In 1971 Danish student Jacob Holdt looked a bit like Jesus. A young man with long brown hair and a beard and flared jeans travelling across the United States. He never considered himself an artist but during his travels he created
one of the most important and emotive photographic archives of modern America.
Holdt was born in 1947 in Copenhagen and raised in a small village in western Jutland, where his pastor father worked. He wasn’t a model student. “I got thrown out of high school in my second year so I couldn’t go to university,” he recalls. “Then I was invited to work on a farm in Canada for a year afterwards. I just wanted to hitchhike to the States and then I got stuck there.” Holdt thumbed rides and lived across America on and off until 1975. While there the enthusiastic youth began taking photographs on a little $30 Canon Dial camera, documenting the people and experiences he encountered.
I just loved travelling in America. I kept saying, ‘I want to be a vagabond for the rest of my life.’ Life was so exciting on the highways
The results were out-of-this-world intimate. Images of a torn, damaged, disturbed landscape of poverty and exploitation that jarred with the propaganda of the American dream. Despite their subject matter his pictures don’t feel exploitative. Holdt became part of the environment he depicted rather than just empathetic to it. He lived in his context. Persuading people to pose for his lens was never really part of the process. “I rarely had to do that. I was just living with them and started taking tourist pictures. I’m not a good photographer – I’m just a good vagabond. I’m good at getting into situations where anybody could take a good picture.”
The situations Holdt got himself into were definitely intense. He lived in old shacks in severe poverty in the deep south.
He worked in what can only be described as slave camps in North Carolina. An Afro-American woman he lived with had her house firebombed. He hung out with heroin addicts on the streets of Harlem and the super rich at society events. Holdt’s photographs feel even more authentic because of the lo-fi nature of their approach. A lot of the images make you gasp or cry or feel intensely angry. Yet
his motivation was not just political: “I just never had such a good time in my life. Meeting all these people – it was fantastic. I just loved travelling in America. I kept saying, ‘I want to be a vagabond for the rest of my life.’ The alternative was going back and starting some kind of education and I had no desire for that. Life was so exciting on the highways.”
Holdt hitchhiked 118,000 miles and stayed in over 400 homes in 48 states. The years were not without confrontation, as he later wrote: “Four times I was attacked by robbers with pistols, two times I managed to avoid cuts from men with knives, two times frightened police drew guns on me, one time I was surrounded by ten to 15 blacks in a dark alley and almost killed. One time I was ambushed by the Ku Klux Klan, several times I had bullets flying around me in shootouts, two times I was arrested by the FBI, and four times by the Secret Service. I lived with three murderers and countless criminals... but I have never met a bad American!”
He worked in cotton and tobacco fields watching the systems of exploitation and oppression. His experience in the slave camps around sugar-cane plantations was particularly disturbing, he says. “The prevalence of slave camps seems to be spreading after 2000. In North Carolina I now find bars where ‘slave catchers’ come to kidnap drunks and winos for their camps.” He ate armadillos and drank roof-gutter water, and dined with the affluent in their genteel homes. He had relationships with women, poor and rich. He experienced the psychic exhaustion of poverty and the soullessness of luxury.
His Danish identity undoubtedly helped, but it wasn’t the only thing that opened people’s doors. What comes across is Holdt’s lack of prejudice or fear. His refusal to look at anyone – black, white, rich, poor – without an open mind. It was particularly relevant with the black individuals he became friends with, living in some of the most extreme circumstances. “I don’t think an American could have taken these photographs,” Stefanie Braun, the senior curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, argues. “Getting equally close to the poorest sharecropping families, inner-city gangsters and prostitutes as well as dining with the Rockefellers, photographing members of the Ku Klux Klan and documenting anti-war rallies. Holdt had an innocent curiosity about him that people found unintimidating and which helped him to gain access. He also had time – sometimes he stayed with people for a few hours, sometimes months or days.”
It’s an intimate approach that resonates with young artists like Niall O’Brien. “I totally understand the approach he uses, like not taking a picture for days, waiting for the right moment before he feels like the subject has decided to trust him or feels at ease enough to allow him the picture he needs to tell the story,” O’Brien notes. “There is a lot of impatience in photography and there is a sense of intimacy missing. I yearn for this in my work and hope to achieve it. Holdt on the other hand has mastered it.”
While Holdt was travelling he sent images to his family, who quickly realised the importance of the work. “People encouraged me to take more pictures so after two years on the road I could just start feeling that I was working on some kind of project. Especially when I started making small picture books I showed the drivers on the highways to encourage them to give me a little money, and saw how moved they were by my pictures. I started seeing that I was a messenger between blacks and whites in a totally divided society. Everybody sort of pushed me from the beginning.” Every week he would sell his blood to pay for film and post the results back to Denmark. He took 15,000 images and stayed in over 350 homes. Yet at the same time he never saw himself as an artist. In fact, the images were there to support his writings and arguments about America and how its history of slavery was manifesting in contemporary social disaster.
When he was eventually forced back to Denmark (for an unstated personal reason) he put together a slideshow of the images. They were a massive success from day one. A newspaper backed it to be made into a book and it was an instant bestseller in Germany and Denmark. (Strangely it never got a Dutch or British publisher – Holdt reckons that “white Americans knew they had to change but that didn’t sell in England.”) Holdt’s text was equally as emotive as his pictures. He described his experiences, often interspersed with contemporary song lyrics, and made a very strong argument about the impact of the history of slavery and greed and oppression on the people he depicted.
The KGB wanted to use the book to show that human rights abuses in America were equal to those in the Soviet Union. He was once accused of being a KGB spy – though in fact had worked for the US in human-rights campaigns. Holdt himself didn’t stop. He became involved in projects in Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, working specifically with Care in developing countries. In 2008 he was shortlisted for the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for a Steidl book of his American images. He has made films for Danish TV for which he took KKK leaders into black homes and brought Afro-Americans to meet the Klan. He still continues to show his slide lectures around the world. “It’s amazing –these little half-frame pictures blown up are super sharp! It’s amazing they can project so big!” He has continued to update and revisit the subjects of his travels. “For me it’s a life experience. I’m not the type of photographer who’ll just go out and take pictures of people. It’s a bond you establish. I don’t just take two-dimensional pictures. I feel you cannot judge people on the basis of one picture. You have to see them over a lifetime.”
Never afraid of examining disturbing subjects, Holdt is currently documenting the KKK. In updated versions of American Pictures he highlights how the people involved have often been abused or consider themselves to be trash. That self-contempt and anger is what attracts them to the group. “When I feel people are prejudiced against a group of people then I try to go into that group and show them how wonderful people are. I never met any bad people in America and that was exactly the same with the Ku Klux Klan. I think that if I can get people to under-stand the KKK then I can get them to understand any group in the world they demonise – terrorists, whatever. So for me the KKK is a wonderful pedagogic group because they’re so famous around the world. They dress to get our hate – not because they have any hate, but to get our hate to get our attention.”
This accidental artist’s images are increasingly influential. The cheap texture, the fast compositions, the sense of politics, the tourist vibe all fed in to something that made the work feel more authentic and real. “I find his compositions very interesting – some feel very choreographed and others completely taken by chance. There is a power to his images, not just in their poignant subjects but in that they feel like a deeply personal, searching journey into a topic that most cultures want to ignore,” the respected American artist Sara VanDerBeek notes. Holdt’s work does a very rare thing – it connects on a visual and emotional level and maybe even changes how we think.
All images from AMERICAN PICTURES by JACOB HOLDT