A review in Aperture
Jacob Holdt's American Pictures is a life's work manifested as a 33mm film, a five-hour slide-tape show, and a book (several editions, many languages). The film and slide-tape versions are overwhelming; the book does not wash over one in a single sitting, but it is powerful. Its 800 photographs and 100,000 words span fifteen years of documentary vagabonding, independent social work, and guerilla philanthropy. Like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, it immerses us in the lives of poor people. Holdt's story of racism and poverty is epic, Agee's is lyric. Since Holdt's is the journey of a European male through the New World, one is tempted to allude to Tocqueville, but Homer and Dante are more appropriate -- Homer because of the epic time-frame of the journey, Dante because of the soul-stunning extremes of heaven and hell, and both Homer and Dante because of the brutality of description.
Holdt's writing, like Agee's, is self-conscious and confessional; his photographs, unlike Evans's, assume intimacy. Unlike Agee or Evans, Holdt's writing and photographic talents are merely adequate to his commitment, they never transcend it. However, his commitment is virtually total, and that is what makes this a great work of social documentary and a contribution to the Agee impulse. Holdt spent ten years immersed in his subject, created an epic, and, deciding he had gotten it basically right, set about to devote his life to its findings. The book was a best seller in Europe. He could have made a fortune on it, but instead he hired lawyers to break contracts and pull it out of circulation because of its success. He established a philanthropic foundation to publish and distribute it, using the profits for aid to Africa. There is no doubt it has sold hundreds of thousands fewer copies in the United States than it would have sold with a major publisher, but to Holdt it was more important that the production and distribution be managed by the underclass that the book was intended to help. He has made propagation a priority over propaganda. Holdt's answer to the moral contradiction, "poverty sells," is "then let the poor sell it, at least."
Amateurs have control of the whole American Pictures project, beginning with Holdt himself. That amateurism is a great strength. One of the strains of the Agee impulse that offers some promise for social documentary is artistic enfranchisement. Every project that succeeds outside the current system of gatekeeping offers the possibility of mutation, since an uncontrolled voice will be heard by an uncontrolled audience. Holdt says "I have now made so many safe-guards around this book to avoid exploitation, that I have finally come to believe in it as a meaningful tool for change." Agee had little expectation that his hook would effect social change, and he thought it ought to be released on newsprint so it would disintegrate. Compared to Agee Holdt is naive, but less cynical.
Holdt's work is deeply and permanently affecting. He has been invited to return repeatedly to American colleges, especially in the Ivy League, apparently reaching successful liberals as social documentary has rarely done. I hope Holdt's project succeeds because there is so much suppressed American reality in it. But it also has its problems. The vagabonding and "yes" philosophy (Holdt made it a policy to say "yes" to whomever he was with -- sex partners, criminals, the Indians at Wounded Knee, white supremacists -- in order to "understand their points of view") that are at the center of his social documentary method cannot be replicated by non-white, non-males. A woman or a man of color could not do what Holdt did without turning into a victim. For Holdt vagabonding was risky, for a woman or a black man it could he suicide. Its well-intentioned method would seem to be -- when applied in America -- structurally paternalistic; for social documentary, that is certainly a limitation. Holdt's project would not be ill served by a sense of irony; some of his current detractors might become allies.
Social documentary artists sometimes try to counter the effects of ohjectification
of human subjects by adopting strategies of identifying with them, thereby
more directly experiencing their subjects' lives. It is a way of attaining
(or pretending to) the knowledge of another. Both Goldberg and Holdt adapt
to their subjects' environments. Goldberg includes two pictures of himself,
one, where he looks poor, to introduce the poor-people's section; and the
other, where he looks rich, to introduce the rich (he explains this in
his closing essay). Holdt lends his consciousness almost entirely to whomever
he is with, in order to gain access to her/his self-knowledge. By these
strategies they both give their readers a way to know their subjects (I
am not going to discuss the ethics of these methods, which are baroque).