I’m slowly putting up some of my articles. This one accompanied an interview of Danish vagabond Jacob Holdt:
“Since I am not a photographer, most of my pictures are not self-standing.” -Jacob Holdt
One of the highlights of L’Eté photographique de Lectoure (Photographic Summer in Lectoure) was Danish vagabond Jacob Holdt’s exhibition “American Pictures.” Arriving in America in 1971 with only $40 for a short visit, Jacob Holdt, a 24-year old Dane, ended up staying over five years, hitchhiking more than 100,000 miles and 48 states throughout America. He sold blood plasma twice weekly to be able to buy film. He lived in more than 400 homes – from the poorest migrant workers to America’s wealthiest families such as the Rockefellers. The result was a unique body of work called American Pictures, a 5-hour multimedia slideshow containing 3000 photographs, music, interviews, and narration.
American Pictures is also the name of Holdt’s self-printed book venture in 1978, an illustrated account of his vagabond years across the American underclass. Sex, murder, poverty and glamour are intimately interwoven in Holdt’s photographic world. Relentlessly documenting his journey by photographs and lengthy letters to family and friends, the unfiltered rawness of his images and the almost symbiotic empathy with the fringes of society clearly puts Holdt in the quintessentially American tradition of Larry Clark, or Nan Goldin, both active in the 1970′s. From the racial activism of the Black Panther to the Native Indian rebellion in Wounded Knee to the cross burning ceremonies of the Ku Klux Klan, Holdt has always been as much an actor as an observer of tragic and tender moments in history, creating a personal mythology that is inseparable from his work. Possessing an intuitive sense of lighting and composition, the poignancy of Holdt’s visual testimony is only heightened by the amateurish (because uneven) treatment of poignantly photogenic subjects – Holdt does not edit out pictures that are blurry, faded, over/under-exposed, or with harsh flashlight shadows. As a result, the sheer denseness of his output is mind-boggling. While he rejects all efforts to assimilate him as a “photographer”, he is resolutely allergic to the word “artist.”
A descendant of three generations of ministers, the only message that Holdt wishes to preach is love, and he has been practicing what he preaches, as many of the poignantly photogenic subjects aforementioned are his former lovers. “Even Klan members crave love,” Holdt has controversially proclaimed, “Try to greet a Klan member with loving thoughts. As you realize how hard it is, you realize that hate is not monopolized by the KKK.” Photography, for Holdt, serves the social purpose of getting people to think about racism, institutionalized poverty, and class oppression. his slideshow has become an immensely popular campus event throughout America. But why does Holdt’s photography do the job so particularly well? We are suddenly struck by our affluent society’s uneasy fascination when beauty and poverty intersect, as private misery becomes sublimated into iconic symbols of human dignity, worthy of activism and compassion. It is unsettling to think that between his work and what we call “art,” the difference only lies in the packaging. The carefully curated exhibit in Lectoure, where Holdt’s pictures are shown in well-balanced prints hung on the wall, clearly demonstrates this point. But Holdt maintains: “These pictures lie. Only the slideshow reveals the whole truth.”
© Chin-Chin Wu