Mette Marcus -
interview with Jacob Holdt:
"the man who couldn’t say no"
man who became synonymous with his slide-show and book “American
Pictures” is presented at Louisiana; an updated look at Jacob
Holdt’s highly personal yet universal world – America portrayed with
sensitivity and rare glimpses into places where only those who say
yes can go. Louisiana curator Mette Marcus, the exhibition’s
organizer, spoke with the vagabond, artist and controversial public
personality about his photographs and the fresh questions they
continue to raise.
MM: Mounting a show of your photographs, it’s hard to get around
Jacob Holdt, the person, and the whole story of your background,
your motivations and your American journey. The American Pictures
project, already familiar to so many Danes, is such a landmark.
JH: When you tell me that you think a biography of some sort
should be included in the show, that you want to give people insight
into who I am as a person, we then need to consider what kind of
biography we want to tell. I’ve spent so much time among black
Americans and worked with the problems of black America that you
might say I’ve ended up writing my own biography – for instance, in
interviews – in terms of that. Then there was the recent movie Milk,
about the gay American politician Harvey Milk, and Jyllands-Posten
(the Danish daily – ed.) ran a debate that prompted me to sit down
and write about my involvement with people in the gay movement. All
of a sudden, I was able to see and define myself in an entirely
different way. This is just to say that there are many ways of
understanding a person. There are many angles on my life, too, but
the focus was always on that (points to a copy of American
Pictures). I’m even a bit surprised myself when I’m reminded that
I’m other things besides what I’m best known for today. I have lots
of pictures about other Americans than impoverished blacks.
MM: Your project was to fight inequality and racism in the
U.S. and later use the pictures you took as a starting point for a
general discussion about inequality. Why pick that and not another
fight – after all, there were plenty to choose from back then, in
the early 1970s?
JH: But, you’ve got a completely wrong impression of me as a
person. I never picked anything myself. Nor am I now that Louisiana
is picking me. I always just bent with the wind. I never really
chose anything in the U.S. I was involved in a fight in Denmark. I
was an anti-Vietnam war activist and hounded by the police. At one
point, a American Vietnam deserter is staying in my back-alley
apartment. He meets a Canadian girl and her parents are so happy
about my taking care of her that they invite me to Canada. That’s
how it all began. I work for a year or so up in Canada and get
involved in various liberation movements. I meet an Argentinian and
we dream about going down and supporting Allende’s revolution in
Chile. It’s always my goal to hitchhike down to Latin America, but
the trip through the States becomes decisive. First, a black gay man
rapes me in San Francisco and three days later three black men rob
me at gunpoint. The anger and pain I encountered at both these
events was a watershed. I was launched in two directions at once.
Gay liberation was just starting up in San Francisco at the time.
Meanwhile, there was black liberation. But again, this wasn’t
something I consciously decided to do. From the get-go, it was as if
black people took me by the hand and led me into their world of
pain. In retrospect, I can see it was incredibly exciting what was
going on at the time, things like the Black Panthers. It was an
exciting time. When the black political activist Angela Davis was
jailed, I was staying with some of her friends. So I was suddenly
caught up in something I hadn’t chosen myself. I was trying to hold
on to my anti-war involvement, and when everyone was going to the
big demonstration in Washington I got a ride – at the time, I was
still too scared to hitchhike – all the way to Detroit, where I was
invited to stay with some black men in the roughest part of town –
including one who just befriended me on Facebook yesterday! He later
fled to Europe. He was sick of teaching high school to kids who’d be
polishing their guns in class. A week later, I went with them to
Washington for the big anti-war demonstrations. I plan to go back to
Detroit with them afterwards, but I keep getting drawn into one
violent ghetto after another. Blacks are always drawing me into
their world. So, I never picked them, they always picked me. Don’t
make me guilty of anything, please!
MM: Then you start taking photographs. Often of situations
that would be impossible for an ordinary tourist in the States to
experience. You typically stay with the people you photograph. This
picture, for instance, shows a despondent-looking black woman and we
just catch a glimpse of her baby in the playpen. It doesn’t look
like a happy situation. How did the picture come about?
JH: That’s Nell Hall, and her grandchild in the playpen. I
met Nell’s daughter Evelyn at a bar in New York – she was pregnant.
It’s interesting that you pull out this picture, because at the time
I didn’t know that I’d be doing something on oppression. I had an
idea of showing black life more generally. I already had “black
death” represented and at some point I get the desire to show ‘black
birth’, as well. I had seen W. Eugene Smith’s “Nurse Midwife” from
the 1950s, of a midwife with women giving birth in shacks, and I
thought I’d do something like that. Every time I met a black woman
who would soon be giving birth, I asked for permission to photograph
and waited up the last nights before they came to term to make sure
I got everything – and at the last moment, they always decided to go
to the hospital and have a C-section. So, one, I was denied that
sort of shanty romanticism and, two, I was never allowed to go into
the delivery room. Every time, I was denied a good birth picture.
MM: Why did you take this picture?
JH: Well, I could tell it was a disturbing image. At the
time, I was obsessed with the image white people have of black
people – the grinning character, the ‘pleasing nigger’, that black
people have learned to play since slavery days. Pleasing the white
man. I saw it when I worked with black people in the cotton fields.
When the white boss came around it brought out the ‘happy clown’,
one of the many stereotypes created by slavery. All of a sudden,
some of them would start acting crazy. But what I saw when I lived
with them was this unbelievable sadness and apathy. Case in point,
when I lived with Nell and Evelyn – the first and second day, she
sits there smiling and everyone’s having fun. As a rule, I had to
stay with people two or three days before reality crept in, before
they were suitably relaxed around the photographer to allow me to
interpret what I saw and see the deeper, underlying reality. Then
you may ask, Is this the true, deeper reality? And yes, it is. Some
things whites didn’t see, don’t see. They see it as something else.
So it was important for me to sit and wait for those moments that,
so to speak, showed the reality before the photographing stranger
intruded. And that takes time. So, I went to a woman’s home to take
a birth picture and ended up taking a picture describing oppression.
That, there, doesn’t exist out in the street. You simply don’t see
it. But, again, I am drawn into it.
MM: So your intention actually was to take a positive
picture, to capture a slice of life?
JH: Yes, you could say that. In this particular case. But
then I am drawn into her reality. Today, that housing project is
closed because of crime. Some of the few times I really had fear in
me was when I walked out there.
MM: We can’t tell that from your pictures, though. We don’t
feel a tinge of fear.
JH: If I’d really been scared, of course, I couldn’t have
taken these pictures. Then I would’ve stayed away from those
neighborhoods. It was only when I learned to tackle racism – that
is, the fear of other people – that I could even do American
Pictures. The first two years I didn’t dare go into Harlem at night.
But, the moment I started thinking about black people in a positive
way and have trust in them, that whole world opened up. Courage is
about conquering your fear. People often ask me, “How did you get
the guts to do it”? Well, I didn’t have (that racist) fear anymore,
so I didn’t need as many guts as when I started out.
MM: In your book, there are two places where the film snaps,
so to speak. One is where you describe the funeral of someone you
don’t know. You can’t take any pictures, because you find it so
awful. It would seem that, meeting people you don’t know, the misery
becomes too overwhelming for you to take pictures, while you don’t
have an issue about photographing the miserable situations of people
you know? Does putting a camera in front of your eye act as a
JH: I never thought about that. There is actually a situation
where I tried to photograph a homeless man down on the Bowery in New
York and he attacks me with a knife. I get this guilt and feel I
need to make friends with him. I spend the whole night talking with
him and eventually do make friends with him. So you have a point. In
that case, I was photographing someone before I knew him. And I
always thought that was exploitation, taking pictures of homeless
people just lying in the street.
MM: Why is that?
JH: Well, I really felt that was taking advantage of people.
On the other hand, if you do so based on a friendly relationship and
people really take part in your pictures, that’s legitimate. But the
whole thing about going out and photographing some suffering people
and then exhibiting their suffering – anybody can do that, but to me
it’s like cheating. I happened to do it that night with the homeless
man, because I was with Marilyn and we were busy going somewhere, so
I just took his picture without any kind of prior communication,
because the situation was, I can use this picture. I really
regretted it and felt guilty about it. It is clearly overstepping my
boundaries to photograph someone before I have struck up a kind of
friendship with him/her.
MM: The issue of exploitation, can’t that be seen from the
other side, as well? That you, a white man, capturing the suffering
of black people, are still somehow using them?
JH: That’s always an issue. I see the same thing in Denmark,
too. If people who are ghettoized only meet contempt and rejection
from the society, there’s a reaction. They have no faith in the
white man, and ever so often when a well-meaning blue-eyed man like
me comes in, there‘s distrust. Some don’t want to have anything to
do with you at all, others can’t do without an alliance with white
people who open up to them. At the time I was traveling, a lot of
black people adamantly did not want to have a white man staying in
their house. That was the attitude of a huge number of people. The
poorest blacks were afraid of whites in a differ133 ent way, of
course. But the middle class, which was in a period of powerful
political liberation, often wanted nothing to do with white people.
I remember when I was picked up by black middle-class families and
they sometimes got so offended at what they saw in my pictures that
they ordered me out of the car, saying things like, “Is that how you
see black people?” or, “That is an exploitation of our pain.” This
was expressed in all sorts of ways. So, I met resistance not only
from white people – in some places I was a “nigger lover” and in a
lot of places I couldn’t even say what I was doing. In the South,
especially, I could never tell whites what I was doing on the black
side of town. It was an incredible balancing act. If I was staying
with a white family and I came in at night and they asked me, “Well,
what did you do today?” I’d say something like, “Just hanging
around.” And remember, I didn’t always get support from black
people, either. The whole thing about palling around with the enemy
is symptomatic for all oppressed people. You are ostracized if you
do. And the “white devil” comes in many disguises, including that of
MM: Still, you seem to have been very conscious about what
kind of pictures you were taking, wanting to use them for something
special. You also seem to be very conscious of stereotypes and what
pictures are capable of doing?
JH: I was conscious of oppression. Increasingly so. It has to
do with how I interpret this world, the world of poor black
Americans – how shall I go about showing the oppression I see. Take
those pictures there, with the wallpaper peeling down the walls.
Very few underclass blacks were living like that at the time, of
course, but it shows the state of mind I sensed among them. So I
used such pictures to show a general state. Most people, after all,
are able to hold on to their pride and their dignity. They are able
to paper their walls. But the deeper apathy you find in a broken
person – that’s what I wish to foster an understanding of. Being
broken like that is expressed in many different ways, including
escaping into drug abuse, or drug dealing and crime – as we see with
immigrants in Denmark, gang wars, that kind of thing. I have myself
discriminated in my pictures. I think I more or less subconsciously
chose the more attractive members of a family and chose to take
pictures of them. I’m not crazy about group shots with 10 or 20
people at once. So I sit there waiting – when is a single person
alone with his or her thoughts? Simply because I knew that white
racism discriminates against certain aspects of black culture, I
always had to speak to the deeper humanity in whites – in that
sense, I had to be racist myself.
MM: So you used your own prejudices about what a white person
would think was esthetic or visually acceptable?
JH: No. I think you have to say I used my knowledge. When I
was on the road and I showed my pictures to white people, I saw how
they reacted to a certain kind of picture. “Argh, how can you be
with this filthy….” So, perhaps I tended to seek out situations that
they couldn’t argue against. I don’t know if that’s predicated on my
own racism or the racism I saw in white people. I could never have
interpreted that reality if I’d only been on the black side of
society. Moving back and forth daily between whites and blacks, I
had to translate in my own head how the other side would see my
MM: What do those pictures mean to you that aren’t about
people you’re staying with but show police, landscapes, billboards,
JH: Generally, they have served as symbols for me, or as
contrasts, to use as building blocks to construct a story.
MM: Do you, in fact, call yourself a photographer?
JH: It depends on the context I’m in. In literary circles, I
call myself a pho-tographer. In photographic contexts I call myself
a writer or, more neutrally, a vagabond. I called myself that for
years, because that’s what I felt I was. For years after I returned
from the States, I wanted to get back on the road, but I was simply
sidetracked by having one succes after another. I was never a
photographer, but I’ve often been labeled one. I’m constantly
referred to as “the photographer Jacob Holdt” and I don’t really
think that’s what I predominantly am. I never went to shows of
photography, I would never personally go to Louisiana to see a
photography show. I’ve always said I wasn’t a good photographer but
a good vagabond. Good at getting into homes no one else could get
into, but where anyone could have taken a good picture.
MM: For years, you wouldn’t show your pictures independently
of your own words, as in your slide-show or book. What made you
change your mind?
JH: A good friend, who needed a show, asked me if I would
select some of my pictures for him to hang, and so I forgot my old
principles – because I wanted to help him out, but again also
because of my thing about saying yes to things.
MM: You’re okay with it now?
JH: Well, I’ve shown my pictures without my words in a few
places now, including the Capitol in Washington, D.C. – where I
invited poor people I knew over there to come. It’s fun to bring
together people in power and people from the underclass – robbers
and bandits. I’m always afraid that my pictures will be
misunderstood. Without my explanations, I’m afraid they will only
reinforce the racism that already exists. There are so many high
schools in the U.S. where I can’t show my slides, because they’re
afraid that my pictures will reinforce their students’ stereotypes
about black people. Images of apathetic blacks tend to jog the
stereotype of “the lazy nigger” in their minds.
MM: Is there something about the distance in time that makes
it easier for you to exhibit your pictures from the 1970s today?
JH: Yes, it will be a bit easier for me to show them in the
U.S.. Now that we have Obama, maybe it will be easier for people to
see the connection between now and the oppression back then. 134
MM: Some consider your project to be a religious project. I
personally see it as more of a political project.
JH: So do I, though you can’t slap a party label on it. It’s
interesting to me that people so often call me a leftist. You could
say that I have a leftist approach to humanity, but I never voted
for a left-wing party. I was always there in the middle where I
could have a dialogue with the right and the left. Or bring out such
MM: Were you ever tempted to use the influence you have on so
many people in terms of party politics?
JH: Several parties have actually headhunted me and I tend to
say, “Sure, that would be fun.” But thankfully, my family always put
a stop on it, telling me it would ruin my message if I suddenly
joined one or another party. That’s not for me. I’m no good at that
kind of thing.
MM: What does religion mean to you, in terms of your
JH: My father was a minister and I was always there in church
listening, until I rebelled and only went every other Sunday.
Christianity was always a part of my childhood. I probably rebelled
more against the rhetoric around it than the inherent message of
Christianity. It meant a lot to me, I think, to see the difference
between the rhetoric in church and the real engagement in people.
What I really respected about my father’s work was his social work
with people in the parish. I didn’t think of him as a particularly
religious person. What counted was his human engagement. My father
talked with people who were going through hard times. On the road in
the U.S. that was my experience, too – that people had a need to
talk to me. Sometimes, I almost felt embarrassed to tell them I’d
been traveling around the country for close to five years and mostly
had a really good time. But I could justify having so much fun by at
the same time having a kind of mission as an itinerant social
worker. I always loved the religious human being and it was great to
live in a multicultural society like America. Then I could change
faith by alternately living with Muslims, fundamentalist Christians
or Buddhists. I think it’s a beautiful thing to share people’s faith
and see how strongly faith lives in all people.
MM: But, why is that important? Is it because that’s where
hope is, or a faith in change?
JH: What I saw, I think, was a way for people to deal with
their misfortune, faith as a refuge, an escape from the pain we
people make for one another. Even within individual families,
there’s a need to escape or find a higher meaning. But I never made
that escape. I never became religious myself.
MM: Let’s look at some of your pictures again. There is very
little confrontation or judgment in your pictures. Take this picture
of a mass-murderer with his young daughter on his arm. Clearly, he
doesn’t treat her too well….
JH: Yes, people often ask me how I can just stand there and
take pictures of the mother beating that girl. I just did. As I’ve
said, it doesn’t do any good to rebuke the mother by saying, “Don’t
whip your kids”, because that only makes her feel worse about
herself. On the contrary, it’s about – by my presence, or anyone of
us who has something to spare – helping them out of that kind of
pain, so they feel better about themselves. I can’t judge them.
MM: This guy looks like nothing special, apart from the fact
that he owns a lot of guns and is proud of it. He doesn’t look
particularly aggressive or evil, in the posture you portray him in
JH: Well, I couldn’t help but care about these people.
They were so sweet, too – though I also have a picture of him
gesturing with a knife to show how he murdered a black guy….
MM: Then there’s a picture like this [of a half-nude black
couple kissing in bed]. It’s quite a relief to see a picture with
some sensuality and love – at least that’s what it looks like to me.
Apparently, it was important for you to include this kind of
picture, of people having sex or generally expressing love?
JH: Well, it’s to show a broader range of human life. Plus,
it was another aspect I experienced. After all, I had a lot of fun
with these people, too. It’s important to show that side of life,
too – if I didn’t show it, I’d be distorting the image. I think it’s
important to show that people can contain different aspects at once.
MM: This picture (Churchgoers after church service) is
interesting because you are suddenly looking at things differently
than you usually do when you photograph?
JH: Yes, here I’m being judgmental.
MM: How come?
JH: Well, I always have the contrast of white people
enriching themselves and not caring about what goes on right around
the corner from them. So, sure, there’s some condemnation in that.
Most white people see themselves as one big middle class and they’re
shocked at the contrasts I show. We’re always reading about growing
inequality in the United States, as the rich get richer and richer,
but that’s not how you experience society when you’re inside of it.
All you see, then, is working families all around. So, this is a
very conscious attempt to shake people up to make them see the huge
inequalities in the American society. As a Dane, coming from one of
the world’s most egalitarian societies, I didn’t photograph the
things that resembled my own society as much as the things that were
completely different, the filthy rich and the filthy poor, which I’d
never seen before. It was shocking to me. And I soon discovered how
this was also a visually effective way to get my message out.
MM: Couldn’t a case also be made to pity these ladies? After
all, their situation is as historically determined as that of poor
black people – or is it?
JH: That was actually a standing question for me, which I
very clearly express in American Pictures – what is a person’s
responsibility in this? But in order to bring out different angles
visually, I had to use condemning images.
MM: This is a very touching picture….
JH: Yes, the Klan leader’s grandchild swaddled in the “flag
of hate.” The Confederate flag is used as a symbol of hate all over
the world. But Catja, she doesn’t become a hateful person. She is
swaddled with love. Abused people become haters, if we have to use
the word hate at all – I call it pain. Even though she has grown up
among the Ku Klux Klan, she got an endless amount of love. Today,
she is out of the KKK and is a well-adjusted big kid, because she
got the love she needed. And that’s really what this picture is
about. The KKK may dress up in hateful symbols, but it isn’t always
MM: A lot of your pictures make me think whether you asked
people, “Hey, move over into the sunlight, please”. Did you stage
JH: No. I may at times have moved some things around, say, if
there was a big garish plastic bowl in the middle of the floor that
I thought would disturb the image, when I was shooting color slides.
In that sense, sure, I cheated a little bit, but my goal was always
to replicate the world the way it was. I was always working with 160
ASA film and didn’t have an extra camera with high-speed film. So I
needed some light and I typically put the flash behind a lamp and
sometimes wrapped it in a piece of pink toilet paper to make it look
like the light from an oil lamp in a home without electricity. I was
always going around to stores asking for pink toilet paper, to get
that reddish glow. It was the only way I could make those shots.
Shooting with the flash alone flattens everything out, and the mood
of the moment before the picture wouldn’t come out at all. I was
always trying to recreate that in different ways. After all, it was
completely dark in a lot of these homes and I wouldn’t have been
able to get a picture without using a flash – I wouldn’t have gotten
any pictures at all.
MM: Are your pictures perceived differently in the U.S. and
JH: I’ve been subjected to an unbelievable amount of
criticism in the U.S., especially from feminists who don’t care for
the nude pictures I took. They call them sexist. I took a lot of
nude shots out of the slideshow when I first showed it in the
States. Violence doesn’t bother them – that’s only what they expect
from black people. In Denmark, it’s the other way around: People are
shocked by the pictures of violence. It was always the pictures of
violence that shocked people, while no one ever commented on my nude
shots. In the U.S., you can get arrested for breastfeeding your
child in the street. There are a lot of toes you can step on in the
MM: People who visit Louisiana and see your pictures – what
would you like them to think?
JH: I’d be happy, of course, if my message about oppression,
etc., got through, but I don’t expect it to. I’d be happy if you, as
a curator, make me think about something that hadn’t occurred to me
before, if a new interpretation emerges. But I can’t pass judgment
anymore, I’m so used to being led around the ring….
MM: Did you ever feel like showing all the other pictures,
all the ones that weren’t included in American Pictures and show
other sides of America?
JH: Well, as I told you earlier, it was always so that things
that happened in my life only happened because someone came and
asked me to do something. I’ve simply been busy saying yes to every
offer I got. Now, Louisiana comes and asks me if I’d like to show
some of my other pictures, too, and we’ll end up doing something
with them. My life was always like that.
Mette Marcus (b. 1971) Is the curator of the exhibition Faith,
Hope & Love – Jacob Holdt’s America. Marcus trained as an art
historian at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, and the
University of Copenhagen, and has been a curator at the Louisiana
Museum of Modern Art since 2003.
Copyright © 2014