Jacob Holdt: American Pictures (English interview)

Here follows the English version of our recent interview with Jacob Holdt and Lars Lindemann during the Cortona On The Move 2022. You can find here the Italian version.
This interview has also been published in our Podcast, you can listen to it here.

Among the many interviews we have conducted over the years, the one with Jacob Holdt and Lars Lindemann, during the opening days of Cortona On The Move 2022, was a great privilege for us, but above all a rare occasion; from memory, there do not seem to be many interviews that speak of this extraordinary experience. “AMERICAN PICTURES. A personal journey through our ghettos” by Jacob Holdt is an original and intense work.

Discorsi Fotografici: Jacob, how did the idea for the project come about and how did it become a reality?

Jacob Holdt: I just came hitchhiking from Canada down to Guatemala to be a guerrilla. At the time I stranded in America, I immediately got interested in the black conditions in America and this is basically the short story. And then my parents sent me a little pocket camera and the cheapest I could find so I could send some pictures home. They didn’t always believe my stories, so they want to see some proof. And after six years, I came home with 15,000 pictures. But the idea came little by little, when I started photographing the black community and started seeing myself as a messenger between black and white. And I made this little picture books to show to drivers I was hitchhiking around what I was doing and there I started feeling that there was a need for. Blacks and whites were in a totally divided society at this time. So gradually I had the idea of making a slideshow. I never want to hang up my pictures on a wall.

Discorsi Fotografici: A question for both of you: did you envision your project exhibited here in Cortona in such a way that interpretation is left completely to the visitors or are there one or more messages that you intend to communicate to those who will observe your work?

Lars Lindemann: I realized, when I was working with Paolo Woods and with Jacob on the project, that there are many photo professionals from our photographic industry that never came across Jacob which was a surprise to me. And I think the reason is that Jacob doesn’t consider himself as a photographer but he’s been exhibited at museums and all over Europe at festivals and so we try to give it a new treat and to make more transparent, even in the hanging of the exhibition, his role in and his relations to his friends who he photographed during the time. The interesting thing is, Jacob said from the very beginning, “Lars, I’m not interested in your curation. Just do your thing. And yeah, come over to Denmark and then look at pictures. But I’m not interested”. I’m a very, very lucky editor.

Jacob Holdt: Let me add one thing, and that is that I said that I never wanted my pictures to be hung up on a wall, because my pictures are often disturbing in a way. In a racial sense in America. Like showing broken blacks and apathetic blacks and this feeds the stereotypes of the like. That’s the reason I always want to make a slideshow when I’m racing, which explains why people were in these conditions. If you just see a picture of somebody on a wall of everything like this, this will stereotype blacks as a whole. So for most of my life I’ve refused to have pictures hanging on a wall. But there was a French curator at the time, in 2005, he came to Denmark and said if he could make some exhibits. And then I felt, OK here in Europe this may work. I was getting old. So why not hang up some pictures? He was so sweet. And therefore, I said yes because I always say yes to people. And then they ended up hanging pictures on walls and made a photo book.

Lars Lindemann: For 30 years, they’ve only been presented as slideshows and that was actually one of the challenges that we had as the curators of the show because of the very reason, because we didn’t do this without context, without providing lots of texts or a keynote. We tried to focus on the most intimate moments Jacob shared with the people he lived and worked with. And so we tried to balance between African American homes and different social context as well and we added a slide show to provide even wider context to the pictures on the wall and we added a selection of pictures showing Jacob with his friends or sometimes with people like James Baldwin or activist Angela Davis, to even provide more political context and historical context.

Discorsi Fotografici: A question for Jacob: how was it possible to objectively photograph very sensitive social issues like racism, poverty, love, hate? How to avoid lapsing into cliche and instead handing something more to what we normally think we know about?na domanda per Jacob: come è stato possibile fotografare oggettivamente temi sociali molto sensibili come il razzismo, la povertà, l’amore, l’odio? Come evitare di cadere nel cliché e aggiungere invece qualcosa di più profondo a ciò che normalmente pensiamo di conoscere?

Jacob Holdt: First of all, when I photographed, I just floated along all the time with people and I ended up in all these situations. I didn’t search them for the most part. I had the philosophy of saying yes to anybody who invited me wherever they took me, and sometimes I ended up in bed with. I mean, sometimes at gunpoint and some all kinds of situations happen, and I was just standing right in front of my camera every time. And some of these images could be used in my slideshow, but most of my pictures are known to be of black people, but I spend most time with white people in the market because they are the ones who pick you up and invite you home and so on. And they became uninteresting from me because, well, that looked just like Denmark. I came from that place. And since I wanted to describe the oppression between black and white, I photographed constantly the human cost on the black side. But some of them were intimate and I have long stories behind every intimate story. For instance, the woman photographed naked in front of the crucifix. I went on a three-week journey with her. In the process we got more and more intimate, also sleeping naked with each other everywhere because it’s stifling hot there. And for that reason, we had developed an intimacy. So once she came back to Philadelphia, she was so glad to see her boyfriend. She jumped right in bed and didn’t pay attention to me, the photographer. So it takes a long time to get into such a situation. And we are still friends, 50 years later.

AMERICAN PICTURES. A personal journey through our ghettos - Installazione Cortona On The Move 2022
AMERICAN PICTURES. A personal journey through our ghettos – Cortona On The Move 2022

Discorsi Fotografici: A question for Lars: in selecting the photographs that will make up an exhibition, project, photo book and so on, is it still possible to talk about the creative process that the editor does on the material, on the raw material provided by the photographer? What is, in your opinion, the aspect of your work on Jacob’s work that is most visible to those who will access the exhibition in Cortona?

Lars Lindemann: First of all, it’s absolutely to respect the work and its author and to understand his story or his thousand stories like in Jacob’s cases and the meaning of the pictures and how to balance them and how to treat them accordingly. And secondly, if it’s a body of work which has been shown before, i would just find it boring to hang the very same pictures or similar pictures or similar selection on the walls and that’s it. So I think it’s absolutely necessary to dig deep, to do research and to think about a new treat of the work and a contemporary treat. And since the festival theme and Cortona is “Me, Myself and Eye” for Paolo Woods was particularly important to include the role of the photographer and the photographer himself and Jacob’s case in the exhibition and to give provide transparency about the process.

Jacob Holdt: I could add to that I never interfere with what pictures they select, but I have already heard from many people who have been down seeing it, that they really find it a very good selection. But it’s also the first time I’ve had exhibitions in many museums in Louisiana and Denmark as well. It is the first time that they display the photographer in the different situations with people, and I think that I’ve already heard feedback that this they also find interesting to see the photographer himself in all these situations, you know. Though for me that is the first exhibition.

Lars Lindemann: Yesterday we went to Camucia station where you can see the exhibition, with Jacob’s daughter, and we met Vivika, his wife afterwards, and they both said that they really like our treat on Jacob’s work and the exhibition they saw and that’s the most important feedback we can get. That’s correct, the family is even more important than the artists.

Discorsi Fotografici: What expressive meaning do you personally attach to the theme “Me, myself and Eye”?

Jacob Holdt: I think that, in this way, people see a photographer behind the pictures. We are bombarded with pictures. You become norm from pictures. I go around the exhibition here and I think those pictures I see of people, where they are themselves in, I find them the most interesting ones. For some reason there’s an inception and there you can see that this will ask more questions because that picture in itself. It’s very hard. I think it must be hard to be photo curator these days because again, we’re bombarded with pictures.

Lars Lindemann: The entire team of Cortona On The Move, Paolo Woods and Veronica Nicolardi did an amazing job finding different bodies of work reflecting or referring to the theme. Because in Jacob’s word, it’s pretty much about the others as well. We added the “Me” element to it for sure. He had this folder with 200 images he gave me some months ago, but in other bodies of work, like in Stacey Kranitz work, she’s part of the community she worked with. And then there you have Instagram works like Janita’s, where it’s pretty much about her stating herself with classic cars and they found so many different bodies of work referring to this wonderful theme of the festival. So the Festival it’s reflecting on what is photography these days and it’s so important to have this statement that photography and even photojournalism shouldn’t be about like covering things or people or regions or crisis from an objective perspective, because there’s no such thing. There’s lots of subjectivity in photography.

Here is it possible to read the original book of the project:http://www.american-pictures.com/roots/