American Pictures - reviews

Humanity and Society, August 10, 1986 

Journal of Association  
for Humanist Sociology 

Review of American Pictures: A Personal Journey  Through the American Underclass,
a slideshow  presentation by Jacob Holdt
Terry T. Haru 
St. Lawrence University 

This slideshow is guaranteed to assault the sensibilities of most Americans who view it. However aware they may be about poverty in the U.S., few will be prepared to see the level of squalor, fear, and violence that Holdt's pictures reveal as an everyday reality for a sizable minority of Americans. 

For the most part, these oppressed (yes, Holdt says oppressed, not just wretchedly poor) Americans are black, 'poor white trash', migrant workers, Hispanics, Native Americans, prostitutes, and homosexuals. Holdt captured some of the most intimate images of their lives, images that even the best of American photojournalists seldom, if ever, get a glimpse of. The frequency and extent to which Holdt, a young Dane, could gain entry among these people is nothing short of remarkable. 

It all started in 1971 when Holdt began a five year vagabond journey across every state in the continental U.S. During this time he travelled (mostly by hitch-hiking) nearly 114,000 miles and he stayed in 434 homes, usually those of the underclass. His two major resources for survival were the generosity of many of the people he met on his journey and his blood, which he frequently sold to earn money. 

Interestingly enough, Holdt was also able, on a fair number of occasions, to get invited into the homes of some of the wealthiest, most famous, and most powerful people in America. His pictures of these people and their surroundings are interspersed throughout the slideshow to provide the audience with a stark contrast between the extremes of oppression and privilege which Holdt says are inextricably intertwined. 
Holdt's presentation is divided into two parts. Part one focuses on rural poverty in the South. Part two deals with the ghetto poverty of the North. 

Part one begins with slavery. The presentation opens with slides of drawings depicting slaves being brought to America. Haunting music with accompanying lyrics send us, the audience, back to the time of travesty and pain for the human cargo that had been torn from their home and pent, packed like animals, to toil and die in a strange land far away. We then see pictures of the field hands with whom Holdt stayed. These were field hands who worked the cotton and tomato fields of Florida, the tobacco fields of North Carolina, and the sugar cane fields of Louisiana. Holdt saw that the migrant camps that housed these workers offered conditions of life long thought to have disappeared. Isolated; not uncommonly supervised by armed guards; living in shacks often in worse shape than those used by slaves over a hundred years ago; never making enough to survive beyond bare subsistence; and perpetually in debt to their employers; these workers found themselves in a master-slave relationship of debt peonage. 

While rural blacks who did not live in migrant camps are not as bad off, the conditions of their life are nonetheless characterized by a brutalizing poverty. They too, says Holdt, also stand in a master- slave relationship to the whites who dominate the socio-economic spheres of life. Holdt tells us that while the physical chains of slavery may have been removed a long time ago, the psychological and emotional chains remain, and are continually kept on by the de facto subjugation of blacks by the southern white community.  

The southern brand of racism that keeps blacks in this master- lave relationship is based on hatred and paternalistic love. The hatred emanates from the "poor white trash". In the past the slave overseers and slave catchers came from this stratum of southern society. And because their lives were also poor and because they too were held in contempt by more prosperous whites, these "poor white trash" took out their frustrations, hostilities and insecurities on the blacks they oversaw. Though the roles of slave overseer and slave catcher no longer exist, the "poor white trash", in their effort to maintain some semblance of power and self-respect, stubbornly cling to a de facto policing role that makes them directly responsible for the physical oppression of blacks. 

The paternalistic brand of racism is displayed by well-off southerners, especially those from old plantation families. To them, blacks are dependent and wayward creatures in need of white assistance and guidance to help them through life. To the well-off southerner, this responsibility is seen as a kind of love, and is not infrequently directed toward volunteer work on behalf of blacks confronting one difficulty or another. While these whites are not responsible for the direct physical oppression of blacks, the power they wield nonetheless set the conditions for this oppression and, as in the past, they continue to be the primary beneficiaries of the fruits so generated. 

Part one also has a brief section on Holdt's harrowing experience at the Wounded Knee incident. Here he came to seriously question the role of violence to effect liberating change, a role he previously had romanticized. The violence and killing he witnessed led him to believe that while fighting back was necessary, the use of armed force would probably only result in the oppressed being in worse shape. Holdt also briefly discusses the plight of Hispanics migrant workers and how they, like the blacks and native Americans, also stand in a master-slave relationship to whites. 

Despite the reactionary sentiments of the southern conservative toward blacks, they nonetheless have some use for them. So, despite their oppression of blacks, blacks in the South are not as isolated from whites as they are in the North. Because blacks in the North are not as useful to whites, they have been abandoned in huge, crowed, and miserably oppressive living conditions that, in many ways, are even worse than those in the South. In part II of the slideshow, we see, close-up, the appalling dilapidated excuses for housing that ghetto dwellers must confront daily. We see the rat bites on children that are an everpresent danger; the street people living in the gutter; junkies shooting up in abandoned buildings where even the police are wary of entering; shootouts in progress; corpses that are the end result of anger and hate; and the faces of despair and loneliness. 

Holdt tells us that while the North is not characterized by the heritage of institutionalized racism that is peculiar to the South, it nonetheless harbors s racism far more dangerous -- the insidious and covert racism of the concerned liberal. When Holdt shows affluent liberals his slideshow they are quick to ask, "What can I do?" And certainly few can question the energy, time and money that many liberals invest to improve the problems of the ghetto. But, as Holdt points out, liberals view the problems of the ghetto as problems of the ghetto rather than of a society that produces ghettos. And while liberals may not view blacks as inherently inferior as southern conservatives do, they nonetheless view them as inferior, albeit it is conceived of as a functional inferiority produced by the lingering vestiges of an unjust past.   

Operating from this framework liberals typically propose solutions to finance, or as Holdt says, to throw money at, programs designed to allow ghetto residents to better adjust to their surroundings, and perhaps even improve some of the physical features of their environment. In the meantime, liberals continue to live a lifestyle made possible by a system that produces the ghetto and never see the connection. They continue to support policies which allow them to satisfy their need to administer a paternalistic caring for those less advantaged and less equal than themselves, and in the process feel that a measure of progress and justice is taking place. Thus liberals simply cloud the systemic oppression of blacks with the fantasy of a non-racist progressive political persuasion which Holdt says is more dangerous to blacks than the conservatism of southerners. Holdt observed that blacks often prefer the latter because what they say and do is at least straightforward and consistent, which is easier to confront and deal with than the more hypocritical approach of the liberals. 

Although Holdt says that the North is somewhat more just toward minority groups and the poor than in the South, a master-slave relationship nonetheless exists. It exists not only between paternalistic minded bureaucrats and the disadvantaged whom they administer, but also between the police and the residents of the occupied ghetto, between the slumlords and their tenants, between macho, though powerless males and their women, between pimps and their prostitutes, and between heterosexuals and gays. Holdt's pictures provide the audience with remarkably intimate images of the conditions in which some of these oppressed people live. 

As indicated earlier, Holdt believes that the oppression of so many Americans and the privileges of so few are inextricably intertwined. They are intertwined because the American system is based on the right to exploit others for profit. And because the system is also racist, a disproportionate number of those exploited will come from minority groups. We learn, for example, that many of the slave camps in which minority migrant workers are exploited are owned by such prestigious and well-known corporations as Minute Maid, Coca-Cola, and Gulf and Western. Slum lords are allowed to get away with the grossest of housing violations. violations which not only allow them to maximize their return on investment, but which is also a major cause of ghetto conditions in the first place. The American economy has long been acknowledged as structurally unable to absorb all potential workers -- hence, unemployment is built in. And in a racist society, minority group members will be the ones who will bear the brunt being expendable. Holdt clearly views this system in zero-sum terms. Because it is predicated upon exploiting others for profit, one can only win if others lose. 

But it is not only the privileged who engage in exploitation and oppression. So do their victims. Holdt hardly romanticizes personal qualities of the oppressed. Through his pictures and his narrative we see that they can all too often be petty, suspicious, hateful (not only toward others but also toward themselves), callous, vicious, and murderous. Holdt says, however, that we should not interpret these traits to mean that these are bad or inferior people. Neither should we interpret the greedy, racist, insensitive and, yes, even murderous traits of the privileged (as they are, after all, responsible for the living and working conditions of others that kill and maim) as an indication that they are evil. Rather, these are classes o e who are simply acting, thinking, and feeling in ways consistent with trying to survive or being successful in a particular kind of system, one which distorts and mangles so much of what is otherwise truly warm and good in people. 

In fact, as Holdt generously acknowledges throughout his slideshow, were it not for a fair measure of warmth and goodness among these people, he would not have been able to sustain his journey for as long as he did, nor gain the kind of access to their lives that allowed them to share with him some of their most intimate moments, thoughts and feelings. But, as Holdt carefully points out, this positive side of people revealed itself in spite of, rather than because of, the way the system works. If the system operated more humanely, this side of people would become the usual way of responding to one another. Holdt was fortunate to see and benefit from it so often because as a vagabond and a foreigner he was not an integral part of the system. Thus, if Americans as a whole are to benefit from this repressed side of their humanity, the system itself must be changed. 

Unfortunately, Holdt is not optimistic about such change. This is so for two reasons. First, Americans are in the habit of pointing to isolated instances of individuals who have risen from "rags to riches" as proof that an entire class of people can do the same. This indicates, Holdt says, an incredible blindness to the structural obstacles that need to be acknowledged before systemic change can take place. Second, the American system is closed. By this Holdt means that systemic change cannot be brought about from within because those who have the power to do so, i.e. privileged whites, are so positioned within the system that they are conditioned by its normal operation to be against and to work against such change. As a result, systemic change can only be brought about from outside the system; that is, from international forces that might force an internal realignment of the nation's wealth and resources. 

In the meantime, the only realistic avenue for change would be to create a welfare state (similar to what they have in many northern European countries) within the parameters of the existing system. Holdt readily acknowledges this would not solve all of the problems he speaks of, but it would at least lessen the damage done to those who are worst off. He anticipates the often levelled criticism of a welfare state being too costly by noting that the costs of crime, poor health, wasted human resources, etc., are even more costly in the long run. Conservatives, he believes, might be willing to accept such an idea if it were packaged in terms of saving rather than costing money. 

In any event, Holdt argues that it is imperative that we create such an institution as soon as possible because, in his experience, the conditions he depicts in his pictures have become even worse since he took them. 
Holdt's presentation about the American underclass could easily be criticized as demonstrating a relatively superficial understanding of the structural dynamics of the class system in capitalist America. It would thus come as no surprise that the solutions he advocates, based as they are upon this understanding, appear rather naive. But I am not sure it would be fair to place too much emphasis on such criticism. 

Holdt indicates at the beginning of his slideshow that he is taking the audience through a personal journey, a vagabond's journey through the American underclass. His intent is to provide the audience with a visceral glimpse of what life is like for those worst off in this country. Moreover, he wants to provide the audience with some measure, however fleeting and small, of the kinds of feelings and thoughts that the people of the underclass have about their condition and about the country in which they live. In this respect I believe Holdt's slideshow succeeds quite well -- so well, in fact, that few people who view it will come away from it untouched. 

Not only will the audience come away from the slideshow untouched, but, however weak his understanding of the dynamics of the American class structure, Holdt does clearly make the point that the private troubles of the underclass are directly linked to larger structures. In this sense there is a semblance of a sociological imagination, one which the audience cannot help but pick up. Given that Holdt's interest is not to provide an academic sociological analysis of the underclass, he is doing well to make the point as clearly as he does. 

To arrange a showing of Holdt's slideshow presentation, contact American Pictures Foundation, P.O. Box 2123, New York, NY 10009. The cost is $800.00. Holdt also has a book by the same title (1985: American Pictures Foundation) which is the basis for the slideshow. Most of the proceeds from both to the American Pictures Foundation, a non-profit organization, whose purpose is to educate people here and abroad about the problems of the underclass and to sponsor projects, both here and in Africa, designed to alleviate some of the problems they face. 

(Note: the critisism here helped improve later versions of the show. In the latest from 1997 there is far more emphasis on racism than class. Jacob Holdt) 


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