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Children of the family Raaymakers, hit by the crisis, getting help thanks to an action of magazine Het Leven. Best, The Netherlands, 1936.

The National Archive in The Netherlands just published a 30 image set on the theme of poverty.

The strength of some of the images blew me away. (Click any image for a larger view) The set spans nationals and eras so this isn’t a photo essay, just a moment to reflect. Through history, photography has indulged the upper classes, but how has it treated the impoverished? I don’t have the answers, just a meandering of a visual train of thought.

Children with scars and with gazes that cut through time …

Irish tinkers: mother and child in front of improvised tent, 1946

… and children slowly erased by time.

Poor German miners’ families eating at a soup kitchen, 1931

Jobs programs that have adults digging dirt like children digging beach sand …

Unemployment relief program in Schagen, Netherlands, 1967

… then, poor people who have carted each other across cobbles …

Woman transported on a hand-cart, Amsterdam, 1934

… and those that sleep beneath them.

French man spending a night under a bridge, catches a glimpse of photographer Willem van de Poll, date unknown.

Men have begged for the charity of the richest …

Man begs for money from George V (1865-1936), Epsom Downs, Derby Day, 1920.

…but usually received from the humblest.

Soup kitchen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 1917

Poor people have been asked to rent dentures …

Man bites down on available dentures for hire, United States, 1940.

… and they have been made into leaders …

Dutch tramp who became a politician, Amsterdam, 1921

… and in so much as the poor man is the worker, they’ve seen it all.

Worker sweeps the floor in the New York Stock Exchange following the Wall Street Crash, 1929.

More images can be seen within the Collectie Spaarnestad: www.spaarnestadphoto.nl

New Orleans. In the collection of the Peter Sekear Estate.

Actually, Jacob Holdt was the new Peter Sekaer … we just never knew about Sekaer. Until now.

Sekaer

The New York Times reported today on Signs of Life at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, a major survey of Peter Sekaer’s life and of his works. Sekaer died prematurely in 1950 at the age of 49, leaving stacks of unsorted photographs.

Curator, Julian Cox said of his work, “We wanted to uncover this hidden gem. Sekaer was like the passage of a meteor, very bright but fairly brief.”

Sekaer often took photographic trips with friend Walker Evans. Sekaer photographed high streets, impoverished neighbourhoods, markets and games. He photographed signs and billboards. From 1936-43 he worked on assignment for various government agencies including the FSA, the USHA and the REA. His task was to document the depressed country and thus Seaker photographed a lot of poor Americans.

Excepting the New Deal agencies, this focus and unexpected coverage was repeated 40 years later by another Dane.

Jacob Holdt‘s ongoing life’s work American Pictures* is equally committed to describing the hardships of the American South. Holdt met many people suffering in a discriminatory culture with discriminatory laws. (I wrote about Holdt following his autobiographical presentation at the 2009 New York Photography Festival.

Holdt (b.1947) is the geist of Sekaer.

It should be noted Holdt doesn’t call himself a photographer, rather a man who uses the camera as a tool in his activism. Sekaer was professional from 1936 onward.

DANISH INQUISITION

It would be foolish to attribute their curiosity and achievements to their Danish heritage, or to suggest that foreign eyes can see with more clarity the shortcomings of their host nation. Sekaer and Holdt likely were/are simply good people with a belief in stories to be told.

Sekaer was an anomaly for his time; an outspoken, moody Dane, with a German camera, asking folk about their lives. Sekaer’s daughter, Christina explains that it wasn’t just his eyes that made his photographs, Sekaer’s voice did too, “His accent helped people want to talk to him.”

Sixty years on, it’s nice to meet you Mr. Sekaer.

More images here.

Peter Sekaer (American, born Denmark, 1901–1950)

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1901, Peter Sekaer immigrated to the United States in 1918 at the age of seventeen. After successfully operating a printing business in New York City producing posters, advertisements and window displays, he enrolled in the Art Students League in 1929 to study painting. He soon became involved in the New York art scene, befriending, among others, the artist Ben Shahn and the photographer Walker Evans.

By 1934 Sekaer had left painting behind to study photography with Berenice Abbott at the New School for Social Research. Through his friendship with Walker Evans he secured contracts from 1936 to 1943 to work on assignment as a photographer for various government agencies that were created as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal program. In 1945 Sekaer started his own commercial photography business, shooting advertisements and human interest stories for magazines.

In 1950, at age forty-nine, Sekaer suffered a fatal heart attack. His life’s work has been preserved by his wife, Elisabeth Sekaer Rothschild, and their younger daughter, Christina Sekaer.

'Family Shelling Pecans, Austin, Texas', 1939. G Peter Sekaer. Collection of the High Art Museum, Atlanta. Purchased with funds from Robert Yellowlees.

Signs of Life: Photographs by Peter Sekaer is the first major exhibition dedicated to the work of the Danish-born American photographer Peter Sekaer. Organized by the High, the exhibition runs June 5, 2010 through January 11, 2011. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree Street, N.E. Atlanta, Georgia 30309.

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*Conflating Holdt and Sekaer further, a 1999 exhibition at the Addison Gallery of American Art was titled ‘Peter Sekaer: American Pictures’. I don’t know if the curators knew of Holdt’s body of work.

We are all agreed: Michael Jackson’s death is a sad event. Firstly because he was young, secondly because he runs through our cultural DNA and thirdly because we never really managed to fully understand him.

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Jackson’s life and work were wrapped up in the confuddling of race and the obliteration of its prerequisites for discussion. I am not talking only about his self-manipulated skin colour. I am talking about the fact he was accused of antisemitism for contested lyrics in the 1996 release They Don’t Really Care About Us and the fact he was accused of exploiting the poor of Rio de Janeiro for its music video.

This song is only one time Jackson was simultaneously cast as victim and perpetrator by the media and public all making use of his eccentricity to grind their own agendas.

The controversy led Jackson (for the only time in his career) to film a second video for one of his songs, taking his crotch grabs off the favela streets and into the prison chow hall. One or both of the versions was banned by MTV – I am not quite sure, but it doesn’t matter.

Jackson threw enough contorted imagery at these two videos to satisfy a life’s worth of political action. The prison version is a montage of famous photojournalist and media images; death, natural disaster, street brutality, Vietnam napalm, hate crimes, Rodney King, African pestilence, riots, nuclear detonation and the Ku Klux Klan?

I am undecided as to how Jackson’s convolution of imagery helps an informed debate on inequality in society. How much does a famine of the 80s in an unnamed African nation have to do with US urban riots?

It should be said, that for his manic prison tableaux, Jackson did accurately reflect reality in the casting of a disproportion number of men of colour.

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Jacob Holdt presenting at the New York Photo Festival, 2009. Screen shot from WTJ? Video.

In 2008 it was Ballen. In 2009 it was Jacob Holdt; The highlight of the New York Photo Festival.

I have been a fan of Holdt’s work for a couple of years now. Longer than some and not a fraction as long as others. Holdt has lived across the globe as an activist against racism and a harbinger of love for nearly four decades.

In 2008, Jacob Holdt was nominated for the Deutsche Borse Prize eventually losing out to Esko Männikkö. It was a shrewd shortlisting by a notoriously urbane committee at Deutsche. Holdt’s life and productive trajectory is his own, and much like Ballen does not conform to any norms of expected photographic career paths.

Any nomination – any praise – is purely a recognition of Holdt’s philosophy, his “vagabond days”,  his trust in fellow humans and his rejection of stereotypes, fear and pride. Holdt does not revere photography as others may,  “Photography never interested me. Photography was for me only a tool for social change.”

© Jacob Holdt

© Jacob Holdt

I watched Holdt’s presentation without expectation. I was, in truth, very surprised by the number of times he referred to his subjects – his friends – spending time in prison. It seemed only death trumped incarceration in terms of frequency amongst his circle of friends.

Through a “mysterious mistake” I got locked up in this California prison with my camera and had plenty of time to follow the daily life of my co-inmates. Food was served in their cells where the only table was their toilet. © Jacob Holdt

Prison Meal on Toilet © Jacob Holdt. Through a “mysterious mistake” I got locked up in this California prison with my camera and had plenty of time to follow the daily life of my co-inmates. Food was served in their cells where the only table was their toilet.

Slide after slide: “I can’t remember the number of times I have helped him get out of prison” and, “He’s in prison, now” or “He’s doing well now. He was in prison, but now he is out, has a family, and is doing well.”

Holdt described his method of finding community. Upon arrival in a new place, he would visit the police station and ask where the highest homicide rate was. He’d go to the answer.

Violence was tied up with poverty, was tied up with drugs, was tied up with deprivation, was tied up with hurt, was tied up with punishment and was tied up with prison – usually long sentencing.

Holdt’s series straddles the massive prison expansion experiment of America that began in the 1980s. Also enveloped are the crack epidemics, the racial fragmentation of urban populations and the relocation of middle classes to the suburbs. Holdt’s photographs are the mirror to racial economic inequalities.

Dad in Prison © Jacob Holdt. Alphonso has often entertained my college students about how he and the other criminals in Baltimore planned to mug me when they first saw me in their ghetto. However, we became good friends, but some time later he got a 6 year prison term. Here are the daughters Alfrida and Joann seen when they told me about it at my return. Today Alphonso has found God with the help of these two daughters who are now both ministers.

Dad in Prison © Jacob Holdt. Alphonso has often entertained my college students about how he and the other criminals in Baltimore planned to mug me when they first saw me in their ghetto. However, we became good friends, but some time later he got a 6 year prison term. Here are the daughters Alfrida and Joann seen when they told me about it at my return. Today Alphonso has found God with the help of these two daughters who are now both ministers.

Holdt doesn’t play the blame game. Just as institutions and corporations walked all over many African Americans in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and states across the South, so too did people step on each other, “This is a photo of a man the night after he shot his own brother in the head.” The next night, he was out stealing again and soon after  was convicted for another crime and served 16 years in prison.

Holdt only makes excuses for the failings of his friends insomuch as their mistakes are more likely – almost inevitable – set in the context of their life experience. He doesn’t jump in, drive-by, photo some ghetto-shots nor cadge some poverty-porn. Holdt involves himself directly and tries to open other avenues.

He and his team has lectured across the globe running anti-racism workshops. Holdt had ex-cons sell his anti-racism book on the streets when they were released from prisons without opportunity. He offered pushers the chance to sell his books instead of dope. Sometimes he saw the money and sometimes not, “But, it was never about the money” Holdt adds.

Prisoner cleaning up on Palm Beach. © Jacob Holdt

Prisoner cleaning up on Palm Beach. © Jacob Holdt

One of the most sobering facts of the talk was a double mention of Lowell Correctional Institution in Florida. It was the only facility referred to by name and twice Holdt named friends who’d spent time inside. Lowell is a women’s facility. The female prison population of America has quadrupled in the past 25 years. It is still expanding at a far faster rate than the male prison population. Women’s super-prisons are singularly an American phenomenon. Holdt dropped as an aside, “I have three friends with grandmothers in prisons.”

If he could help, he would. Holdt described a struggling young lady who he desperately wanted to get on staff of American Pictures, but in 1986 she was too strung out on crack. In 1994 he visited her in prison. In 2004 she was released. In 2007 she was still out and Holdt photographed her with her son.

He photographed mothers, lovers, father and sons behind bars. In one case, when the father was convicted the son turned to crime to keep enough money coming in to support the family. He soon joined his dad in prison.

 I was visiting the friend of this inmate when his wife suddenly came on a visit. © Jacob Holdt

Prison Kiss © Jacob Holdt. I was visiting the friend of this inmate when his wife suddenly came on a visit.

But when it would be expected that Holdt may be too deep inside the experience of the poor Black experience, he took the chance to live amid the poor White experience.

Poor whites at a Klan gathering in Alabama. © Jacob Holdt

Poor whites at a Klan gathering in Alabama. © Jacob Holdt

In 2002, Holdt had the opportunity to live with the Ku Klux Klan. He became pals with the Grand Dragon and his family.

“I have spent my life photographing hurt people.” The KKK members were no different. The leader had been abused as a child, subject to incest and beatings. Holdt presumed this but it was confirmed around the time the leader was sent to prison for 130 years for murder.

Holdt moved in with Pamela, the leaders wife, to support her in her husbands absence. Also in his absence he brought the unlikeliest of people together.

Pamela with whit friend. © Jacob Holdt

Pamela with white friend (Jacob Holdt). © Jacob Holdt

Pamela with black friend. © Jacob Holdt

Pamela with black friend. © Jacob Holdt

During this time and only through informal discussion did Holdt learn that the man was innocent – he had voluntarily gone to prison to spare his son, the real culprit, from conviction for a hate crime.

Holdt petitioned and won his release. The former Grand Dragon was unemployed upon release and went on to sell Holdt’s anti-racism book on the streets … just as the dope-dealers of Philly had 15 years earlier.

Holdt’s presentation confirmed to me that the prison is inextricably linked with the social history of America. But this should not be surprising in a society so violent. Holdt paints a portrait of America from the 70s through to today in which the poorest people (both Black and White) held the monopoly on violence, disease, depression, addiction and struggle.

When Holdt was in Africa he showed people there his images of African-Americans suffering. Africans thought the Black communities of America would fare better in Africa, “Why don’t they come back here?”

Two unemployed Vietnam veterans at wall on 3rd St. © Jacob Holdt

Two unemployed Vietnam veterans at wall on 3rd St. © Jacob Holdt

Given the situations he walked into, some may think Holdt is fortunate to still be alive but having armed himself with love he made his own luck … and friends.

Check out more on Jacob Holdt here and here. Here is an article in support of his hitch-hiking activity.

Holdt’s incredible 20,000 image archive American Pictures.

WTJ? 70 minute video of his NYPF presentation.

TYWKIWDBI is garish and off putting to anyone who judges sites on appearance alone. Fortunately for it, and us, it is also one of the best aggregators of online content. It is a one man operation to compete with Digg!

Roy Brown

Roy Brown

I picked up this story and had to relay it. While Christian Milton, former AIG executive, got 4 years for his involvement in $500million fraud, Roy Brown was sentenced to 15 years in Louisiana for stealing $100 from a bank. Brown only took $100 dollars from thousands the cashier handed him and subsequently surrendered himself the next day, ashamed of his actions stating “My mother didn’t raise me that way.”

I don’t know how tied the judges hands were by Louisiana law, but I would resign in disgust if I was a cog in such an abusive system. Fucking disgrace.

Christian Milton

Christian Milton

Searching for images didn’t come up with much (admittedly, it didn’t spend too long) but it occurred to me that the mugshot is the aesthetic of the poor and the street “trialshot” is the aesthetic of the rich. I understand they are captured at different moments in the judicial process, but the qualities and circumstances of the Mugshot vs Trialshot make interesting comparison.

MUGSHOT: Regimented, Artificial light, Institutional, Accompanied by booking information, Less likely recipient of bail, Controlled & private space, Everyday clothes.

TRIALSHOT: Unrestricted, Natural light, Public, Accompanied by caption and news article, Certain recipient of bail, Public space, Selected wardrobe.

These comparisons go some length to describe the influence money and status can have in the legal process and how the procedures accommodate those with money and resources to work with/within the system vs. those who are simply subject to its machinations. Just to drive the point home, when charges were first brought against Milton in February 2008, the probation office recommended a 14 to 17 year sentence. An absolute disgrace. A mockery.

Screenshot of fate. The rise and fall of individuals.

Screenshot of fate. The rise and fall of individuals.

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