Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures.

A burning cross is just one of many searing images in Jacob Holdt's American Pictures.

A burning cross is just one of many searing images in Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures.

Headlines about the brutal economy are plastered everywhere these days.

From outrage at multiple bailout recipient AIG’s initial decision to award executive bonuses to the monthly accounting of job losses to advice about how to weather the storm, the issue is dominating news coverage and public conversation.

Many people have commented how this recession differs from others both in its severity and in its impact on middle class Americans.  Whereas previous downturns had primarily affected people at the bottom of the economic ladder, this shakeout has had much broader consequences for people of all classes.

In the early 1970s, Jacob Holdt, a young Dane with long, flowing brown hair and a braided beard, came to the United States.

During the next five years he hitchhiked across the United States.  Living as a self-described vagabond, he stayed wherever he could and sold his blood plasma to take pictures to record his journey.

In all, he spent $40, or $8 per year.

American Pictures, a searing , stimulating and somewhat flawed look at the United States in the mid-70s, is the result.

American Pictures is a complement to the hours long multi-media show Holdt has presented thousands of times on American campuses.  The project combines Holdt’s pictures, music from Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin and Holly Near, among others, and his words.

Holdt’s essential contention is that, more than a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, America is still a master-slave society, with whites retaining their dominant role and black people still being confined to sub-human conditions.

The images have tremendous power.

Holdt shows the simultaneous suffering of black people and simultaneous enormous wealth of many whites – wealth that in many cases comes as a direct result of black people’s labor.

He shows wrenching pictures of black people picking cotton, of runny-nosed children, of junkies shooting up to dull their pain, and of families living in utterly ramshackle homes.

His interview subjects include a former slave, people who are so poor they literally must eat dirt, southern white racists and, for just a minute, Julie Nixon, daughter of President Richard Nixon.

The book’s text is a combination of letter excerpts that accompany the images and essays that advance Holdt’s thesis.

He repeatedly has strong words for white liberals who espouse different values than their conservative or more overtly racist counterparts, but who benefit from the system and do nothing substantial to change it.

Despite all the oppression endured by black people, Holdt also shows the resilience, love and tenderness that exist among and between many in the community.

He tries to maintain an openness toward wealthy people and does spend time with some of America’s most prominent families like the Kennedys and Rockefellers.

While the book and multi-media show are dominated by images of African-Americans, Holdt does have some material about the 1973 struggle by the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee, which he describes as a partial victory.

American Pictures has multiple strong points.

Like his countryman, Jacob Riis, whose work, How The Other Half Lives, brought to light the suffering experienced by many Americans in the late 19th century, Holdt has dedicated his life to witnessing, documenting and sharing with others the lives of American’s underclass.  His work is underpinned by a profoundly moral vision and, from his life in Denmark, an understanding that socially progressive policies are possible.

The power of his images is undeniable, particularly when seen in conjunction with the music and narration.  My brother Jon and I first saw American Pictures at Holdt’s home in Copenhagen in the summer of 1985, the night before I was returning to the United States from studying in Florence and traveling in Europe.

Flying into New York’s Kennedy Airport and seeing black sky caps wait on almost exclusively white passengers gave me an insight into a country in which I lived, but had not fully seen that way, before.

To his credit, Holdt has continued his work for Third World development and has taken the show to campuses across the United States.

He also questions his own actions and finds himself wanting.  Holdt recounts a failed marriage to a black American woman whom he actually struck during an argument, and often questions whether his art is simply another vehicle to exploit an already abused people.

Still, the work has several significant challenges.

To begin, black people are presented as an undifferentiated mass and almost exclusively as victims.  While there are scenes of connection and physical intimacy between African Americans – at times one wonders about Holdt’s specific purpose in including multiple pictures of naked black women – their number and emotional resonance are dwarfed by the unrelenting misery that he depicts.

This is all true, and there are many black people who are not part of the underclass that Holdt shows, yet a viewer would not know it from watching and listening to his powerful presentation.

Holdt also has an almost completely binary vision of American society.  While native peoples are mentioned in the section on Wounded Knee, the country’s millions of Latinos, who actually have outnumbered black people in America for several years, are nowhere to be seen.  This absence is striking because Holdt’s analysis is ultimately predicated on the omission of a major group within American society.

Holdt’s relationship to his subjects is another issue to consider.  He makes the argument in the book that his outsider status, vagabond philosophy and facial hair make him almost exempt from the racial structures of American society.

Having spent a year in South Africa in the mid-90s, I understand what Holdt means and give him full credit for going to the places he did and doing the work that he did.  I will also say that I concluded for myself, in retrospect, that my assumptions of immunity from South Africa’s racial dynamics because of my good intentions and willingness to go to places where many white South Africans did not venture seemed less sturdy than they did at the time.

To be fair, Holdt has extended the work and the images beyond the version of the book that I have.  His commitment to the underclass and to public conversation is highly laudable.  Even with its significant areas of omission and lack of distinction, American Pictures is a valuable contribution toward gain a fuller understanding of American society.


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