Self-Made Messiah: Jacob Holdt’s America in Louisiana

19.10.2009 Carl-Dag Lige

Faith, Hope and Love – Jacob Holdt’s America in Louisiana Museum of Contemporary Art, 2 October 2009 – 7 February 2010

Jacob looking through his lense (2001 Photo: Theis Mortensen)

Louisiana museum in Humlebæk, Denmark, currently exhibits a comprehensive exhibition of a world-famous Danish photographer and social activist Jacob Holdt (b. 1947). Comprising of more than 200 photos from four decades, 1970’s–2009, the exhibition is a tribute to and manifestation of Holdt’s activity as a messenger and spokesperson for minority groups in the American society. The exhibition is divided into thematic sections – couples, religion, police, and highway – while most photos portray people in their everyday environment.

Holdt in America

Jacob Holdt started to take pictures during his hitchhike journeys through the USA in 1970’s. Coming from the Danish welfare society Holdt found the inequality among different social groups shocking. According to his own words he was deeply passionate and empathetic towards the black poor Afro-American groups who for him seemed to be in the same social position as he himself as a hippie and vagabond in Danish society.

Grown up in a religious family and having a family history of clergymen for several generations, Holdt was well aware of the ways of approaching problematic and/or sensitive social groups. He turned humility into his shield and renounced all of his prejudices, which enabled him to become more easily accepted among junkies, prostitutes, pimps, murderers, and child abusers. Holdt was well aware that relations with suffering people would make him suffer as well. Therefore he consciously decided to take everything he would encounter open-heartedly. The latter stance enabled him not to take too deeply the violence, sexual abuse and pain he continuously encountered on his journey.

Marihuana smoking couple whose bed I shared. Jacksonville, FL. 1974, 29.02

After returning from his travels at the end of 1970’s, Holdt started to give lectures where he introduced the dark side of the American Dream. Holdt showed the everyday reality of hundreds of thousands of poor and discarded members of American society which he captured on his photos. The lecture and the accompanying slide show became highly popular in Denmark, West-Germany, The Netherlands and in a number of university campuses around the USA. From these days onwards, Holdt has been lecturing all over the world. Today, he continues to travel extensively as well as to take pictures of people he meets and events he participates in.

Empathy and stardust

Holdt stresses that he is not a professional photographer and that art in its professional sense has never been his personal goal. Despite the fact that professionals have criticized his work from the technical point of view, the content and subject matter of his photos is stunning. His openness towards people leads him to extremely personal situations, turning him into a witness of various emotional and painful occasions. Holdt finds it unethical to take photos of people with whom he has not (yet) become emotionally committed. Therefore he always tries to become friends with people – be it a Ku Klux Klan leader, murderer, drug-dealer or an old lady living in a wooden shed. The strongest motivation to become friends with people he meets while travelling is his will to understand why people start to do drugs, abuse children, sell their own bodies, betray their friends and kill their neighbours. According to Holdt, the cause behind different misbehaviours and abnormal social activities is in most cases found in inner pain – a pain common to all of us and accompanying our everyday existence. Holdt does not explain his notion of inner pain in detail, but mentions it often to be a result of an unhappy and traumatized childhood.

Wrapped with love in the empty symbol of hatred. Butler, IN. 2002

In my opinion, what is amazing about his pictures, is not the social tragedy but Holdt’s ability to remain positive towards life. There is deep empathy in his pictures. For example, he has spent a lot of time with not only the Afro-Americans, but also among the members of Ku Klux Klan. Holdt’s portraits of the Klan members’ family do not seem to condemn, but, on the contrary, seem to observe open-heartedly the social reality of those people. The exhibition visitors might find it difficult to relate themselves to Holdt’s sincerity and might feel puzzled when contemplating whether they have empathy for the Ku Klux Klan members, that is, towards people whose aim and spiritual goal is to get rid of their neighbours, co-citizens. To take an alternative photo – how do we actually feel about a young mother who is breast feeding her baby but is said to be a bank robber?

Another intriguing thing that easily catches the visitor’s eye and mind is the way how Holdt creates his self-image. It is apparent that beside his humanist lectures and human-aid activities, Holdt enjoys the attention he receives from the public and the media. His manner of performance could be called messianic: Holdt takes the role of the messenger of the poor and suffering ones, preaching for love, peace and understanding. His performance seems to be consciously constructed and might therefore cause a considerable amount of suspicion about Holdt’s sincerity. Louisiana Cinema presents a 25-minute documentary where Holdt speaks about his “journey through life”. In the movie, which is a special production for the current exhibition, Holdt seems to be very conscious of his calm and suggestive manner of speech, his simple and clear use of words, and relaxed, yet confident body-language. Among other things, he mentions his own “sins” – his several relationships and drug experiences, which to his understanding have been a natural part of his journey. If Holdt is the contemporary Western holy man, as the visual language of the movie and his manner of speech might suggest, then one might want to ask why it is all right to have dozens of girlfriends, make children with them and then leave them? Why is it all right to do drugs?

4.A 87-year old-woman I drove to Arizona where she wished to die. But during the whole ride she sat with the gun in her hand out of fear of me. Tuskegee, AL. 1975

The first weekend of the exhibition filled Louisiana with thousands of visitors. Considering the fact that the Danes are well-known for their liberal education and views, it was no big surprise that the majority of visitors had come with their families to see an exhibition where several photos depicted extreme violence – death, child abuse – and sexual intercourse. The laughter of visitors’ children and the dreary reality of the photos created at first place a strong, lively contrast. Yet the reality of Holdt’s pictures, which in my opinion is not at all hopeless in tone, was counter-pointedly in tune with the relaxed all-family-afternoon atmosphere in a fine contemporary art museum of a leading welfare society.


Jacob Holdt’s homepage
Holdt in Louisiana’s home page
in Wikipedia