American Pictures Revisted

a conversation between Jacob Holt & Joy Bryant with Jade Berreau

Jade Berreau: I wanted to ask you about how you first came to America. How did all that start?

Jacob Holdt: Well, I was kicked out of high school because I had ADHD, which was something they didn’t know about at that time. I just couldn’t focus. I would say that’s the best thing that’s happened to me. All kinds of people were in my house in Copenhagen, and one of them was a runaway girl from Canada. Her parents were so happy that I had taken care of her. They invited me to Canada. I worked on their farm for a year. And that’s the only reason I ended up in this part of the world. After that I wanted to hitchhike to Latin America from Canada. I wanted to become a guerrilla in Guatemala, which was interesting, since I had been kicked out of the Danish army for refusing to shoot. Still, I wanted to be a guerrilla; I was so crazy. Canadians had told me so many scary stories about how dangerous it is to hitchhike through the United States, that I just wanted to go through it as fast as I could down to Latin America. But I came to America and I immediately fell in love with the country. On the first day, I was raped by a black homosexual, and on my third day, I was attacked at gunpoint by a black gang. That made me interested in finding out where all this pain and anger was coming from, and that sort of changed my life. I started traveling around America in the ghettos for five years. And then, after half a year my parents sent me a camera and said—because I had written all these letters about how I’m staying with Rockefeller now I’m doing this and that—they didn’t believe what I was saying. So I sent some pictures, and that is the story. From the first day I came into America, it was like black people took me by the hand to show me a pain they needed to show me, and since then I’ve actually been a bridge builder between the black and white world in universities.

Jade Berreau: Did you make it to South America?

Jacob Holdt: Well, after a couple of years I did, because I had to get my visa renewed. It cost $10 to do it in South America and I had no money, so I was hitchhiking from Canada to Mexico, then went all the way down to Guatemala. I hitchhiked out to the mountains where guerrillas were fighting; I could never find them.

Jade Berreau: It’s a good drive that you have. A fearless drive.

Joy Bryant: And not having the fear of actually going and being in the ghettos and living with people. There are people who are afraid to walk two blocks to the left.

Jacob Holdt: Well, there are many stories in this. The first two years I was constantly attacked by black gangs and robbed and so on. Most of the people I stayed with in the beginning were white and they tell you stories endlessly: ‘Don’t walk two blocks this way, don’t go three blocks this way.’ All their warnings about black people, you know. They instilled a fear of blacks in me. I came to America with solidarity, but it does something to you, when you’re constantly warned against a whole race of people. Warnings implant fear in you, and fear is racism—simply tricking a whole group with fear and not giving them a chance. The thing is, when you, in your inner thinking, fear people, you send a message out to them: ‘You’re bad, you’re a bad guy.’ Thereby you will stimulate all the bad feelings that those who have always been ostracized by society have about themselves. If they have a father who has been unable to get job because of white racism beating them up all their lives, you have a wandering hurt person, and then I come once again and say to them, ‘You’re a bad guy.’ That invites hostility and that’s why I was attacked all the time.


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Jade Berreau: You said earlier that when you were attacked, it made you curious about their pain.

Jacob Holdt: Yeah, I had just arrived onto the continent and I was attacked. Woah, what’s going on here? Then I started hitching around; when you hitchhike you’re most likely to end up with white people. So in no time, I was just brainwashed, like most Europeans, on the white of this apartheid system. And, of course, you become more racist when you’re attacked by a group that you actually have solidarity with—that is the classic story. The two years I spent hitchhiking around big campuses and universities—safe places, just to avoid all this anger and inner cities—I had a new schedule that was just wonderful for me as a young person. I would often stay with nice students—black students unlike those angry ones I met in the city. That does a number on your head, when you move in with those you demonize in your deep thinking. You suddenly see them as human beings and not monsters. Then your racism or your fear declines, so I started building up more and more trust in black people. Through them, I started seeing sisters and brothers from the ghetto, and started also seeing them as human beings. See, those I stayed with in university were very much those who themselves had a helping hand from a saving angel to get out of this anger that so many youths at that time were caught up in. But their sisters and brothers all end up on the street. Anyway, I built up trust in black people. I was not aware of the signals that I sent out in my inner thinking, but when I now walk out in the streets of America and meet all these gangsters and so on, I have a different message to them. In my behavior, they could not see this fear in my eyes or aversive behavior. I was now saying, ‘You’re good; I trust you.’

Joy Bryant: ‘I respect you.’

Jacob Holdt: Yeah. For people that have been marginalized all their lives to suddenly be told, “You’re okay, you’re totally fine,” that is for them a message of love. And from the moment I could send a message of love instead of fear, even the worst criminals in the ghettos took my hands and showed me this world of pain. From then on, I was a free man. From then on, I could travel both sides of black and white America, without fear, totally safe. Since then on to today I have not been attacked a single time. Crime has increased tenfold since the 70’s when I came here, and I’ve photographed my friends killing each other, doing terrible things, but now I feel totally safe alone. And that’s what we call today nonviolent communication and positive thinking. And once you learn that, it becomes so interesting to see if you can do it everywhere in the world. So when I now go to the most dangerous countries—South Africa, Haiti, and so on—I always call up the police and ask where the highest murder rate is, and I go there. It’s interesting to see if it works everywhere, and it does work. Why does it work? Because all people love to be loved. And that we all know. So from then on I could start making American Pictures. I could not make American Pictures if I continued to be a racist, as I was the first two years. I had to have a helping hand to unlearn that racism; from then on I could move more freely in America.

Jade Berreau: Do you still come to America often?

Jacob Holdt: Yeah, for 30 years I’ve been coming here twice a year—three months every spring and three months in the fall—on the university circle, but now I’m sort of tired of running around. I’d rather go around and find some friends in the ghettos; I neglected my ghetto friends for so many years. In my book, I stay with a black woman, a junkie in Harlem. She was shooting up when I was staying with her, and eventually she kicked me out because she felt we didn’t fit together. ‘We’re not compatible,’ she said. I said, ‘I think we’re compatible; I’m a very tolerant person.’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘I have the right girlfriend for you: my best friend up in Hartford.’ And then she hitchhiked me off—a black woman at that time hitchhiked me from Harlem up to Hartford, dumped me at Leslie’s feet and said, ‘Hey Leslie, you can have this white boy. I can’t use him.’ She was totally right, and I almost got married to Leslie half a year later. We just recently celebrated our 30th anniversary of the wedding we never had.

Jade Berreau: So, are you still together?

Jacob Holdt: Yeah, yeah. I stay in touch with all my old girlfriends, you know. We were getting very close to getting married, but she was smoking so much marijuana at the time that already I knew she was too stoned. We couldn’t communicate for the rest of the day. But more importantly, her parents, her sisters, and brothers were just totally against her marrying a white man. They loved me; I came to their house all the time, showered in their house and ate well, but the idea of marrying a white man, no way. Those were the years we whites were forcing millions of blacks into ghettos in America. You must not fraternize with the oppressor, and so on. This is something we see everywhere. We did the same in Denmark, when we were occupied by the Germans. A woman fell in love with a German soldier; she was mistreated and spit at and so on. So this is normal among oppressed people everywhere in the world. But for that reason, we didn’t get married. I find it interesting when I look back. She had six sisters and one brother, who was killed in Vietnam. All of them were totally opposed to marrying a white man. But in any pattern of oppression I’ve seen in the world there’s an exception. There’s always one who goes against the main thing, and they go out and marry the oppressor, and do what you’re not supposed to do. And all my old black girlfriends later got married to white men or had relationships with white men. I do lifelong photographic studies of all my old friends, my old girlfriends, my attackers, my rapists, everybody who has shaped my life, positive and negative. I find it so interesting to see human lives. I mean, you must never judge people on one photo. The focus should be seen in the 4th dimension over a time period, you know? And that’s why I go around endlessly and do photographic stories of what happens to all those people. Right now I’m going down south to visit Mary, whose house burned down because she had a white man staying with her: me.

Jade Berreau: Her house burned down in the 70’s?

Jacob Holdt: Yeah. I have a lifelong story about our lives together. I’m going down tomorrow evening. I’ll be staying with Tony, my black co-worker all those years. He has the deepest perception to all this. He was a gangster at the time. I got him out and for years he ran my show in Europe and so on. I also have to go to New Orleans too—I have to lecture about the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. I used to invite all my Danish audiences with me. One of them, a model, has just written a book. I’m always defending the Ku Klux Klan in my lectures. And then one of the students, a black woman, stood up and said, ‘Jacob, you piss me off. I was 12 years old when my mother took me to see your show, and you were my great hero for years. I had a T-Shirt that said Bomb the Ku Klux Klan, and now you stand here defending the Ku Klux Klan. You are nuts.’ Then I said to her, ‘Hey, I know you have some prejudice against the Ku Klux Klan. Don’t you want to, if you’re prejudiced against people, go in with them? That is the fastest way to see them as human beings. So, don’t you want to come with me to America, as a black woman, and move in with a Ku Klux Klan member?’ And she did it!


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Joy Bryant: What! She did?

Jacob Holdt: She did. I knew what would happen: she ended up loving the people in the Ku Klux Klan and they loved her. Now she’s written a book; I can show you on my website. She’s defending the Ku Klux Klan as a black woman.  She is now using, like I did, the Ku Klux Klan to show that there is actually more racism in the Danes today than there is the Ku Klux Klan.

Joy Bryant: You draw a parallel between blacks and the KKK/poor whites as both being victims of their suffering. It’s the pain and suffering that causes them to act out in anger—in the KKK’s case, anger towards blacks for being the reason they don’t have what they feel they deserve. It’s interesting: in the 1600s, white indentured servants and black slaves shared common cause against the tyranny of the ruling class. And that small ruling class, for fear of these groups combining forces to successfully rise up against them, deliberately used racism as a way to divide and conquer. They did this not just with laws, but also by encouraging distrust, fear, and animosity.  That racial ‘divide and conquer’ has been perpetuated over centuries, over generations. The KKK is a result of that.

Jacob Holdt: But the Ku Klux Klan today is totally different from the historical Ku Klux Klan. And that’s the point I’m trying to show. They have far more black friends in the Ku Klux Klan than most whites do in America. Because they are generally from very poor backgrounds, they grew up with blacks; they went to all black schools. Schools were 95% black and most people hold onto their old school friends later. But they don’t say that, probably because they want to be cultivated as bad guys. They know that humanity has a craving to worship the evil—that way, we think that we’re not so racist, if you can point at the Ku Klux Klan being the bad guys and this and that. I’ve been a member of the Ku Klux Klan now for 10 years. I don’t say it on my website because I don’t want to lose all of my black friends, but I’m going in there to change people. You can only change people if you fight racism with love. I now have gotten two of the biggest Klan leaders in America out of the Ku Klux Klan, simply by working with them for that number of years. One was almost killed by the other Klan members when he dissolved a part of the Klan, you can see that on my website. Anyway, that’s my most popular lecture in Denmark today. I have so much inside information about them, and I’ve videotaped them endlessly. Every one of them has basically been mistreated in childhood, beaten up by alcoholic stepfathers and mothers and so on, and they just have so much anger in their lives. And then they boost themselves to get a little power by trying to show that they are the bad guys, by dressing in this historic dress, and that’s all there is to the Ku Klux Klan.

Jade Berreau: How did you become a member of the Klan? Jacob Holdt: Well, there are constantly Danish movie companies who want to make movies about my life and one of them, they got the idea to put me together with the biggest Klan leader in America, who they just found on the Internet—the worst, the most warned. I’d never met a Klan leader, so why not, you know? Then, on the day I had to fly out to the Klan headquarters, there was a cancellation because of a snowstorm up at Maine University, so I suddenly couldn’t fly there. The movie company put me up in their apartment in Manhattan with a TV camera and said, ‘Say something to the Klan leader so we can take it out and show it to him; then, we’ll see how he responds.’ What I said was—you can see it on the Internet, it’s in one of the clippings—that I can only have deep, deep compassion for the Ku Klux Klan because, in all the years I’ve been lecturing in America, I picked up so many poor white hitchhikers who were members of the Ku Klux Klan, and when I was sitting there in the car talking with them, really had time to hear about the pain in their lives. I just saw how many of them were beaten up and mistreated in childhood. And since so much of this pain is what I see in the black community, I can of course only have the same compassion for you in the Klan. Then I started making a comparison of blacks and the Ku Klux Klan. Many people would think that a Klan leader would be pissed off, but he was deeply moved and stood up and said, ‘How can I meet this guy Jacob?’ I had hit it right down to his own mistreatment, I found out later, when we became friends.

Joy Bryant: You hit the nerve.

Jacob  Holdt: A year later I had a workshop out at Ohio Western University, and what I was teaching dealt first with the poor white racism and later the privileged students’ racism. What I always tell them is, You are far more racist than the Ku Klux Klan—and I mean it, but I have a lot of arguments to build up to it. And, you know, most University students fought me back. And suddenly I said, ‘Oh by the way, we are right next to the Klan headquarters in Indiana. Do any of you want to go with me? Then we can see who is more racist.’ I had a row of fingers up and I took two with me. After spending a day or two in the Klan headquarters, they were totally quiet in the car on the way back. Suddenly, Melanie, who had been fighting the most, said, ‘I realize that I am full of hate, not them.’ This is the truth about the Ku Klux Klan in a nutshell. We hate them, not the opposite. And this is what I’m now trying to show.

Joy Bryant: I think it’s understandable to see why people would hate them.

Jacob Holdt: We hate them because they dress up like this and say nasty things and this and that, which is often a cry for help, in my opinion. And when people cry for help, you give help. Anyway, I thought, wow, I have been hearing about the Klan headquarters, and I thought that they were very nice. So I went out to the Klan, but the Klan leader who had invited me had been sentenced to 130 years in prison. So I moved in with his wife, because she was now the functioning Klan leader in America. And I like the impossible, you know. Why not? The Ku Klux Klan’s leader is my girlfriend. She loved the idea too, you know—her husband was safe in prison and here I come with red roses. Why did she say yes? They have always been attacked whenever they do a demonstration. They are attacked by hateful demonstrators, leftists who call them scums of the earth, and here I come and say, ‘Hey, shouldn’t we play together?’ All people love to be loved, you know. She knew I was anti-racist but she moved me in immediately, accepted me. I had to share her bed because these poor white people have very little space, you know. I helped her to clean up the bed, and then I saw that Klan membership files were all over the place. I said, again for fun, ‘Hey, if I write myself one of those membership cards, would I be a member of the Ku Klux Klan?’ And what did she say? ‘Yeah! Please, won’t you? We never had an anti-racist as a member before. You’ll mean so much to us.’ The next day, she called up her husband in prison and said, ‘We got an anti-racist as a member now. Now things are moving ahead for us.’

Joy Bryant: You work within the system to change it.

Jacob Holdt: Last minute Klan member and that’s how you make it in. You just wait until the leader has 130 years in prison. If I had not lived with Pamela, I would not have overheard a conversation one day between her and her neighbor, where I suddenly realized that her husband was innocent. He was sentenced for something his son had done. His son was a sort of violent guy, always getting in bar trouble and so on. Suddenly he had done something and the Klan leader, his father, took the blame for it, and when you’re a Klan leader you get that many more years on top. It’s actually one of my friends that sentenced him, Morris Dees from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, where they monitor all these hate groups.


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Joy Bryant: What do they think about you?

Jacob Holdt: They don’t like me anymore. But when I found out that he was innocent in prison for something that he had not done, Rikke, the black Danish model, me, and his black lawyer, we went —

Joy Bryant: He has a black lawyer?

Jacob Holdt: Of course. He has lots of black friends; they don’t talk about this. The Ku Klux Klan has lots of black friends and a black lawyer. And on my website, you can see the defense articles I wrote, which were used to get him out of prison. We got him out 127 years before he should have been released.

Joy Bryant: What year was this?

Jacob Holdt: This was 2005. The funny thing is, Rikke, in her book, she writes about how much she likes the Ku Klux Klan, but she could not get herself to write about how she, as a black woman, had helped to get America’s biggest Klan leader out of prison.

Joy Bryant: So, what are the differences in the Klan of old versus the Klan of 2005?

Jacob Holdt: They’ve evolved. Ok. Mississippi burning, you know that part. That happened in my ex-wife’s town, Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Joy Bryant: Yeah.

Jacob Holdt: And through her, I got to know two of those who were sentenced in the Mississippi burning. One was the Sheriff Rainey—

Joy Bryant: Yeah.

Jacob Holdt: Remember: They were acquitted by an all-white jury, because it was politically correct. Everybody in the South was against the external government coming in and forcing integration on them. I know professors today who say that they grew up in the South and believed it was wrong that they should be forcefully integrated, so they just encouraged the Ku Klux Klan to go a step further. It was the same type of losers at that time: drunks and alcoholics and this and that. Tony, he was on tour running my show in Norway in 1979, when suddenly he saw on TV, that his old girlfriend, Sandy Smith, and four others, were killed by a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina. This is what was called the Greensboro Massacre. He was in so much shock that we had to fly him out there. The Ku Klux Klan had come in with machine guns, grabbed them and shot into a demonstration. Of course I had prejudice against this group who did that. The KKK and Virgil Griffin, the Klan leader who had organized the attack in 1979, years after the Mississippi burning, was acquitted by an all-white jury. What he said in defense was, ‘Well, we shot communists in Vietnam. Why shouldn’t we do it here in America?’ This was right after the Vietnam War. The demonstration against the Ku Klux Klan was organized by the local textile plant workers, and they were known as being communists. I thought, well, you must never have prejudice, but of course I had prejudice. I had just come from Atlanta when I came to North Carolina and I knew I was meeting that guy, that Klan leader who had shot those five people. So, I thought, let not my inner prejudice against him come in the way from helping him out of the Klan with love. I only had one day to test it out. By then I knew a lot about the nonviolent communication and positive thinking, what it does to people. We were together for a whole day; there was a cross burning out in the woods. Everybody knew I was anti-racist and so I thought, smile and think, think, think positive of him. Well, in the beginning, he really looked evil, so it wasn’t so easy for me, but I forced myself. Little by little, I could see how he was impacted. And in the afternoon he started smiling back at me, even started flirting with me, and at the end of the day, he suddenly said to me, ‘Jacob, do you want to walk with me alone and talk out in the woods?’ ‘Yeah,’ I said. We went out there and then he said to me, ‘First of all I want you to believe it was not me who burnt down the black churches.’ Morris Dees, who attacks the Ku Klux Klan all the time, accused him of that. He was made responsible because the people who actually had done the black church burnings had membership cards, but that’s an important thing to understand: most Klan leaders go around selling these membership cards to all kinds of naughty school boys all over the country. It’s a money machine. If somebody has been involved in a hate crime and they find a membership card, they make the Klan leaders responsible. So, Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center had taken three of his gang stations, and so he was now penniless. But what he said to me again and again was, you must believe me, I’m a good Christian, I could never burn down a black church. Then I asked him, ‘But you shot the communists? They are people.’ ‘No, no.’ And I believe it, because it was so important for him to say. Most of the KKK are members just for two years or less, and afterward I see them in church groups, in alcohol treatment groups.

Joy Bryant: So, they are trying to change the profile of what it used to be?

Jacob Holdt: Wherever they can get a little love, they can’t. Hurt people like that cannot give it. They walk around  with equally hurt people and hate each other.

Joy Bryant: If they don’t hate, then why does the Klan still exist? Or are they trying to change the image of the Klan from what it used to be?

Jacob Holdt: No.

Joy Bryant: Then what’s the purpose of it?

Jacob Holdt: The purpose is that a child who has never had love will usually endlessly try to get attention in other ways. Look, the abused child we see everywhere in the world, already when they’re children, we start to discriminate against them. We send out negative vibrations of fear, distrust, etc. We don’t like that hurt child as much as that child that has gotten endless love and therefore radiates love itself. Like Matthew in the Bible says, those who were given more will give more than those who didn’t get. This is the vicious cycle of oppression. So for them it is an endless game to try to get that love they can’t get, and they get it in the form of a craving for attention. They become the noisy children in school and then we start discriminating. The teachers start telling them, ‘You’re not as good as us,’ and so on. Then, usually what I find is that most of the Klan members, they run away at 14 from their abusive stepfathers and so on and live as homeless people in and out of prison for small petty crime and car theft and so on. But then around 20, they get into Hells Angels type of groups.


Joy Bryant: Belonging to something.

Jacob Holdt: That’s the only power these powerless people can get, and then some of those smart ones find out that if they take on these old-fashioned dresses and burn a cross once in a year and get even more attention, then TV people will come from Europe and make a movie about them and get them on The Jerry Springer show and one moment of fame means everything for them. That’s all the Klan is about.

Joy Bryant: They commit acts of violence as well.

Jacob Holdt: No.

Joy Bryant: They don’t?

Jacob Holdt: They don’t. The Klan leaders are so afraid these days of getting violent people. The Klan leader, the first one I told you about, he said to me in prison, ‘Most of those who try to get into the Klan, I can’t use. They are nuts.’ I know what he’s talking about; I pick them up on the highway all the time. If he gets them in, Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center will immediately knock them down and put them in prison and make them responsible for that. So today the Klan has become politically correct. I have now been a member for ten years, and in those ten years, I’ve never seen a single instance of them hurting blacks, but I have seen countless cases of them killing each other, in the Klan.

Joy Bryant: Sounds very similar to urban street gangs.

Jade Berreau: This reminds me of Joseph Campbell and The Power Of Myth. What you’re talking about is an ancient mythology. The human nature is to clan, to tribe. This is where we feel that we are worth something, that we are loved, that as long as we can stay together, we’ll do whatever it takes. That’s part of why religion was created and it’s all based on the same mythology.

Joy Bryant: Campbell was the premiere scholar on mythology. He’s a follower of Carl Jung. George Lucas from Star Wars really relied on him a lot in terms of helping him craft his story to make sure that the story of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader followed mythology and hit all the beats.

Jade Berreau: It’s a formula that works when you want to form a story because human beings are so drawn to it. It’s so natural for us.

Joy Bryant: It’s part of the collective unconsciousness that Jung talks about.

Jade Berreau: It’s never going to stop. The goal is to make it positive rather than negative. Of course that’s what people with love, like yourself, fight for, but, you know, there is the balance, which is hate. It’s gone on forever, it’s going to go on forever.

Jacob Holdt: Yeah, unfortunately.

Jade Berreau: There’s a message in this. The thing that I think is so amazing about your story is that whatever negative thing happens to you, you go, ‘Ok, this was a horrible experience, but why is this happening?’ Instead of—

Joy Bryant: Running away from it.

Jade Berreau: You don’t become a victim; you become a teacher. And that’s really what’s going on. You can help make us stronger humans, if we can learn to think like that.