In the early 1970s, with only 40$ in his pocket, Jacob Holdt went to hitchhike across America. He never intended to stay in the United States; instead, he wanted to become a guerrilla and fight in Guatemala. But on his way to Latin America, he got stuck in the US. Holdt hitchhiked 100,000 miles for the next five years and more than 350 families offered him a place to stay.
During his trips, Jacob met and lived with many different people, from gangsters to prostitutes, to drug addicts, killers, Klan members, Rockefellers, the poorest black families from the ghettos and America’s impoverished of all kinds. He would sometimes write letters to his parents describing the horrible conditions black people lived in and the inhumane oppression they endured. Intrigued by his stories, parents sent to Jacob thirty-dollar Canon Dial half-frame camera to document everything. By selling his blood plasma twice a week to get two rolls of film, Jacob Holdt took fifteen thousand photographs revealing the devastating living conditions in the ghettos, the hopeless life in shacks, severe poverty, raging racism, violence, and famine, contrasting with the lavish life of the rich, who also opened their doors to the photographer.

Following the ‘say yes’ philosophy, a state of mind that entails saying yes to people and dealing with one’s prejudices, Holdt managed to gain access not only to people’s homes but also to their hearts. His natural curiosity and the unique talent for befriending and opening up those he photographed enabled the rest of the society to witness people’s pain and suffering through the legendary American Pictures.
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Let’s travel back in time, Mr Holdt. You came to America, you have 40$ in your pocket and your big journey is about to begin. Can you recall how it all started and how you decided to become a vagabond?
Oh, you can read about that in my new book so that I don’t have to talk about it (laughs). I don’t know, I can’t remember. (He sips the cup of coffee) I never intended to go to the United States. I was invited to work on a farm in Canada. I worked there for a year and earned some money. I am lying a little bit here because I earned about one thousand Canadian dollars but could never use them because to cross the border, I had to have proof all the time. So basically, that’s why I came to the US with only forty dollars in my pocket. They lasted for five years due to American hospitality.
That’s a lot, actually.
But I was not intending to go to the US; I wanted to go down to Latin America as fast as I could. I planned to become a guerrilla group member and fight in Guatemala. I was very political at the time. I came right out the Vietnam war and all these poor countries that were oppressed by the United States – and especially Guatemala –, they had overthrown the only democratically elected government they had ever had, so I wanted to go down there. But there are so many aspects to this story, you know. When I came to the US, I immediately fell in love with the country. Already on the first night, I was raped by a black homosexual. On the third day, I was robbed by three black gunmen who held me at a gunpoint.
Those experiences don’t sound pleasing at all as to fall in love with the country, to be honest.
That was something I had never experienced in the Western part of Denmark (where I come from). Neither rape nor the attack, so I got curious to see where all this anger was coming from. Gradually, that led me to hitchhike around the country, but it took me years before I decided to become a vagabond.
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Tell us more about the beginning.
Already on the first day, I developed a ‘yes’ philosophy because I was unloaded by the women who took me in a car from Canada and in San Francisco at noon, I walked around asking where I could stay. Many of these young beautiful hippie girls told me I could stay with them, but I felt right away that you can’t just go around and choose like that. Then, I would just end up choosing the most beautiful, so I kept taking their addresses.
The first to offer me a place to stay was a black guy who was a student. He said he was going to study all night for a math test at the university so I could stay in his bed. After getting lots of offers, I just felt like, no, it’s wrong to go around and pick and choose the best one. You have to always take the first invitation, otherwise, you will end up discriminating against those you have prejudices against – like the poor, the blacks, homosexuals, etc. So that yes philosophy started on the first day.
Many people are familiar with your work but there still are some who don’t know that you are the photographer and author of American Pictures. How was your life before this and how has it changed afterwards?
I describe that in detail in my new book. After five years of hitchhiking, I came home to Denmark. It was never my intention to come back, but there was a lot of pressure on me from my father. And then, one of my best friends [in the US] got murdered. I suddenly got into trouble and had to run away as fast as I could. So, I came back home and made the slideshow in my father’s house, which immediately became a huge success all over the country. The time was very leftist, everybody hated the United States after the Vietnam war, so it was just the right moment to come with such a show, which was critical of many aspects of the country.
I had been travelling there and falling in love with the country, so I was getting a little disturbed when I saw all these anti-American angles whenever people saw my show. I remember I stood defending it every time. It was amazing to see that, in some places, there were hundreds of people standing in line to get in to see my show, and I was booked in high schools all over the place in no time. I even got my theatre in Copenhagen the same summer, and within a year, I was a millionaire in Danish kroner at the time (laughs). I bought my first Volkswagen bus for thirteen thousand kroner! So, it changed my life and it took me a while to figure out what I should do with the money.
And what did you do with it in the end?
I had already written from the US to my father that if my slideshow were to become a success, all the money had to go to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. After half a year, I wrote a letter to all my friends in the States telling them about the show’s success and explaining to them that I wanted to build a hospital in Angola – you couldn’t do anything in South Africa directly. The US was at war with Angola at the time, so I decided to help that country instead. Several of my black friends wrote back immediately telling me that they wanted to come and join the effort.
I had made the decision previously to give all the money away; I had written it down in my first letter long before the book was printed and long before I knew it would be successful. This, of course, generated a lot of voluntarism. Black people were taking copies of my show around Europe to collect the money, and they helped run the show in fourteen different countries. Now that I had the slideshow on tape, I didn’t have to be present everywhere. The volunteers were sort of my ambassadors showing slides in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Scandinavia and so on.
[He shows me an image from the book of one of his shows with a large number of attendees]
Here are about one thousand and four hundred people, but in the United States, I projected it for more than two thousand people. I still wonder how the hell could you project slides on a Kodak projector on such huge screens. I have to explain in my new book that these Kodak projectors were intended for use at homes (and perhaps museums), but not for those enormous screens. Today, it’s very easy with video projectors, but that was not invented at the time. So, it was a huge show, we had to take around nine large boxes – that’s why we needed cars, and this is important to understand today.
I think Jacob Riis made the world’s first slideshow; he called it ‘coloured plates’ and travelled around with it. And I made probably the last slideshow before the digital era. All I need now is to come with a small memory stick in my pocket and put it into a movie projector, and then it can be shown to thousands of people. At that time, it was hard work to go around like this and we were sleeping in the cars and people’s homes to generate as much money as we could for the fight against apartheid. And that was my idea with the show. I never saw myself as a photographer; I always saw myself and photography as a tool to create social change.
“I never saw myself as a photographer; I always saw myself and photography as a tool to create social change.”
When did you realize that the pictures you were taking with your 35mm camera were more than just photographs of oppressed America’s impoverished?
When I hitchhiked around the US, I started showing my pictures to drivers who picked me up and to people I stayed with to show them what I was doing. This way, I was trying to get a little economic support as slides were financed by selling my blood plasma twice a week for five dollars each time. It was only enough to buy two rolls of film a week, but I made some small picture books where I started making a contrast between rich and poor; people on the highway were so moved by them that they often cried. They would sometimes give me two dollars and some food or whatever, and that’s how I kept financing it for five years. So, already on the highway, I started building up the slideshow in my head, although I have to say it took me two to three years to understand that I was working on a project.
Until then, I was just hanging out on a highway having a good time – I felt that I had never had such a good time before. Being on the road with no money is happiness for me. I’ve stayed with rich and poor, Rockefellers and so on, and I am still in touch with all of them today. This is what moves people. You first see most of them as children, like Rockefeller’s daughter at 2 years old; she’s now running The Rockefeller Foundation. She saw my show later at Stanford University, and for people who see my lectures today, I mention this progress.
I think many photographers just go out there and shoot lots of pictures of people that they never see again, but for me, vagabonding is in the fourth dimension; it’s not just about getting from here to there. The fourth dimension is about time, it’s about seeing how these people develop over the years, which is also a way of seeing American history, how’s America changing all the time. Some of the people in my book who I thought would never make it became engineers and highly-educated, and those – especially children – who I thought would certainly make it are imprisoned today, you know.
You are 72 years old now and you've seen so many things, met all kinds of people and have appeared in situations one can’t even imagine. Is there anything you would have done differently?
Yeah, lots of things! But that doesn’t mean it would’ve been better… After I was thrown out from high school for being too lazy and dumb, I spent two years going to a high school exam here in Copenhagen. That was a waste of time, I never used that exam for anything. I should have just gone on the road right away. But still, it was a good time because there, I met many other people like Vietnam deserters from the United States, the Canadian girl who invited me to Canada, and so on. So, I probably could not have done those things without that period.
But my son, for instance, when he was out of high school at 18 years old, he immediately went on a highway; I was 22 or 23 before I did it, so I wasted five years. Furthermore, they were some of the best years because it was just when the hippie and youth movement was very outspoken. But the second year I travelled there, that movement was already starting to die out, so I feel I wasted some very interesting years back then. But in the end, I started to understand that I was working on some historical document, recording all these shacks of poor black people in the south that pretty much nobody had photographed before; it felt like I had an incredible document with fifteen thousand pictures including the shacks.
I knew that these people were beginning to move into trailers, the plastic trailers that don’t have the same photographic value. All of them looked the same, so from the beginning, I should have focused on that and continued because when I got back to the US in 1978, they had already disappeared, but I’m glad I got these historical documents of shacks. They are interesting for a photographer, but these trailers show nothing. White walls… boring white walls. They are hopeless, and black faces photographed up against the white walls complete to contrast, so you can’t get good pictures in there. So maybe, I regret starting too late – as seen from a photographic perspective or from a historical perspective.
Can you recall a memory that still disturbs you or makes you happy?
It’s very difficult to tell because you travel for five years and what disturbs you in the beginning is not the same as what disturbs you in the end. I remember when I experienced the first murder. You are totally shocked, especially when you come from a country with basically no murders. But in the end, I saw so many friends being murdered that it became total chaos. You become numb so it doesn’t disturb you anymore. It should disturb you, but it doesn’t. But I would also like to recall what was a good thing.
I call them ‘saving angels’, people who constantly sort of reached out and protected me, helped me and lifted me despite all the mistakes I’ve made. I have many examples in my book. It’s hard to point out one, but the biggest saving angel was the family in Canada that invited me over to become a farmer. The mother was an old communist and I was such a fanatic leftist at that time, I wanted to be a guerrilla, and she had long ago turned cool to that kind of radicalism, so she constantly worked on me. She supported my idealism but also felt that my messages then were too extreme. So, I couldn’t discount her preaching and talking over a year. That family was a saving angel and probably the most important. Not to forget, the girls who were helping me, working on my head and saving me from myself.
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I don’t think there are many people the Rockefeller’s open their door to, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan expresses willingness to meet, or a mass murderer wants to be friends with. You understood how different people think no matter their beliefs or their social or economic power. So what do a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Rockefeller's wife and a mass murderer have in common?
They all need love! (Laughs) I learned on the highway that I could stand for hours and hours waiting for a ride if my inner thinking about the people was negative, blaming them for not picking me up and so on. Somehow, they could feel it and they wouldn’t pick me up. Only through the unconditional love of people could I send the right vibration out, which made them open up and invite me into their cars and their homes without feeling threatened by me.
Approaching people with unconditional love means that even though they do you wrong or attack you, you keep a forgiving, loving attitude towards them. Only the people who feel bad about themselves have a need to attack others, so when I saw somebody trying to attack me, I always thought about what went wrong with their life, how they were mistreated in their childhood, etc. Just by thinking of them without fear and in such an inclusive, positive, loving way, opened them up, and from then on, they didn’t attack me anymore.
Was it difficult to start thinking like that?
It took me two years to learn that. In the beginning, I was constantly attacked by gunmen, robbed and beaten up by black gangsters and so on. The moment I learned to have trust and faith in people, which is the same as love for them, all these attacks stopped. I have to say that crime had risen more than ten times by then, but I was not getting attacked anymore. I photographed my friends when they shot each other but I never felt myself in danger. This is what we call non-violent communication – or just a ‘loving approach’ today. You can only survive in a more and more violent world if you have complete trust in the inner goodness of people and thereby constantly encourage the good sides of them.
If you go around with fear in people, saying this is a nasty person, stay away from this group, etc., you’ll be constantly sending out messages to them, like ‘you are a bad guy, I have a reason to fear you’, and that will just encourage their bad sides and then they will attack you. So, since then, I’ve been travelling in the most violent places in the world – South Africa, Haiti and so on –, and I usually asked the police where the highest murder rate was because then I would go there to see if my approach worked. Then I would move in with the poorest people and it always worked. So, by communicating with people on an individual level, you can win them over because they usually have a need to be recognized, seen and loved. This is the key to good photography.
I want to ask you about your relationship with the Ku Klux Klan. What was your first encounter with them like?
I have never had any interest in the Ku Klux Klan and had never met them in my vagabond years. They were very low key. I can say that our first encounter was in 1979, three years after I made American Pictures. Now that I had a car, I was travelling around to give the book to all those people who were photographed in it, and that’s when I picked up a young white guy on the highway. I could feel immediately that something was wrong with him.
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What do you mean?
I suspected that he had been exposed to incest or something like that, so I started asking him some questions. He told me he had been raped by his father throughout all his childhood. But I also learned that he had never got any help from others – and that is what usually happens with people in pain, we don’t like the vibrations they send out, the anger, the distrust, etc., so we further oppress them. I offered him as much help as I could – you have tons of time for doing speech therapy or just talk to people when driving on American highways.
Then, at one point, I showed him my photo book with all the black people in it, and then he asked: ‘why don’t you have anything about the Ku Klux Klan? I am a member of the Klan and it would mean much to me if you could come to one of our rallies.’ So simply by giving some help to a hitchhiker, I ended up in my first Ku Klux Klan meeting – the one that’s photographed in the book.
And how did that go?
The guy promised to take me to the secret cross-burning ceremony at night. It was only for Klan members but he told me that he would dress me up like them and protect me. Before going out in the woods, I gave him a meal at a restaurant. That’s what I loved doing: I had money then and would pick up hitchhikers and feed them to pay back for all the love I got from Americans for five years. At one point, I asked him: ‘Why don’t you use my phone and call home to your mother and tell her you have arrived safely?’ A little later, he came back and I could see that his face was contorted. In anger and pain, he said that his mother had just told him that his uncle had been murdered by two black men. From then on, I thought: can I trust him now? Now that he has seen my book and found out that I am an anti-racist, will he betray me?
So what happened that night?
I was very scared because I was walking into the woods with seventy Klan members with machine guns. I was so afraid that I called back home to my family and said: ‘If I don’t call back before midnight, you have to alarm the police.’ I was so naïve because later, I saw how they work together with the police, but it went fine; he never betrayed me. What I learned from that experience is that all people in pain have more need for our love than to express their pain and anger in violence. I learned again and again that those who suffer need our surplus love, love from the outside. As a result of trusting him, I got some of the best Klan pictures you’ll find on the Internet, and they now are part of my exhibition.
“Being on the road with no money is happiness for me.”
Later, you moved in with the wife of a Klan leader. How did you end up doing that?
You just have to wait until the Klan leader is in prison (laughs). I thought he would never come back, so I moved in with his wife. There were two young Danish filmmakers following me in the US and making a movie about me. I was just going from university to university doing lectures and that was not so interesting. Then, I got this crazy idea of putting me together with the biggest Klan leader in the country, which I found on the Internet, described as the most dangerous.
We were travelling to Indiana to meet the Klan leader, but because of a snowstorm, suddenly I couldn’t go. Then, the filmmakers put up the camera in my apartment and said: ‘say something to the Klan leader and then we will show him.’ But I didn’t know what to say… During all the years I’d been lecturing across the country, I’d picked up so many hitchhikers on the road who turned out to be Ku Klux Klan members, and on the long drives with them, I heard endless stories about how they were mistreated, beaten and raped by their stepfathers. It was so similar to what I had experienced in the black ghettos, so I started comparing them.
That doesn’t sound like a good idea at first. How did he react?
Many people would expect that a Klan leader would get furious on that comparison, but you can see on the tape how moved he was afterwards. He told the guys, ‘you must promise me I’ll meet this guy.’ What I was saying simply hit right down to the pain in him I found out later when we became friends. So, this was an open invitation, but I didn’t usually have time to go around and visit Klan leaders as I had lectures every day in new universities all across the country.
A year later, my black agent, who I fired because he owed me a lot of money, cancelled forty shows or something without giving me the addresses. I can remember how happy I felt because I’d been running around lecturing about American Pictures for thirty years and now, I was a free man. I could just go out and play with people again and enjoy all that I was doing in my vagabond years. So, it started as a joke, I called up my agent and told him: ‘Ok then, I’ll join the Ku Klux Klan!’ (Laughs)
And did that happen?
I became a member of the Klan, but that wasn’t until 2003. I went to the Klan leader because he had somehow invited me a year earlier, but what had happened in the meantime was that he got a 130-year prison sentence. So, what else should I have done? I moved in with his wife (laughs). It was love at first sight. She was now the functioning Klan leader in the United States. Her bed was a total mess, and then I saw all the membership cards that were laying all over the place. I just asked for fun, ‘If I write myself on one of these membership cards, will I become a member then?’ And she replied, ‘Yeah, we have never had an anti-racist as a member before, it means so much to us.’
The next day, she calls her husband in prison and says, ‘We’ve got an anti-racist as a member now, it’s moving forward for us.’ They could hardly find more members, so they had to find an anti-racist like me. It went so far that I even became the webmaster of the biggest Klan in the country at that time, and as I always said to my black and my Jewish friends, ‘now you have me as a guarantee that there’s nothing racist and anti-Semitic coming out on a Klan’s website.’ That power over them, you only have by joining them with love and not approaching them with hate. Obviously, they all needed my love. I would say this was the start of a long period of my working with two of the biggest Klan groups in the United States.
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Being from Denmark and having lived in the US, what do you think are the main differences between capitalist and socialist countries?
Don’t call Denmark a socialist country, all means of production here are owned by private companies. I call it a welfare state, and I’ve been teaching about this capitalism with a human face for years. A lot for the safety net is paid by the taxpayers to make sure that you don’t get totally lost or fall down the cliff; this is the difference between the United States and Denmark. In the US, they don’t believe in having such a safety net, and this has also been one of the key lectures I’ve been doing there. I mean, when people see American Pictures, they always ask: what can we do about this poverty? Should I sell my second coat? No, you should vote for a welfare state, and it’s funny that years later, they started moving in that direction – Bernie Sanders and so on.
Denmark is a model of how you can get rid of enormous inequality. Probably, I could not have done what I did at the time if I had not been shaped by the security of the welfare state. I knew that no matter how long I would travel across the United States, I could always come home to the same basic security, while American young people were under so much pressure – if I don’t pass this or that exam, I will fall behind, I will be poor, etc. So, they can’t take the freedom to travel for five years unless they are born with a silver spoon in their mouth.
The welfare state gives you a lot of freedom and it saves much of tax money. Danish people fly all over the world on trips, but Americans can’t afford that. They are so busy paying bills and university loans and healthcare – which is much more expensive for them – that, in the end, they have to work even during vacation time. So, there’s a lot of money to be made on having what Americans call ‘socialism’, but we just call it institutionalized welfare state security.
What about the differences between societies?
Mentally, there is a difference. I don’t know if you have ever heard about the ‘Janteloven’, but I come from the country – from the Western part –, where people put each other down all the time. It’s still a part of me, I can’t help it. I had a sick father who would trash you all day, and because of that, I feel bad today. Where I come from, if you find a girlfriend and fall in love, you don’t say to her, ‘I’m in love with you’; no, you say, ‘You aren’t the worst I’ve met’. She shouldn’t feel too much about herself, and this is basically how we brought each other up at that time. Don’t stick your nose out too much and don’t think that you should become anything.
Then, I went to the US and felt like a loser also because I had been kicked out of high school and totally failed in the school system. The minute I got into the country though, people were encouraging me – ‘Wow, you speak fantastic English’, they said already on the first day. In high school, I had the lowest mark you could get in English, and when I made these little photo books to show to people on the highways, they would say, ‘You are a fantastic photographer, you should become a writer’, and so on. In that way, Americans gradually built up my self-esteem and made me believe in myself, whereas in Denmark, I wouldn’t have made anything out of myself; I would never have had trust in myself, so I thank that to the Americans. My book is a product of the lack of ‘Janteloven’ in America and the encouragement I received. You can also see how they encourage their children the same way: ‘Wow, you are fantastic in this and that’, when Danes constantly belittle their children.
Do you think it’s still like that?
It’s not as bad now in Denmark as it used to be because we’ve been Americanized a little bit by the service culture – another part of making capitalism in America effective. You have to please the customer and say nice things. But in Denmark, before, you could stand for hours waiting for someone to serve you in a restaurant. People were nasty and mean. So, that’s the positive thing I got from Americans and their incredible hospitality, without which I could not have made American Pictures. In the US, I could come into any town at midnight, and less than half an hour, I would find a place to stay. In small towns, I came with a packsack on my back and people came out of their homes asking if I needed somewhere to stay. Try doing the same in small towns in Denmark and see if anybody comes out to invite you in… No, they won’t. So that’s something we could learn from Americans and their hospitality.
Unfortunately, my son, who was hitchhiking in recent years, mentioned that fear is overruling much of that today in the US as well compared to when I was travelling. So, people are more afraid today, but even then, I was amazed by how they were overcoming their fear. I mean, often, they would open a car door and point a gun at me before I was allowed in the car, but they still felt that they had to pick me up. People would just pass if they were afraid of me.
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Let’s talk about that as you’ve been held at a gunpoint on several occasions. What can you say about the gun obsession in the United States?
I was travelling around with a politician and we had an argument with a member of the NRA who believed that guns are for defence, which is bullshit as the best defence is to not be afraid of people but trust them and come honest with them. Then, you don’t get hurt. The people who get hurt in America are the people who arm themselves with guns, and most murders take place inside their homes.
I lived with all these guns for so many years, but I never quite used them. They gave me a bad feeling every time I saw them. I mean, sometimes, I would go home with a girlfriend, be cosy at night, and reach under her pillow to kiss her, and there would be a gun there. Then, I went cold and couldn’t even perform in bed! (Laughs) It’s true, I experienced that again and again. At the same time, I would wonder, ‘Damn, how does she even dare to invite a wild-looking Charles Manson-type of guy like me into her bed if she has such distrust in people?’
What do you think about the country now and its fate during Trump’s presidency?
I left the US when Obama was elected, and I thought it was going the right way. I was naïve. I didn’t think that the underlying racism was so deep that they would get Trump elected… I experienced it, and the funny thing is, I know that his key voters are the people I know from the Ku Klux Klan. They’ve found a president that makes them feel like they are heard. They are so naïve to think that a multi-billionaire is even caring for these poor white people or that he would do anything for them!
He is out there only to do something for himself, but I don’t know how long he can get away with it. His messages are so fake! I would say that as long as Trump is president, I don’t have any interest in going back. The universities I lectured in are all against Trump in a way, so why preach for the converted? I think it’s scarier that we have the same tendencies here in Europe – small Trump-like people everywhere.
Racism is a huge issue throughout your work. You helped many people get rid of it through your workshops. What did those workshops entail?
When people saw my slideshow, they would usually get inspired and take racism workshops the next day. In the slideshow, I presented the devastation racism causes among blacks to the white students. I tried to help them get out of that racism, but I seldom talked about racism, it was always about helping people understand how they had been mistreated themselves. If you don’t heal that inner anger, the pain sitting inside you will turn into negative thinking on other people later.
In these workshops, most of the pain I heard came from women with endless stories about rape, mistreatment, and violence. I would often see women stand up and cry while telling about all the pain they were in as a result of trying to overcome the scars of rape and abuse. I would also hear a lot about incest. The workshop was very much like Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where people seat and talk about the issue of alcohol, how it affects them and how it drives their life. So, the workshops were basically about helping people heal their pain.
“By communicating with people on an individual level, you can win them over because they usually have a need to be recognized, seen and loved. This is the key to good photography.”
Your portrayal of black women in ghettos is very special. Can you talk a bit about how was their life back then?
Things have changed since I travelled, and the awareness among women, and especially black women – who were really fucked over –, is much higher today than it was then. It’s important to understand that there was a huge social control over women at the time. It was almost impossible for me to get a black girlfriend, for example. I wanted to get married to one girl, her parents loved me, I went to their place, I ate with them, etc., but she was so pressured about not getting married to a white man that it never happened.
Because of social pressure on interracial couples?
In part, it was a way of responding to whites having pushed them into ghettos, so the opposite message spread: they didn’t want to fraternize with the oppressor. Black men would mistreat women if they had anything to do with white men, so black women were scared of their violence and abuse. In the ‘80s, when there was a tremendous fear of AIDS among women – which was mainly spread to them by the black men in prison –, more women dared to go out with white men as they felt safer. That’s when black women got interested in me as well, but never in my vagabond years. Simply because it was too scary for them to have a relationship other than with a black man. You have no idea how many of my female friends were killed by their men… I’ve just seen it so many times over the years. Many of those women are photographed in the book.
It’s interesting to hear about your relationships with women. Could you deepen a bit more into that?
I stay in touch with all my old female friends. I would often sleep in their bed with them for a week before they would tease me and say, ‘Have you always been a homosexual?’ or things like that. They probably thought that, but I just felt that if a woman invited you to share her bed with you, it wasn’t an invitation to have sex unless they indicated it – most of the times, they didn’t. In that sense, I feel on the safe side.
I have gone through two periods in my life: one as a vagabond and the other one as a renowned photographer. In the first phase, I was a loser, and the women who invited me home had power over me. They could do whatever they wanted, and basically, most of them probably wanted to get rid of me because they didn’t see future in me. But then, I became a star in universities and I was receiving tons of invitations from women. And that is where responsibility comes in.
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What do you mean by that?
I made a clear policy never to go home with anybody right after the show because then, I’d have impressed them, and the day after, I had to be in the next university. So, practically speaking, I had no chance of dealing with people. Sometimes though, I would start communicating with them and would return to them later, and we would develop more meaningful relationships. Those were usually women who were very supportive of what I was doing and helped me in this or that way.
I knew from my vagabond years that if you allow yourself to not be completely honest, in just a moment, it will start eroding your relationship with people, so you start sending distrust and dishonest vibrations to them. And then, they won’t open up to you anymore or invite you home. I was very aware of that. As Bob Dylan said, “You have to be honest to be an outlaw”, and this was the same here when I reached fame. If I started allowing myself to abuse the power I had, I would start sending dishonest vibrations to people, and then, these people would start closing off.
Your book has inspired renowned filmmaker Lars von Trier, who used some of your photos at the end of Dogville. How did he approach you? How did that happen?
It was actually his wife who forced him to see American Pictures. She was a childcare worker and was a fan of my work, so she convinced her husband to use me or meet me or whatever. It’s funny that I had my showplace near here on Købmagergade, where the show was running for ten years, and right next to it was this Buddhist meditation centre. Lars told me later that he was walking up my staircases day after day to go to that Buddhist centre, but he had no interest in seeing American Pictures even though he saw people standing in line every day to get in. Finally, years later, his wife forced him to see the show. We had to chain him down in the studio, and then, he was totally gripped by it.
How did he react?
After seeing my show, the first thing he said was, ‘I want to make American Pictures as a comedy’ – good luck with that! (Laughs) But that was the first thing, he was just provoking. And then, when we started working on the manuscript, I talked with him about things like internalized racism and internalized oppression, which affected him. In my show, he saw how oppression can go on generation after generation, and out of that, he said, ‘Okay, Jacob, (I had already had three meetings with him), I am going home to write the manuscript.’
Two days later, he sent me the finished manuscript and in it, he expressed all these ideas in an artistic way even better than I could through words. He wrote the manuscript in just two days, and that was when I realized that he was a genius. He could express my ideas in such a beautiful way… And it became his movie, Manderlay. I told him, ‘Since you make the movie just on stage with chalk lines and so on, you’ll probably never sell in America, but your movie will be used in racism education forever in American universities as it has all the sense of what happens to oppressed people, how they internalize racism, etc.’
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So you worked with him both on Dogville and on Manderlay, the two films so far of his Land of Opportunities trilogy.
So, we worked together on three of his movies but he dropped the first one – Dear Wendy. When he saw my show, he got the idea to make Manderlay instead. He had written a beautiful manuscript for Dear Wendy, but he gave it to Thomas Vinterberg, who ended up making the film. But Lars was working on Dogville and that is why he uses my pictures at the end of the movie. And while I am sitting there editing the movie with my pictures together with his editor, he comes running in, interrupting and telling me, ‘Jacob, I have a great idea! Come over and talk to me!’ And that is when he got the idea to drop Dear Wendy and make Manderlay instead based on my show, American Pictures.
Having become world-famous for American Pictures, you sort of never really concentrated on selling the book and making profit out of it. Was there any particular reason?
That’s a good question! I would have lost my soul in the process. My new book is about how I ended up stopping my book sale all over the world because I didn’t want it to hurt President Carter’s human rights policies at the time. And when Reagan was elected, the book was outdated here in Europe. The same thing happened in America when I started. I had a show in Jane Fonda’s house, and some black Hollywood promoters wanted to set it up immediately in the seventy biggest cities in the country with Universal Pictures and all those big movie studios behind it. I said, ok, but I have to first go around and get permission from all the people I have photographed – I knew I would never call them back.
Why is that?
I wanted American Pictures to be sold by the people photographed in the book so that they could get money out of it. This is what I did later when I didn’t publish the book in America and ended up publishing it myself. It could have been a huge success, but whenever I had meetings with the publishers, I saw that they had only one or no black employees. Maybe an elevator man or a cleaner woman and I did not want to support that kind of institutionalized racism with my anti-racist book.
Of course, when people started selling the book by themselves, it was much slower – and it’s not a good way to making a lot of money. Some of the gangsters from the book were killed before they even had a chance to pay me back, and the homeless got the books wet in the shopping carts when they went around. Book sales should first of all be fun and I had never had as much fun as while driving and delivering American Pictures to all those people in the ghettos.
Having mentioned your new book, On Saying Yes, can you tell us more about it? 
Already in my vagabond years, I travelled with a philosophy on saying yes, and since then, that expression became the name of my lecture where I talk about all the groups I have integrated myself with – blacks, homosexuals, Muslims, Jews… all those ‘general society’ has prejudices against. My way of dealing with that prejudice is that when I can feel I start thinking bad about a group of people, I move in with them. This is the only way you really get to know them, become friends and integrate with. And then, the process changes them too. It has been my most popular lecture for the last ten years, and therefore, several publishers asked me to make a book out of it. But I had so many lectures that I could never find time to write a book.
The publishing house said, ‘Since many people have forgotten what you did when you were young, let’s hear something about how you made American Pictures.’ So, the first volume, which is five hundred pages, is very much about my personal memoirs up to when I made American Pictures. I never understood how I did it. I thought I was just taking some pictures, and all of a sudden, I was world-famous, you know. And I’ve been touring with that slideshow for thirty years in American universities. It is the longest-running lecture in American university history and was a tremendous success, but I never understood how I made it. So, writing about it sort of forced me to go to different episodes that pushed me from one place to another. I analyzed myself a little bit.
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