'Not a single day has passed without American Pictures oppressing my outlook'   The Daily Illini, U of Illinois


The Show 
- from the handout used at the performance 

The educational value of a biased show 

This show deliberately portrays society from a one-sided worm's eye view, from the position of those worst off: a society is no better than it is for the least of its members! Since this view is contrary to the one most Americans have been brought up with - judging a society on the possibility for success - it tends to strike up enormous defense mechanisms. 

Church goers in South Carolina

Confronting our middle class biases 

These defenses (and the feelings they conjure) may especially become overwhelming for white Americans, who are often mastering the art of rationalizing poverty and racism to a state of perfection - and they might fight back. 

This is a healthy reaction since you are going through a form of oppression during the show, but don't let these defenses become stumbling blocks which might close you off from an invaluable and long-lasting experience. 

When black people try to express feelings about their oppression, they often make a statement such as "White society is solely responsible for the ghettos (period!)". 

What whites always do is to change that period to a comma followed by a "Yes, but" - rationalization: "Yes, but what about crime? What about people who don't want to work?" And so they immediately try to water down the angry statement of a hurt person. 

Beggar in Baltimore

The "show" is oppression, not entertainment! 

In American Pictures you will not be allowed to do that. You will go through an incessant and seemingly endless bombardment of statements of the type blacks have always tried to express to us, but your defenses will have not outlet. Thus you are being oppressed! 

This process combined with the length will create emotions in you not unlike the ones blacks have, working and living every day in white institutions. At the end of the show you will be presented with a chart listing those emotions. 

All of them are unconstructive in the short run. But experiencing how paralyzed and useless you feel after such a mini-form of reverse oppression can make it easier for you to understand why it is so difficult to succeed for those whom we are confining through our racism to such emotions from earliest childhood. 

And vice versa: you may even feel how such emotions can lead to seemingly irrational and self-defeating behavior and thus better be able to understand those aspects of black (American) behavior which constantly fuels our racism. 

Understanding how we are all victims in such a reciprocal system and how it is threatening many of the best values in our society could in the long run lead to some kind of action, which is not based on guilt, but genuine solidarity and self-interest. 

Pool player in San Francisco

Shortcomings for a black audience 

For blacks the show is not automatically constructive either. To demonstrate how devastating racism is, it concentrates on that segment of the population most visibly defeated by it. 

Many blacks are effectively trying to put a shield around themselves to avoid being infected by that racism, and the show will therefore create a lot of pain, which at times might be overwhelming, just as it can lead to counter-productive feelings of victimization. 

But for many blacks the show has been a positive experience in terms of better understanding the impact of internalized racism and various forms of self-denial. 

Shortcomings for a European audience 

For Europeans from more homogeneous societies the show is perhaps the most problematic, since the seeming distance to the problems easily leads to a patronizing attitude rather than genuine solidarity - a form of racism American blacks are very sensitive to. 

Some might even react with primitive feelings of self-righteousness and national chauvinism - and thus disclose that they are totally out of touch with the much more inexcusable forms of racism (that is to say: with non-historical roots) we experience in Europe. 

Young love in Philadelphia

Cultural biases 

American Pictures reflects in its cultural views my Danish background and thinking, some of which may seem provocative in other societies. The most obvious stumbling block for British and American spectators seem to be the nude and sex photos, which in Anglo-American culture often are interpreted as "dirty," "sexist" or in the context of this show even "racist." 

But remember that I come from a society where our inner city parks and family beaches are packed with nudes and where the tendency on TV is to censure out violence, but not nude and sex scenes which actually might be just as healthy and natural as censuring it the other way around. 

I don't think I should censure these more Danish views out of the show in America since the very value of it is that it is an outsiders views. And in a society where black beauty is held in such low esteem these scenes might serve an important purpose. 

Poor whites in Mississippi

Comparing with welfare states 

In our search for solutions to racism and poverty I propose that we separate the two in our discussion and limit it to what can be done within the framework of capitalism. I am myself shaped in my views by the European concept of the welfare state and introduce that as a possible solution to institutionalized poverty and insecurity (Note: not racism!) 

I am aware, however, that most Americans have very little knowledge about it or wrongly associate it with "hand outs from above," "destroying people's incentive" or "just another ineffective Great Society a la the 60's." But my question is: can a society afford NOT to have a welfare state with equal opportunities for everyone? 

Anyway, I hope the show - in spite of its shortcomings - will bring us all together in a creative debate about the problems. 

Jacob Holdt 


Other pages under "The Show" menu:
Colleges shown in  
Excepts from the show   
Handout to students before show
Follow-up workshop to the show   
Recommendation of workshop   
Workshop by my assistant Tony Harris   
Ideal for freshman orientation   
Income of American Pictures     
Total travel of Jacob Holdt in US = 1 million miles




This page in Danish

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