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22. Feb. 1997
Yale Daily News


American Pictures 

Dillan Siegler, a senior in Berkeley College, is a Yale Daily News columnist.

After I saw Jacob Holdt's presentation "American Pictures" last Thursday evening, I was depressed. I left feeling totally
hopeless and helpless although he had tried to instill through his very personal and unique message that each American
possesses the power of hope and resistance.

Jacob Holdt, a native of Denmark, came to America and travelled throughout the country, mainly hitchhiking, taking pictures of the underclass and documenting their lives and struggles. His show was a multi-media event which combined photos, recorded parts of conversations with people with whom he stayed, and his own words which expressed his views on racism and oppression in American society.

American Pictures is also the name of his book which he hopes "will now help give Americans trust in their beautiful fellow citizens again -- a trust [he has] seen rapidly fading in the last ten years."

When "several large publishers wanted the book...[he] couldn't reach any satisfactory agreement," he said. "Also they didn't employ a single black, and I felt that such institutionalized racism would betray my friends in the book," he continued.

I felt very white as I watched his show, and I think this was one of his objectives. The experience of the black underclass in our world is so totally diverse from the experiences I have had. Their world is one so foreign to me that no travel abroad could ever bring me within miles of understanding their particular American society. And this is true in the reverse as well.

Jacob Holdt attempted to make the white members of his audience feel the oppression that is an ever-present aspect in poor blacks people's lives within this sector of society.

"In American Pictures...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 no outlet. Thus you are being oppressed!" Holdt wrote in a pamphlet which was handed out at the show.

However, his ideas intended to promote a universal type of understanding, one from which all persons can benefit. The
presentation only seemed to show the negativity inherent in the lives of the impoverished and oppressed. Yet his message was positive.

"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," he argued.

I can only recall feeling so totally helpless in response to one other issue in my life. In my Bioethics class we are learning about the environment and about humankind's consistent and incessant misuse of natural resources. The issues about which we have read are particularly scary when I see them in cold, undebatable statistics.

Within our society there are already millions of people starving. At the same time our population is growing at a rate of 1.8 percent per year, meaning that in approximately 40 years it will have doubled in size. How will our world accommodate twice as many people at that time when we cannot even support those alive now?

I relate racism and issues in the environment because I feel they are both fundamental aspects of society and are both ones with which we must live. Therefore, we must do all we can to understand these existing problems. Only through dedication and cooperation can we learn enough about ourselves and one another in order to enact change.

We must try to understand our differences no matter how powerless we feel to do anything to triumph over them. The
environmentalists message is that humans and our influence on this earth is detrimental to nature and to many aspects of the world we inhabit. However, is it productive to think that our interventions have had an irreparably negative impact on this world? I do not think so.

We must think in terms of the future, a future in which we are able to successfully change our patterns tof actions and do good.

I had previously assumed that nothing could be done to salvage the ozone layer and to fix other environmental disasters which are constantly occurring.

However, in his essay "Biological Diversity and Global Security," environmental consultant Norman Myers argued, "Through a combination of natural restorative processes and human interventions, large-scale pollution such as acid rain can be cleaned up in a matter of decades. Tropical forests can certainly be reestablished within a thousand years. Soil cover can be replenished in ten thousand years -- just as the ozone layer can be restored and global climate returned to pre-greenhouse-effect equilibria within the same ten thousand years."

Thousands of years may seem like a long time, but if we consider the implications should we choose not to take precautions now, we might be led to action.

Jacob Holdt's assertions are similar. "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."

Something can be done. I feel less helpless as I write this column. I can attempt to see these problems for what they are; they exist and that is a fact. Whether they must continue to do so in their current form is our decision. We must attempt to do what we are capable of, and what is in our power to do. The particular tasks are specific for each ethnic group and for each individual, but it is important to remember that if we are to help we must act now.

Racism rages in our society but is not beyond our control.
We do not entirely understand racism or the environment and in our ignorance we act in harmful ways. However, once we have intervened there is no going back, no turning around to change what we have already done.

All we can do is to keep our differences in mind and must look to the future, searching for a healthy balance based on
recognition and understanding. Holdt has accomplished this by communicating to his viewers and readers that mutual solidarity is a viable option to enact change.

Dillan Siegler, a senior in Berkeley College, is a Yale Daily News columnist.

    Copyright 1997 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.

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