Jacob Holdt: Tro, Håb og Kærlighed

Three things will last forever – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love. (First Corinthians 13:13)

Jacob Holdt.
Jacob Holdt with Nikon 28Ti. Copyright: Jacob Holdt.

I've just seen Tro, Håb and Kærlighed (Faith, Hope and Love), featuring the photographs of Jacob Holdt. It is currently (until Sep. 5, 2010) exhibited at the ARoS art centre in Århus, Denmark.

The exhibition consists of more than 200 photographs curated by Mette Marcus, selected from the around 15000 images Holdt creating during his 40 years as a vagabond, travelling in the USA. The earliest images is from the 1970'ies, the latest from 2009. There is also a very well made new video interview with Holdt by Copenhagen Film & and TV, titled Holdt! (Halt!) and several other videos with interviews with and documentaries about Holdt and the people featured in his photographs. At the entrance to the exhibition, you get a booklet where Holdt tells the broader background story of 38 of the photographs in Danish and English. The photos on the wall are presented with a short title and a brief description.

Holdt is not trained as a professional photographer, and his style is that of the snap-shot. A large part of his work is made with cheap and simple pocket cameras. The digital processing that has gone into reproducing the poster-sized images is in my opinion superb, and do the original photographs justice.

I've seen some of the pictures before. The first time when Holdt's show manager Tony Harris toured with the pictures and a slide projector in the mid-1970ies. Later I bought his classic book American Pictures (1977). And recently, I discovered Holdt's own website. Still, seeing them again in large format on the walls of the ARoS gallery was a profound experience. I was as shocked and moved as I was when I first saw these images. If you by any chance is near Århus before it closes on Sep. 5, 2010, this is an exhibition you must see.

Holdt's travels started in 1970, when he dropped out of school with a vague plan about going to Guatemala to join the guerrillas. His route took him first to Canada and then to the USA, where he became engulfed in the anti-war movement. Instead of going to South-America, he bought a Canon Dial 35-2 half-format camera for around USD 30 and started to hitch-hike around, sharing bed and table with people he met on the road, and documenting whatever crossed his way. Sometimes he sold his blood to buy film. By sharing the life of his subjects, Holdt gained access to parts of the USA that was almost completely unknown. In his own words: He recorded the USA of the “the filthy rich and the filthy poor.”.

The exhibition is divided into 21 themes, such as Couples, Weapons, Death, Upperclass, Prisons, Ku Klux Klan, and Sunsets. The themes are the same as those used by Holdt to catalogue his collection of images, and works well as a narrative device. While the themes are decided by Holdt, it is Mette Marcus who has selected the images. She has done a very good job in making the selection. Themes and stories that in earlier presentations has been hidden behind the sheer bulk of images emerge clearer and more accentuated in this exhibition. Since Holdt know many of the people he photographs intimately, there are photographs of the same individual taken years apart. This adds a chronological dimension to the narrative, and let us know how the lives of these individuals unfold over time.

Pam, Jean and Dennis.
Dinner with the Grand Dragon of Illinois and her personal bodyguard. Copyright: Jacob Holdt.

The main narrative that runs through Holdt's images is love and respect for other human beings – all human beings – including evildoers such as gangsters and racists. Instead, he thinks that evil acts may follow from pain caused by child abuse, exclusion, and oppression, and that this pain is both hurting the evildoers themselves and others.

The part of the exhibition that I think best expresses Holdt's philosophy about the relationship between evil and pain is his images of his friends in the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan is a violent and racist organisation. But despite their weird outfits and hateful rhetoric, the Klansmen and -women emerge though the lens of Jacob Holdt's camera as profoundly human and vulnerable individuals that are much more sympathetic in their daily activities than their Klan-persona. I think Holdt has an important message about racism that also applies to the racism now emerging in my own country (Norway): That racism is nurtured by exclusion and marginalisation. To prevent and cure it, says Holdt, we must not condemn racists, but include these people in society by meeting them, drinking coffee with them, and not the least: talking to them.

About Jacob Holdt

Danish photographer, writer and lecturer. Born in 1947 in Copenhagen, Denmark, as the fifth Jacob Holdt in a family where all his predecessors had been pastors. He currently lives with his wife and two daughters in Nørrebro (the part of Copenhagen where most immigrants live). Since 1991 he has worked as a volunteer for the aid organisation CARE in several Third World countries. He has received the Fogtdal Photography Award in Denmark. He has also received a life long artist's grant from the Danish government.

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