February 26, 1987,
Visions of American
By Peter Rex
"This is not a show about black people, it is a show about oppression. Nobody comes out nice in this show," said Jacob Holdt, creator of the program.
Holdt was a vagabond from Denmark who arrived in America with $40 in his pocket. He was held up at gunpoint within two days of arriving, but he eventually befriended the three robbers. He hitchhiked 118,000 miles, sold plasma for money, and took photographs of the people he met during his travels.
Holdt journeyed through the American underclass, a term he uses to describe the class whose members have little hope of working up to the status of the lower class. During his journey, Holdt watched accounts of the murder of his best friend on television. He was ambushed by the Ku Klux Klan, lived with three known murderers and got drunk with Jay Rockefeller.
But the story is not about Holdt, rather it is about racism and those who are worse off in our society. Holdt's frank, sober narration and never-ending slides offer an emotionally and intellectually compelling vision of America.
The first part of the show highlights the grim world of the south and its traditional patterns of oppression. Holdt gains historical insights from 134-year-old Charles Smith, a former slave who was brought to America from Africa over 100 years ago. The show intersperses segments of current slavery practices on sugar and cotton plantations with the historical references to the antebellum days.
On Florida sugar plantations, about 100 workers are housed in the same room. Holdt is taken in by a kindly woman who lets him sleep in palm leaf huts in Florida.
But the photographs rarely capture the full dimensions of the poverty. The gloomy prospects of a permanent existence in the shadow of a white society are impossible to capture on film.
Holdt shows pictures of the wealthy and the extreme poor side by side on the screen to indicate that the psychic leap between the two classes is nearly as short as the distance between the two photographs on the screen. For Holdt, the South conveys a sense of hopelessness and failure, but also a certain warmth.
In the second part of the program, the audience is led through the more segregated oppression of the North. Holdt journeys into the ghettos of Harlem and Detroit where heroin addicts search unsuccessfully for a usable vein. The inhabitants of such places have no escape; they can threaten no one but themselves.
Once again, symbols of affluence -- Paul Getty's mansion, and pictures of diamonds -- are juxtaposed with photos of crippled veterans and undernourished children. The effect is to create in ghastly caricature the master-slave relationship which Holdt seeks to expose.
Occasionally, the pictures seem rather exploitive as the people become subjects in a grand sociological observation rather than people in despair, and Holdt admits to having feelings of exploitation towards the end of his journey.
Finally, Holdt witnesses the accounts of his friend's murder, spliced between dog food and chicken commercials. The grim interplay of commercials and news serves to heighten Holdt's sense of black oppression in a white society.
As the show concludes, the viewer has undergone oppression, the oppression of being defenseless to utter rationalizations like "What about people who don't want to work," and defenseless to display other forms of expression. The bombardment of pictures and length of the show do not allow any such defenses. The result is that the show creates emotions not dissimilar to those of the members of the underclass -- frustration and worthlessness.
"This show will make you depressed," Holdt says, "but it is a depression that is necessary to show the deepness of the problem."
Holdt now spends three months in spring and fall taking the show to campuses across the country. Some schools are showing it for freshman orientation. He hopes displaying the miniform of reverse oppression will help people understand racism better.
Holdt has also published a book about his experiences. According to
a recent issue of Village Voice, the U.S. State Department worried about
the impact of the book and hired photographers to present "the other side"