American Pictures - reviews

Book reviews from anthropology class in Washington University, St. Louis  

Students were asked to write a one page critique of the book. 
"As I read American Pictures I was completely overwhelmed with guilt. I felt that I was responsible for so much of the suffering illustrated in the book simply because I am white and middle to upper class. As I thought about it further, however, I realized that I could not change anything. It wasn't my fault that these horrors exist, but society's as a whole. I do agree that for every million dollars spent on defense in this country, so many indigent people could benefit, instead from the money allocated to defense. I can only hope that eventually a new generation will earnestly try to change life for the poor in the United States. 
Secondly, after reading American Pictures, I felt rather naive. I hadn't realized that these "slave-farms" still existed. Obviously, I have a great deal to learn. 
My objection to the book is Holdt's manipulation of emotion. Many times I was moved to tears, but I felt it was Holdt's intention to make us feel guilty. He did a wonderful job." 

Paper written by Lynn 


"American Pictures, without a doubt, has made one of the greatest impressions on me a book is possible of making. I found myself reading it excruciatingly slowly and intensely, which I haven't done with any book for a very long time. I find it rather absurd to be asked to write one page on such a powerful book. But since I must be brief, I would like to mention the general points that impressed me the most. Though the pictures and stories fascinated and moved me, and exposed me to a side of America I have never experienced or bothered to notice before, it was the provoking nature of Holdt's writing that affected me tremendously. They made me really think -- instead of overwhelming me to the point of paralysis. His accusations of the white middle-class liberals as well as the rich really stung. He criticized Kennedy and teachers, and compared our system to apartheid in South Africa. Whether his accusations are deserved or extreme is irrelevant. The least they do is provoke the reader and bring the discussion of such extremely touchy subjects to the forefront. As a foreigner, Holdt teaches Americans to look around them and really take notice of the things they have always taken for granted or simply grown up with. He confirms our nagging feelings that something is very wrong in our country, and tells us there is no excuse for it. 
One main argument I often hear in regard to Holdt's book and have had to think about much myself, is his comparisons of the U.S. with welfare states such as Denmark. Having lived in Holland and Germany, I understand the naive reaction of amazement of Europeans when they hear that Americans are not all insured or do not get a paid sick-leave from work. But is it fair to compare the U.S. with these homogeneous, small, capitalist nations? While I believe this system is very cruel, wrong, and needs to be changed, I also see the complexities involved in changing a country known as "the melting pot" and not having the traditional history of other welfare states. I haven't answered this question yet in my own mind, but this is just one of the many issues this book made me wonder about. The most important aspect of the book for me was the way Holdt shoved the "humanness" of people and that he could criticize without hating; he could love the millionaires and Southern racists just as well as the criminals and poor, for behind the status and appearance is always a human being." 

Paper written by Gita 


"The book American Pictures by Jacob Holdt made me first and foremost very angry -- which I assume was its chief intended purpose. The mental and photographic insights into lower class America made me angry at the society which (according to Holdt) had created them and their suffering. 
I disagreed with a good deal of the approaches Holdt used (e.g. sleeping with anyone on the trip who asked him, whether male or female, because he felt this was an important method of sharing love) and with many of the conclusions which he drew (e.g. that the solutions to the problems are to be found in the socialism of a cradle-to-grave welfare society), but the differences are part of what made the book most interesting. I found myself looking at the same images and the same statistics and trying to sort out what I agreed with and, when I disagreed, what I felt should be done instead or what I believed the real causes of the problems were.  What I cannot disagree with are the images. They are a graphic portrayal of something most Americans would like to avoid thinking about, and it is good not to be able to escape so easily. Whether or not it is good to be exposed to reality through guilt production like a great deal of the book seemed to be, I am not sure." 

Paper written by Dana 


"American Pictures leaves me numb, but not numb enough. It took me days to read, because I can not look at more than a few pages before I have to look away again. I hate this book, yet I can not stop reading it. I push it away and try to avoid it, only to pick it up again, read a few pages, and shove it away in disgust. After reading about a hundred pages, I could have skimmed the rest, or stopped reading altogether and written this paper. Probably no one would have been any the wiser--except me. I had to read every word. I did not want to, but I could not resist. 
I do not know how to react. I think I should want to help, but I'm not willing to give up my comfortable life to do so. Honestly, the thought of having so little is terribly frightening The realization of this in myself horrifies me. How selfish and unfeeling! But then I think, what gives Jacob Holdt the right to make me feel guilty? It is not my fault that I am lucky and others are not. There is nothing one person can do anyway. The book makes me angry. I'm angry at the people in the pictures, at Jacob Holdt, at people who read the book, and at others who do not, but I can not say exactly why I'm angry at them. I am torn between thinking Holdt is a propagandist and a liar and crying over the plight of these people. I want to rush out and play the part of Robin Hood, but in a way I would rather hide in my middle class surroundings and pretend I do not know that poverty exists. 
I am really not sure what purpose this book serves. It is so powerful that it leaves me feeling powerless. The most upsetting part for me is that Holdt knew his book would produce pre- (rest of paper was missing)" 

Paper written by Karen 


"After reading the first part of Jacob Holdt's, American Pictures, I like his philosophy. On page 51, he says,"To be a vagabond is just an attempt to give oneself fully to the individual person". It seems like Holdt sincerely tried to live a lot of himself to the people he met out of a genuine love for humanity. Because he looked at each person he met as just a person, he was able to get himself out of a difficult situations, like being chased by a police guard. By confronting the policeman, and talking to him, rather than frantically running away, Holdt was able to reason with the guard and even befriend him. 
The degree to which ethnic and class distinctions in this country are internalized is scary. People in upper  middle class homes are taught that poor people are poor because they are lazy or that they are happy living in shacks. Although Holdt did not grow up in such an environment which taught him racism, just being exposed to that attitude for a short time made him start to internalize it. He explained how he stayed in the White House for a short time while in the capital city. After talking to the Republicans and putting himself into their mode of thinking, he looked out the window of his room and saw the demonstrators outside as "dirty hippies and lazy bums" (p7). 
Holdt's book provides the reader with a new perspective on poverty. He deals with real people and real issues on a genuinely personal level." 

Paper written by Marcia 

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