Conversation between Arthur Jafa and
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Arthur Jafa: Iím not defending them. Iím just saying itís rational.
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.
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.
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.
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.