím the last one to describe myself.


Arthur Jafa:  I think thereís a metaphysical dimension in American Pictures both in the book and in the slideshow. Not to freak you out, but I will put it in the class of witch doctors. You said you had to sell blood plasma to get the money to take pictures. One of the basic and most fundamental rules of metaphysics, especially from an Africanist perspective, is that nothing happens without blood sacrifice. Iím wondering if metaphysics consciously entered into your practice?


Jacob Holdt:  Let me give you an example in regards to saying yes and blood plasma. I never forget that day when I was hitchhiking all the way down interstate 55 highway to New Orleans, selling my blood plasma because they paid the most there. And you had to go through what we called the gay wall Ėthe gay center. One time I got picked up by this white gay antique dealer in a pickup truck. And he had asked me if I would go into the woods with him, and I knew of course what he was all about, but I just forced myself always to say yes, so I ended up going with him in the woods. And he did what he had to do. Then he promised to introduce me to this very rich lady, although I never believed him. But he actually drove me to one of these big old plantation homes and I was immediately invited in. It became one of the most important chapters in my book in understanding the old plantation system of the South and I took some of my best pictures there. I have so many stories like this where if I had said no to a person instead of yes, I would not have ended up in heaven Ė what you call the metaphysical. And once you start seeing that pattern, you have to make yourself go through a little exploitation and hardship to end up in heaven, you never dare to say no to anybody any longer. So the concept of saying yes is the most important part of my whole trip. I could not have made American Pictures without the yes philosophy.


Arthur Jafa:  How did you follow up American Pictures?


Jacob Holdt:  Thatís a good question. Remember, for 40 years I was standing on a new American campus in front of a thousand or two thousand people often, talking about racism day in and day out. Instead of seeing people as people, I had to think in black and white all the time. In that sense I felt after 40 years like I was the biggest racist. And everybody said, you must not think in colors, but I had to do it, because I was teaching oppression, which in America was between black people and white people.

In 2008, I felt that I couldnít do it anymore and I stopped. I have been on the American highways all my life and flown a million and a half kilometers between campuses, and I didnít want anything to do with it anymore. Instead I have been working with Muslims in Denmark and was almost totally cut off from black America. Iíll give you a funny example. I just thought of it when I saw your movie Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death with music by Kanye West. I was working at home in my studio and suddenly Kanye West contacted me to get one of my pictures for one of his albums. I told this Iraqi woman who works for me that somebody called Kanye West wants one of my pictures Ė I had no idea who he was. What?!, she said, you should be so honored. I had come away from American culture to such a degree that I didnít even knew who Kanye West was. My friends have really been laughing at me.

In my workshops, one issue I was dealing with was getting black people and white people together. I saw the pattern all over that apartheid runs through American campuses. It is very difficult to get blacks and whites together in a healing workshop where you can start really changing. When it happened, I often had strong discussions with black students. When they talked about blackness and black culture and so on, I tried to provoke them a little bit by saying that I didít see any black culture in America. I asked them: can you distinguish what you call black culture from the culture you got from oppression and ghettoization?


Arthur Jafa:  If I were one of the students, I would have answered that the fact that black culture is oppressed is no evidence that there is no culture. You are just talking about the terms in which black culture exists. This is a question that comes up quite often in my circle. One of my really dear friends Fred Moten and I have this one fundamental split in our thinking. He doesnít feel like black culture and horror are inextricably bound up. He believes that horror and black culture instantly inform and deflect each other, shape and transform how we experience these things, but at the end of the day, black culture is not inherently bound up with horror. Whereas I feel like black culture is inextricably bound up with horror. It doesnít mean that itís all there is Ė if that was all there is it would mean we couldnít live. Thereís also joy and beauty, which are the components of any life.

Jacob Holdt: 
I wonder Ė and you have to tell me that Ė because I have not been in America for years and I sense that things are shifting and America changes all the time. But when I was there the people who understood me best were the Africans and the West Indian students who had no problems in universities and usually excelled and immediately melted in on the white side of apartheid. I have the feeling that since then Africans and black Americans have gotten a little more together.


Arthur Jafa:  I would say part of whatís happening is because of the way society is structured, not just structural circumstance, but historical circumstance. We are in a dynamic where it is like we live in the emergency room all the time. Most people visit the emergency rooms, but thatís where we live. At a certain point, we are forgetting that. If you are a doctor in an emergency ward, you think everybody is sick. I have had a lot of discussions of the difference between Africans and blacks with one of my assistants Atheel, whom Iím very tight with. Her parents are from Sudan and she grew up there. For me, black is an ontological formation. And it has to do with a number of factors, some of which are the presence of things like anti-black behavior or structure, but also the absence of things. I have thought that African people canít be black, because they know where they came from. Not in mythic terms, but they literally know where they came from. They know who their great, great, great, great, great grandmother was and so on. And for black Americans, we donít know that. One of the things that you see happening, and Iíve seen this happen over and over is that the Africans who come here will excel, like you say. They donít gravitate to the spaces that black people are living or existing in, they gravitate to the spaces of opportunity and light, and fun and positivity. Within two generations, three at the most, thatís no longer the case. These Africans, once they have kids, those kids become black. By the time you get the grandkids, they are definitely black. Itís really a complicated situation, the way in which Africans become black, when they initially werenít. So youíre right when you say people are coming together, because what has happened is that in the structure that is America, which invariably is anti-black, it doesnít matter how people see themselves. They get routed into one category or another. Once you get routed into that category itís not even a matter of who you identify with, it is about who has developed some strategies to survive in that space that you are forced to.

Jacob Holdt:
 I always say that it has nothing to do with blackness. Itís a human condition that we all discriminate against pain and anger. And at the present period in American history, there is a tremendous amount of anger and pain, especially in the black underclass.


Arthur Jafa:  Well, you say discriminate but I donít even know if I would call it discriminate. Itís simply that in a structure in a system thatís too complicated for any individual person to change Ė you canít change this by yourself Ė why would you want your kids to be in the emergency ward? That is just rational.

Jacob Holdt:
 Now are you defending the racists?


Arthur Jafa:  Iím not defending them. Iím just saying itís rational.


Jacob Holdt:  We have to learn to live with other people. And that behavior, that anger, that pain we have created in our outcasts is absorbed in mainstream society if we donít learn to take the risk of overcoming our guilt and fear for the anger WE created.

Arthur Jafa:  I completely agree with that. If there was one question that could be answered that could totally transform the world, it would be why do people do things that are counter to their own best interests? Iím not talking about people doing things because they want money, we understand why people do certain kinds of things, even if theyíre unethical Ė everybody understands that. But what you see in America is that the white people who are not part of the 1% that controls 99% of the wealth they are insisting on supporting things that are counter to their own best interests. I saw this documentary one time, it was hilarious. They were interviewing this guy about Obamacare, which is a hot topic, but anywhere else in the world Ė if you take Denmark or Sweden or anywhere Ė social healthcare for anybody is a given.
Thereís nothing radical about it. Itís only in America, of the first-world countries, that donít have this basic thing. People donít understand that even though weíre supposed to have all this money, weíre given a third world health situation. In this documentary, they were interviewing a guy about Obamacare, and he says, man, I hate that Obamacare. And he was going on and on about it, and then the interviewer asked him what he was going to do for insurance if you didnít have Obamacare. He says, Iím not worried because we have the Affordable Care Act.


Jacob Holdt: (laughing). That says it all. I really had hoped that white Americans were changing. But after I left America, Trump came, and all this anger that had been suppressed came out in whites. I am shocked seeing all this racism today. Only a racist would vote for him.

Arthur Jafa:
 Iím constantly trying to understand what is so seductive, so powerful about these conceptions of whiteness that people will embrace this, even against their own best interest. It is a conundrum.


Jacob Holdt:  The flip side of this is that I have never, in all my years, seen an integrated movement, as we see now in the Black Lives Matter movement, where whites and blacks are fighting together. And that gives a little hope.


Arthur Jafa:  Yeah, absolutely.


Jacob Holdt: And I want to just tell you that Iím right now working on an updated version of my book in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement with some of the bigger, more artistic pictures I took, and itís called Roots of Oppression. I try to explain to young people today where all this anger came from. I have followed up on some of the people I photographed in the 1970s to see how they are doing, and sometimes their condition worsened. So this is what Iím working on right now. Thatís why I am glad to have this talk, because it brings me back into the world after the 12 years I refused to have anything to do with the racism situation in America. But now the Black Lives Matter movement has shocked me into thinking that I have some pictorial and educational stuff that can be used to support this movement Ė Iíll show it to you some day.


Roots of oppression



Index to Jafa exhibition                              Index to Jacob Holdt's exhibition in Louisiana