States of America: One Photographer's Look at Social Dislocation

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He was looking for adventure. But when the young Dane Jacob Holdt arrived in the US in the 1970s, he found a country deeply divided -- and spent the next five years photographing that divergence. His photos, now on display in Braunschweig, show a haunting America.

Jacob Holdt was young and angry when he set off 40 years ago to change the world. Angered by the Vietnam War and full of fierce idealism, the young Dane wanted to travel to Chile in the spring of 1970 to fight for socialism and to support the Marxist politician Salvador Allende, who would become the country's president later that year.

Holdt had nothing but contempt and hatred for his homeland of Denmark. "Smash all the windows in the country!" he wrote to a friend, expressing his anger about Danish support for US foreign policy in Southeast Asia. "Smash all of Denmark's windows so that even the coldest conservatives can smell the stench of napalmed flesh."

Looking for adventure, Holdt, the 23-year-old son of a pastor, had planned to start his trip in Canada and travel to Chile via the United States. But on the way to South America, he encountered so much injustice, misery and poverty in the US that he abandoned his plans. He was shocked and at the same time fascinated by the contradictions of American society and wanted to experience those paradoxes for himself.

The young Dane went to all the places that other people avoided. He lived in predominantly African-American slums together with prostitutes, drug addicts, gays and even a murderer. But he was also a guest of the white upper class and mixed with the wealthy offspring of bankers and businessmen. "I had been on the highest peaks and I had been in the deepest shadowy depths with one foot in the grave of America," he wrote later.

Intimate and Nightmarish

It was not until more than five years later, after two of his best friends had been murdered in the slums of San Francisco, that Jacob Holdt went back to Denmark. In his luggage he had 15,000 slides: images of America that were angry and accusatory as well as sad and tender. His camera, he wrote, had really only been "a kind of diary" for him. But the amateur photographer managed to create a disturbing, haunting insider view of US society, which would change America's image in the eyes of the world.

Holdt shocked audiences with his five-hour slideshows which showed intimate and often nightmarish images. His book "America Pictures" was first published in 1977 and became a worldwide success. His work has been shown in countless exhibitions over the years. Braunschweig's Photography Museum is currently showing his American photographs in a co-exhibition with the French photographer Jean-Christian Bourcart entitled "Social Documents" which runs until Feb. 28.

Among them are the images of a young African-American girl examining the interior of a completely rotten and rusted refrigerator, or the portrait of a bent-over old woman who tries to keep her humble wooden shack clean with a straw broom. The photos are a testimony to poverty, violence and despair: a prostitute shooting up, a fierce old white woman guarding the entrance to her shack with a gun, or a young African-American man who cleans a valuable rifle in the midst of his poverty.

He paid for these pictures with his own blood, Jacob Holdt likes to say, not without pathos. He arrived in the US in the spring of 1970 with just $40 in his pocket. He managed to keep his head above water by donating blood plasma twice a week, for $5 each time. Holdt, a long-haired dropout with a plaited beard, hitchhiked around and shared the lives of people who were so hungry they ate cat food. He lived with them under bridges or in rat-infested shacks. His "financial breakthrough," he later wrote, came "when an elderly woman gave me $70 to drive her car down to Florida."

Tearing Down Barriers

Holdt considered his vagabond existence to be a reflection of his philosophy of life, as an attempt to cast himself on the mercy of his fellow humans. He wanted to tear down barriers and win people's confidence -- not exactly easy for a white man in an African-American slum.

Holdt was ready to skirt the borders of the legal and sometimes even overstep them: He stole for crooks, went on raids, smuggled weapons for Native Americans and protested with them at Wounded Knee in 1973. In doing so, the bourgeois, but penniless European won the confidence of people living in the margins of society.

Sometimes the fear and the brutality of daily life in the ghetto paralyzed him. In Detroit, the murder capital of the United States at the time, shots rang through the slums at night. Holdt lived in a narrow wooden shack -- at dusk, the inhabitants barricaded the door by pulling a large refrigerator in front of it. The radio played all night to scare off burglars. "I am a nervous wreck," Holdt admitted to his parents in a 1971 letter. But he stayed nonetheless.

Holdt needed to endure that intense lifestyle in order to capture it in his breathtaking pictures. The Danish hippie covered 161,265 kilometers (100,205 miles) in 48 states and stayed with 381 families. The proximity he tried to develop proved to be dangerous sometimes: he was robbed on four occasions and "bullets whistled around" him in shootouts. He was once ambushed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, and was arrested or locked up six times. Several of his closest friends were killed during that six-year road trip.

'Ever-Increasing Hatred'

Unsurprisingly perhaps, this lifestyle further stoked his moral outrage and cemented his worldview. Holdt blames the capitalist system for the explosive social divisions that he witnessed. "Progressively," he wrote, "I taught my camera to see the things that I saw."

Holdt started to understand reverse racism: "The longer I live here, the more I look at the whites with the eyes of the blacks, and I can't help but harbor an ever-increasing hatred for them," he wrote. He viewed the southern plantation owners, on whose cotton fields he labored, as modern day slaveholders. Capitalism, he believed, kept racism alive intentionally. He saw the black murderer he lived with in New Orleans as a victim; he felt admiration for drug addicts, and all downtrodden Americans that nevertheless maintained their will to live. With a nod to Ben E. King's song Spanish Harlem, he wrote that whoever escaped the ghetto, "was a rose that grew through the concrete."

Holdt also documented the rich side of America -- perhaps, because the contrast made the injustice seem even starker. He photographed the villas of the white upper crust with the same calm and objectivity as he shot the shacks of the black lower classes. But he knew which side he was on: "Whenever I got a chance to live the so-called good life, it usually made me so sick that I quickly fled out again to the highway."

Jacob perceived America as a "boring white middle class country" before he arrived in 1970. What he found was very different: a poor, oppressed populace that somehow, miraculously, persevered and overcame. He captured that struggle in his photographs and writings.

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