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Some Suggestions  
For Organizers

 by Jacob Holdt 

(Please read this carefully before you plan
the event!!! Or down-load and print out technical parts for AV- or tech. people)

Dear Organizer 
First, we would like to thank you for your willingness to arrange the showing of American Pictures. American Pictures is beyond doubt the most successful campus event of the 80's and 90's - one of the very few that always draws packed audiences. 

At times, however, schools who organize it for the first time fail to realize its potential and do not publicize it well enough. The result is that the few students who show up try to organize a second showing. This is fine, but American Pictures is now in such demand that it is sometimes hard to find a new date. Besides, any speaker who stands in front of hundreds of people night after night, can't help but feel terribly let down after traveling, let's say, all night in a car or plane only to arrive at a place where he feels the organizers simply didn't do their job well enough. 

Let me, therefore, from my hard-won experience of showing it in more than 300 colleges, come with a few important suggestions and requirements: 


The room: 
First of all, make sure that you are technically able to present American Pictures. Can you get a room or lecture hall on the given date? Next make sure that it can be made absolutely dark at the time where the show starts. I must emphasize this point. Even the smartest Ivy League organizers have at times come up with old-style courtrooms with 20 large Gothic windows which couldn't be darkened! We had to wait for hours for the sun to go down. 

Or the opposite: In some of the modern push-button schools they have come up with rooms where it was impossible to turn out the lights. When I say darken, I mean so dark that you can't see each others heads in the room. Remember, I show a lot of photos of dark people where it is impossible to see facial features - unless the room is nearly pitch black. If EXIT signs are placed close to the screen, try to cover the side which sends a glare onto the screen in such a way that the sign can still be seen by the audience. 

The set-up: 

For drive-in shows: 
Not much is needed since I bring all the equipment myself. But where I show it for more than 800 people or in large rooms I often hook up to the internal sound system. Have 3 of the regular 7-9 foot long tables with fold out legs available (sturdy). In most places I set up the 4 projector-show on two tables, one on top of the other. The other one is for books and posters. 

In theaters with fixed seats I often have to set up in the middle of a row to get the right distance to the screen. So make sure the tables can fit in between two rows or have boards and blocks ready so the tables can sit on top of the chairs. Have a microphone up front for my introduction and the discussion in the intermission. One or two people for load-in and load-out are appreciated. Since I carry these heavy boxes day after day, year after year, I know I physically will not last too long if I have to do it all myself. 
It is a good idea to have someone stay on the phone number you give my agent during the last hours before my arrival. If my car breaks down I might be close enough for you to be able to pick me up in time for the show. Rescheduling a canceled show can be a costly and lengthy affair. 

For fly-in shows: 
Here I can't bring all the equipment so you must provide a sound system which can be hooked up to my little Sony Dat recorder. 

You have two possibilities: 
One is to have a line long enough running from my place of installation, up to your internal sound system. If you have no treble/base control here the internal sound system can give problems at times. The best is if you have an equalizer set up on my table before it runs into the lines to the house system. 

The other possibility is to have two good-sized high-fidelity loudspeakers on stage and a good amplifier on my installation table towards the back of the room. The AV-department usually has a good system. Try to play a cassette tape on it beforehand in the auditorium to check if it is loud enough without too much base or distortion. Both for drive-in and fly-in shows it is not a bad idea to have extra cassette tape deck and amplifier available since my equipment can break down. (With shows every day for months I then have no time for repairs). Since I bring 4 to 5 large boxes, each weighing 70 pounds, it is best to pick me up at the airport in a van or station-wagon. 

The screen: 
Sound problems usually sort themselves out, but without a decent screen the show is doomed to failure. It must be very wide and very reflective. Two large pictures are presented next to each other all the time. To check if it is large enough, divide it in two with a line through the middle, sit in the back rows and imagine if you could read 12 lines of typewritten text on a slide presented on the left side of this line. 

If no people are sitting further back than 20 yards and I set my projectors up at that distance, the screen should be at least 5 yards wide (in an auditorium with 200 seats). For larger audiences it should be closer to 24 feet and even more for audiences of more than 1000 people. If nothing else is at hand, a narrow screen can usually be extended with white paper or other screens. Do this before I arrive as it usually takes longer than you think. It is a good idea to have rolls of white paper, tape (don't put clear tape on the reflective side of the screen) and a ladder available. Janitors and AV-people will often not give you much help, so organize some students. 

If the screen width is all right, you can, before my arrival, set up two tables for projection in the right place (which is helpful in case I am late). The relationship between screen width (X) and distance (Y) back to my projectors is: X to Y as 1 to 4. 
Since I now use zoom-lenses it may vary a bit. If there is only one possible place I can shoot from, such as a projection booth or a balcony, please make sure that the screen is large enough for that projection distance. 

The screen must be at least one half as high as it is wide. Beware of rooms with low ceilings. To get a decent size image in a room with less than 4 yards to the ceiling, either the audience must sit on the floor or not be larger than 100 people. If you use roll-up screens from the AV-department, order 2 of the largest ones ahead of time. However, they are generally useless for more than a couple of hundred viewers. 

Estimating size of audience: 

It is nicer to have a packed room than a large, half-empty auditorium. It is a difficult show to sit through, and more people are likely to stay if a feeling of importance, coziness and "we're all in this boat together" is created. To find the right sized auditorium for your school, it might be helpful to look at the list of other schools I've been to and compare with those similar to yours. Lesser competitive schools have a much smaller turnout than highly competitive schools. Conservative, urban, commuter, religious and state schools usually smaller than private, small town, liberal arts colleges, where half the student body often are present. The higher the SAT scores, the larger the turnout - and the more people will stay. While comparing with our list, bear in mind that lack of publicity, exams, other events etc. could have caused a small turn out in some schools. 


For the average college or university using American Pictures for the first time (or after a break of several years) it is important not to advertise this as a documentary about racism and poverty. The people who get most out of this show are the same people who do not want to hear about such issues to begin with. The very nature of racism makes those of us most affected by it, avoid confronting the issue, or anything else concerning blacks. 

Unfortunately, this is the case for the majority of the nation's college students at the present moment. (So racist are most campuses today, that if black students are organizing the show, I advise you to recruit co-sponsors and print their names in large type and the B.S.U.'s in smaller type!) If, on the contrary, you emphasize all the personal and more sensational aspects of the show: "A Dane's journey through the American underclass," "selling blood," "living with the Rockefeller's" and the like, with the weight on words like "America," "traveling" etc., people will turn out in great numbers -- and, what is more important, be happy and surprised that the show turned out to be far more meaningful than they expected....and that it had a "deeper message." 

Since you under-emphasize racism and blacks in the advertising it is wise to let word leak out to the black students, or use a different form of advertising in the Black Student Union. The show is directed towards a white audience, but it is helpful to have a good black turn out. But remember that American blacks have been deeply hurt by racism and will often be very suspicious of anything organized by whites. 

My agent will supply you with some large color posters. Students generally find them very attractive. As a result they are often stolen after a couple of hours. Therefore make sure to hang them up in well attended places such as where people eat. And rip a hole in the side, slash them or cross them with clear tape to avoid theft. They are very expensive, so we can only supply you with a few. Therefore you should not waste them on decorating your own student activities office, where only a few people come. 

Blacks generally like these posters, but in some areas of the country a few blacks might react to "the negative stereotyping" in the photos. We therefore advise that you put up some of these posters in places where mainly blacks congregate with a special cross sticker glued on with the words: "An amazing Journey through and behind Black stereotypes in the white mind." In addition you must print your own flyers. We will supply you with a copy of one which worked well in other schools, and where you can put your own location and dates. 

I would here like to advocate a special strategy first developed by Univ. of Michigan. Each time they used it, 1500 people turned up for the show: a couple of weeks before the event plaster the entire campus with the special flyer "What is American Pictures?" which we enclose in the package. Print it on a garish light green paper which stands out from all other posted flyers. The effect is that after a few clays everyone on campus walks around asking "What is American Pictures?" You can intensify this by printing, similar table tents for the lunch room and arm bands. 

A week later you saturate campus with a new flyer, same color, but now with the text: "American Pictures. The country you never knew," now with the location and time for the event. Perhaps also new arm bands with "Follow me to American Pictures." Now you can also put our large color posters up in a few strategic locations. On the actual day of the event you should put a large yellow cross sticker over those posters with the inscription: "Tonight. Don't miss it!" 

Such a well planned campaign has been successful everywhere, most especially in large universities with many competing events. A good example was conservative Northwestern University in Chicago, where the organizers only had expected 50 to show up, but an astonishing 750 came with the feeling that this was something too important to miss. 

It is also very important to get the university paper to do a story on American Pictures a couple of days ahead. Again, try to get them to write about the personal stories behind it and not use loaded words like racism. What apparently works best is when they write about the success of American Pictures on other campuses, how many times it has been shown in Harvard etc. Some papers have a policy of not writing about an event before it is over (which is of little help!). In that case you might get a trusted writer to tie it into a story about a recent racial, sexist, homophobic or anti-Semitic incident or the racial climate on campus. On our web-site we have included a lot of reviews from other campuses. Feel free to download them and use them in the story. You can also take out an add on the day of the event, in which you put some of the more sensational facts. 
Most used poster on hundreds of campuses
you can download here. It is made for Legal size paper with lots of white space below to write date and lecture hall on.


After all this, there is still a great deal of frustration next day among those students who missed the show when they hear about it from others. I have often seen them drive up to 870 miles to see it on other campuses. The best way to avoid this is to get the faculty to make it mandatory. Cornell, Holy Cross, Dartmouth and other elite schools have made it mandatory for its freshman students (each year). The Ethics department in U. of Mich. and the Anthropology department in Washington Univ. in St. Louis made both the book and the show a yearly mandatory event. 

Most often it is organized by sociology and philosophy departments. Many schools such as Yale Univ. use the book as a classroom textbook before they invite the show. Teachers in more apathetic schools usually give credits to students for attending. They hand out yellow cards at the beginning of the show and take them back at the end with the names on. A far better way of keeping students alert during the show is to have them write papers on it afterwards. This is recommended, since the show is very difficult, disturbing and even painful for most students. So under pressure of constant homework, some students are unable to see how it otherwise would benefit their immediate careers. 

Although the show has been used repeatedly in more than 300 colleges, it could still be so unknown elsewhere that you may find it hard to convince the faculty to use it. But it should not be hard to get sociology teachers to urge their classes to go. You may want to stress that this show is especially used in Ivy League Universities. Even at the 11th showing in Harvard there was a turnout of 700 students! 


Once the students turn out, it is important to make them feel comfortable during the long show. For most of them, it is an evening they "will never forget." Many schools, such as Tufts University, serve a light meal before the show, but more often coffee, sandwiches, vegetables and donuts are served in the intermission. The mixture of hunger scenes and guilt feelings seem to make people especially hungry during this show. 

At the beginning of the show I would like some students to hand out a written introduction www.american-pictures.com/english/show/handout.htm.
If you can afford in advance to make enough copies for all spectators of the 2 page introduction it would be helpful for me. With the great number of spectators I have every day, it is getting too costly for me to print and transport enough of them. 

It is advisable to let the show start as early as 6 or 6:30 pm so there is time for a long discussion in the intermission. But do not advertise how long the show is, as this tends to scare students away beforehand. Once they are there I will tell them -- and they will stay for the full 4 hours. Teachers always tell me that they have never before seen their students sit still for so long. The show is deliberately made very "oppressive" in order to recreate in the spectator some of the feelings blacks and other minorities experience. 

In recent years I have added a most important supplement to the show: an oppression or racism workshop the morning after. Since many students report sleepless nights after the show, I cannot over-emphasize the value of such a follow-up, where they can voice their concerns in a more relaxed setting. After the confusion and depression of the show I here try to give them hope and empowerment. 
Many students -- especially blacks - report that they get much more out of the workshop than the actual show. Here it all comes together for them. Here white students suddenly begin to see their own racism and understand how it adversely affects blacks, especially educationally. The outcome is often the founding of "Unlearning Racism" groups on campus. Usually 15-20% of the audience from the night before will participate in the workshop - even though they have to skip regular classes. 

So it is important to find a cozy, informal lounge or classroom in which the acoustics are so good that it is possible to hear a person speaking from any corner of the room. Make sure that it is not a room in which people walk through intermittently, Also, that there are no distracting air conditioners or blow systems. I also need a good sized blackboard (a mobile one is O.K.) or a wall on which I can draw on white paper. The sitting arrangement should be in a half circle around the blackboard. Serving coffee, juice and donuts is a good idea here in the morning. As the workshop often lasts from 1 to 3 hours it is necessary to contact my agent in order to find out my schedule for the next show. Generally 9 o'clock is used, but more will usually be able to attend during the lunch break if my schedule allows for this. In not-so competitive schools it is a good idea to have the workshop as part of a sociology class. Teachers are encouraged to bring their classes. 

The last couple of years, however, I have had a schedule with shows every day with too much driving and flying in between to permit follow-up workshops everywhere. Naturally you can't have a workshop in Georgia the same day you have a show in Alaska. If your school is especially interested in my presence the next day you can help by getting other schools in the area to take the show the following days so that I do not have so much traveling to do. Especially in such far away places as Minnesota, Texas, Colorado, etc. Or you can perhaps be more flexible with your date. Since the school year is so short I can only present the show in about 50 universities per semester. If everyone wanted a guaranteed workshop I could only show it in 25 schools. 12,000 fewer students would, in other words, get to see the show - perhaps yours! 

Also I have to watch out for my mental and physical health. To do a 3 hour workshop, 6 hours of traveling and 7 hours of show and setting up daily for 3 months could kill any man. No volunteer I've had with me has ever lasted longer than 3 weeks. So I hope you will understand that the workshop is not a guaranteed part of the package -- even though I do it in most places. If I have to travel next morning I have sometimes done a workshop right after the show -- often lasting until 4 o'clock in the morning. 


For many students the great question afterwards is: "What can I do?" It is important not to leave all this sudden energy in a vacuum, and many schools therefore work out a list of local activities, political groups and poverty projects which the students can join. I strongly recommend this since I myself am usually at a loss as to what happens in your area. 

But the most important follow-up project involves a deeper investigation of our own racism, I feel. I can strongly recommend Tony Harris, a black man who has devoted his life to racism counseling. For 5 years he toured with American Pictures in Europe. His technique is loving, soft and effective in getting in touch with - and discharging - some of the deeper pain which causes racism in most people. 

If you expect a good turnout and interest in American Pictures I urgently recommend that you simultaneously book "An evening with Tony Harris" one of the following nights or on a Saturday afternoon. Where ever he has followed-up, students have loved him.


Many first-time organizers find it hard to raise the money for American Pictures from various campus groups. And the price might indeed be too high for some schools. But I would like to point out a couple of facts: Many of the same schools gladly raised $3,000 to $8,000 to get convicted Watergate criminals to speak for an hour. These speakers generally pocket the money themselves. Compare that with American Pictures which usually gets larger student turnout and where the spectators are "entertained" for at least 4-5 hours (plus workshops next day). In addition it takes me a couple of hours to set up and break clown the expensive equipment (recently $15,000 worth of it was stolen from my car and had to be replaced). I have to drive often night and day to get to most places, or pay a lot in overweight charges when flying. And spend half the year updating photos and content. With all these expenses my total income from the show in America has often been negative.
See income from show
Unable to bring any income home, my family in Denmark wonders why I bother to continue. 
In addition you know that "my" money belongs to a non-profit organization - or in other words: to valuable poverty projects in America and Africa - in case there is a profit. I write this because you may find it easier to raise the money when you use these arguments. 

The best argument for American Pictures could be that it now has been invited back: 
20 times to Berkeley 
17 times to Cornell 
15 times to Harvard 
10 times to Stanford 
9 times to Yale, etc. 
Or that campuses such as U. Cal. at Davis, U. of Wis. and U. of Mich, have turnouts of 1,500-2,000 students the second or third time the show comes around. 


When I arrive on campus I hope you will find me to be one of the easiest and least demanding speakers you have ever booked.......at least I used to have that reputation, but "show business" takes its toll. Where before I always asked organizers to put me up privately, sleeping on floors in student dormitories, in my car etc. to cut down on unnecessary expenses, I now accept and at times even appreciate to be stowed away in lonesome hotels or guest houses like most other guest speakers. Especially when I have an assistant with me. With a workday of usually 18 hours, day after day for months, I have no choice. With not even a few minutes to recuperate on most days I also ask you to understand that I can at times be low on energy, smiles and patience, the worst time usually just before setting up the show after a long day's drive. However tired and overworked I might be, by-and-large I manage to come across to the audience as a person of fresh inspiration. 

Often organizers call my agent to find out what I prefer to eat. I am very flexible, but with the stress-filled life I lead I try to eat healthy food -- mostly without meat. Far too many nights I end up arriving late so that organizers bring me pizza while I set up. What I prefer is to arrive so early that I can set up first, then spend a relaxed hour getting to know my organizer(s) in a restaurant or student cafeteria while being briefed on the local situation. Salad bars, fish dishes, etc., are fine. As well as local dishes such as Creole cooking, Mexican food and other "ethnic" specialties are a welcome surprise, along with a large cup of coffee before the show. 

I hope these suggestions may be of help to you in making this event a similar success on your campus as it has been elsewhere, and I look forward to meeting you. 

Sincerely, Jacob Holdt 

To contact me with last minute question while I am on tour in America, call 917-349-4361. 

Before my tours starts usually around Feb.1 and again Oct. 15 call me in Denmark on +45-33-124412 or


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