Camera documents faces of racism
"When southern whites react positively to my pictures, I think it's because they are in reality unhappy with seeing with their 'master eyes.' They want to be humane, and as soon as I can 'prove' to them that blacks are people and not slaves or subhuman, it makes they themselves human and not any longer master or superhuman or whatever."
Jacob Holdt's narration in "American Pictures"
By MARK R. DAY
When a 24-year-old Dane named Jacob Holdt began hitchhiking throughout the United States in 1971, he never dreamed of becoming a social critic or a documentary photographer. In fact, 11 years later, he still considers himself simply a vagabond.
Meanwhile, though, he produced a spellbinding multimedia presentation on rural and urban black poverty called "American Pictures" that has packed theaters, union halls and schools and drawn critical acclaim in Europe and the U.S.
The show consists of more than 3,000 color slides, accompanied by poetry, songs, personal interviews and Holdt's own tape-recorded narration. Critics have correctly lauded the exhibit. It is, indeed, "utterly stunning," "haunting" and "awe-inspiring."
As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, Holdt's analysis of the structures of racism in America is so powerful as to "strain credibility," but his photographs validate his words, "sweeping us up in the process."
The young high school dropout's first reports consisted of letters home to his parents. They found his reports hard to believe, but sent him a cheap, 35mm camera to record his adventures.
Like the poor black sharecroppers and slum dwellers with whom he lived, Holdt was always broke, so he sold his blood and begged a few dollars here and there from more affluent whites to purchase color film. In the process he developed a rapport and affection for southern white aristocrats who considered his interest in blacks strange, but liked him and shared their family histories with him.
In one sequence, an elderly white woman showed Holdt letters from her granddaddy which dealt with buying and selling slaves. Holdt narrated that the woman laughed with delight when told that people back in Denmark were shocked to hear she would like to see the institution of slavery revived.
Winos, pimps, junkies, prostitutes and sharecroppers with malnourished children also opened up to Holdt. Poor whites and embittered Ku Klux Klansmen poured out their frustrations to him as well. Holdt, the participant-observer, listened sympathetically, clicked away with his camera and tape-recorded their observations.
He offers not a simplistic, good-guy-vs-bad-guy analysis of racism, but sees it as a multilayered phenomenon, as complex as U.S. society itself. For him, poor whites, poor blacks, middle-class and wealthy whites exist in separate spheres, tragically cut off from one another, seldom communicating.
Yet, as he draws back to give an empirical critique of racism in sociological terms, there is a vividness, a compassion and caring for the individual rarely found among social scientists and journalists.
In a telephone interview from San Francisco where he lives with other activists, Holdt said his family background undoubtedly had much to do with his vision of society and the downtrodden. For seven generations there have been Lutheran ministers in his family, four of them, including, his father, bearing the name Jacob Holdt.
"There's much influence from my father there's no doubt about it," the
young documentarian said. "The theme of love and family has always been
one of his strong points as it is with most ministers. But he had also
done work with a leper clinic in India There was a lot of discussion about
that in my house from my childhood, and it gave me a Third World perspective."
Holdt, however, shuns classifications and labels. Asked if he considered himself a Marxist, a Christian leftist, an agnostic or an atheist, he responded: "I would say I'm confused. To classify oneself so firmly is to shut oneself off from the rest of the world. I could never say I'm an atheist, because I've seen how strong people believe. I've prayed with people on all kinds of street corners in America.
"When you believe in man, you have to believe in God, too.... I saw him alive in those people. How could I reject him? On the other hand, though, the church in America really turned me off -- the institutional church, that is."
Holdt, who was kicked out of the Danish army for "refusing to shoot," often flirted with violence during his U.S. travels. On one occasion he was chased out of a southern town by a crowd of young blacks wielding guns and knives. Later, he narrowly escaped from a bar where two "superflies" intended to carve him up like a Thanksgiving turkey. He talked his way out of a mugging from two heroin junkies in a slum area of Washington, D.C. ("you could see the capitol dome outside their window"), and he dodged bullets at Wounded Knee while helping Indians smuggle guns past FBI roadblocks.
He was also accused of precipitating the firebombing of a rural shack of a young black woman named Mary with whom he lived. The attack resulted in the death of her young son. Holdt said, in the NCR interview, "In America they tend to blame me. 'I should have known better,' they say. If I had known better, I couldn't have done my journey.
"Both Mary and I felt there are strong taboos in society, and the only
way you can break them down is on a personal level. When you do that, you
risk your own life and the lives of others. The other question was, should
the civil rights workers have gone to the South in the 1960s? As a result
of their work, whites firehombed black children in churches. It's so easy
to blame anyone who stirs up trouble, you know, but it's the only way to
Holdt has formed a nonprofit corporation called "American Pictures,"
the proceeds from the shows and book sales going to humanitarian efforts
in Africa, including the construction of schoolhouses in Zimbabwe.
He could be wrong about that. There are several ways in which the show could gain momentum. An independent producer could give it the distribution and publicity it deserves. A Hollywood producer could popularize Holdt's story, and, with a big-name star, make it into an instant "schlock-buster." Heaven forbid.
Or the churches could adapt the show to their religious education needs. Given Holdt's background, Lutherans might take a good look at it and share it with their congregations. Perhaps it could be taken on as an ecumenical project. After all, racism, like unemployment and disarmament, is an ecumenical concern.
Holdt, along with a few friends and his broken-down car, can be found at: American Pictures, 3349 20th St., San Francisco. CA 94110, (415) 550-0122.
Copyright © 1997 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.