The Photograph As A Tool For Change

I recently stumbled across Jacob Holdt's (website here) book of American Pictures and I can't fucking stop thinking about them. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the life, work and dedication to change that Holdt (white dude in above picture) has lived and made through his photographs and lectures. Holdt was born in Copenhagen in 1947, the son of a minister and travelled America for 5 years from 1970-1975 living as a vagabond and hitch-hiking over 100,000 miles. He befriended whoever offered him a ride, and a ride frequently became an offer to stay a few days. He never said no, and in the end visited more than 350 homes, where he photographed the people he lived with: poor families, millionaires, junkies, members of the Ku Klux Klan. He made over 15,000 photographs in his travels and now lectures at schools and universities across the US and Europe about racism and oppression. Here are some of Holdt's words and images.

"My parents - in disbelief of my written accounts - sent me after one year a pocket-size Canon Dial for my birthday asking me to send some pictures home. I had never photographed before and saw it first as my visual diary helping me to remember all the people who gave me hospitality and food in more than 400 homes over 5 years as a “vagabond”.

"The half-frame camera took 72 pictures on a roll, so by selling my blood plasma twice a week for $5 each time, I could afford 2 rolls of film a week. Often I hitchhiked enormous distances to go to e.g. New Orleans, where the blood banks paid $6,10, but during the last two years I made small picture books to show to better-off drivers after which I often got small donations – the highest was $30 from a businessman in Philadelphia."

"1 time I was ambushed by the Ku Klux Klan, several times I had bullets flying around me in shootouts, 2 times I was arrested by the FBI, and 4 times by the Secret Service. I lived with 3 murderers and countless criminals.....but I have never met a bad American!"

"When I lived with 15-year-old Larry [above] seen here with the gun and his mother in Richmond, Virginia, his 13-year-old brother lay in the hospital, hit in a gang fight by the brother's bullet, which penetrated his head and made him blind. Nevertheless, I followed the 15-year-old in the streets two days after the tragedy on his new expeditions."

"Many liberals do a great and tiresome job in the ghettos, but whether we breast-feed or bottle-feed our outcasts the result is the same: We are actually blaming the victims themselves by trying to adjust them to their unhappy casteless fate in an unjust caste society - instead of changing ourselves. We do not consider blacks inherently inferior as do the conservatives. Instead we see them as functionally inferior as a result of the injustice, slavery, and discrimination of a distant past. After having experienced this presentation we will ask with despair: "What can we do?" But we will do nothing which would threaten our own privileges and the present distribution of society's goods. We do not have the courage - or are paralyzed with fright at the thought of looking into the depths of the soul to get in touch with our abyss of pain. That pain which makes us into such powerless, but effective oppressors. Thus we liberals, in fact, are among one of the most important tools of racism and continued oppression. We help the underclass to adapt itself to an oppression which renders it functionally inferior enough to satisfy our own need to administer paternalistic care to the "untermensch" (subhuman)."

"I loved the American people more than any other I had ever known. I wished in the end to become a part of it and did not mean to leave the country. The human warmth I had met everywhere was a fresh breeze in my life after the detachment and reticence I had known in Europe."