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Interview in Film Comment February 1983 
 
  

American Pictures 
 
by Mitch Tuchman

 

Harvest of Shame, the famous, one-hour, black-and-white documentary about black and white migrant agricultural workers was Edward R. Murrow's last for CBS. Originally telecast Thanksgiving weekend 1960, the irony of its timing must have sharpened its indictment. Following a PBS revival over a year ago, an attorney for California migrant workers showed a Los Angeles public television newsman photographs of his clients a's evidence for his assertion that nothing much had changed: The prosperity of America's upper class was still predicated on the poverty of its underclass. 

Of the intervening 194,000 hours since the Murrow show debuted, network television has devoted very little time to what Michael Harrington once called "the other America." Generously, one might conclude not that the subject was found somehow lacking by the medium, but that the medium may not best serve the subject, which demanded a new approach. It was discovered by Jacob Holdt, whose five-hour American Pictures, shown at Filmex '82, is the old plaint in net form. 

Holdt is a tall, spare, thirdyish Dane, whose hair is long and whose beard trails in a narrow braid down his chest. From 1971 to 1976 he lived as a vagabond in America, traveling hundreds of thousands of miles, depending for food on the kindness of strangers, for cash on the sale of his blood. That his letters home describing the poverty of rural America might not be disbelief ed, he began documenting his observations with a Bell and Howell Dial 35mm camera bought for $30 in a pawn shop. Eventually he amassed 15,000 slides, images of staggering degradation, attesting to an odyssey of discovery and danger. 

Returning to Copenhagen, he selected 3,000 images for an exhibition, from which came a book, a narrated slide presentation, and this film. The book sold well throughout Europe. The slide show has played continuously in Copenhagen since 1977. The film, which consists primarily of Holdt's slides (plus some archival images of the pre-Holdt South) and a tendentious commentary is not an easy thing to see. Rarely are the images beautiful. What is unimpeachable is their authenticity. 

Holdt availed himself of an experience few middle-class Americans would, or could, duplicate voluntarily. In his publicity material, he claims: "Four times I was attacked by robbers armed with pistols; two times I managed to avoid cuts from attackers with knives; two times frightened police drew their guns on me; one time I was surrounded by ten-fifteen blacks in a dark alley and almost killed; one time I was ambushed by the Ku Klux Klan on a deserted backroad; several times I had bullets flying around me at nightly shootouts, not to speak of my experiences at Wounded Knee; two times I was arrested by the FBI; four times I was arrested by the Secret Service; I lived with three murderers and many other criminals; twelve of my best friends were murdered while I was in America, some of them right in front of my eyes; both my father-in-law and mother-in-law were also murdered while I was there; I myself have had so many death threats against me that I don't even remember the number of them any longer." 

So outrageous is Holdt's litany that skepticism ensues, for not only does he recount tales of gore unimaginable but also of a drunken drive with Ted Kennedy and a kitchen table chat with a Rockefeller, or two. If only he didn't have the photographic proof. If only he didn't sound a bit like Jesus, Kerouac, and de Tocqueville melded. American Pictures is either a stunning contrivance or a new Harvest of Shame. 

Having played the odd audience in Chicago, in Greensboro, in Atlanta, as well as the San Francisco Film Festival and Filmex, Holdt is seeking to establish sites for long runs here as in Europe (where box-office proceeds are channeled through the nonprofit American Pictures Foundation for Humanitarian Aid to Africa for schools in Zimbabwe). 

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You journeyed through the United States for five years? 
That's the vagabond years, as I call it, from '71 to '76. But. then. I came hack in '78 and in 1980 to update the show and to visit all the people in the film. 
 
And how were those trips different from the initial trip? 
The second one in '78 was mainly different because a TV station in Portland, Oregon, gave me a car so I could drive around, and with a car you just feel totally alienated from people and lonely. That was the first time I didn't like America, because from a car you just tend to see McDonald's and restaurants of that kind all over the country, and you carry your own lonesomeness with you. As a hitchhiker you constantly meet people who open up to you and invite you inside. So I didn't like America the second time, but with a car I was able to go out to areas I had not been able to cover as a hitchhiker; some of the worst pictures in the film are from that last trip. For instance, that Ku Klux Klan meeting was from '78. 

Then, the '80 trip was partly because we had to make a credit sequence for the film from graffiti walls, and I realized I had not enough graffiti backgrounds. I made the trip partly to run around Harlem and the South Bronx to photograph walls. But it was also to see the riot in Miami; so I flew into Miami to see a riot. I had missed all the big riots. While I traveled here, there were not too many big ones, and I could never hitchhike to them in time; they were always over by the time I got to them. Now I could afford to fly in to see a good riot. So that was incredible, Also to see the increased hostility; I mean, the previous riots had been mostly class riots. but this one in Miami was a pure race riot directly against white people; so, that was unique.  

With your first pictures, had you any intent of creating a comprehensive document? 
For the first three years I didn't know what I was doing. I was just taking pictures of the people I stayed with. The vagabonding was more important than the photography. As a vagabond, you constantly meet lonesome people. I had never experienced so many lonesome people before, and I wanted to remember many of those people. 

Would you talk, or would you find yourself listening? 
In some cases they wanted entertainment, they wanted me to talk, but in most cases they just wanted to unload their problems, and, of course, I would respond to it. In many cases they would invite me home. Of course, many of those relationships were sexual also, because when you travel on the road like that, you're constantly abused sexually by many of those lonesome people. But I always just had the philosophy of saying yes to even thing that came around, first of all, because I felt it was more dehumanizing to say no to people -- I just didn't like that feeling -- so I went along with every experience, and in many cases it brought me to fantastic situations. 

I'm very surprised to hear that many of these encounters were sexual, because in  the film I don't think you reveal that. 
No, I don't. But I think the key behind many of the pictures I had in the him is the "yes" philosophy. It's the greatest freedom I know, to throw yourself into the arms of everyone you meet on the road. I can mention countless examples of what that experience brought me into. The plantation homes in Mississippi with those antebellum dresses.' I would never have seen them, but I got picked up by an antique seller in Mississippi who's homosexual, and he said he would take me to one of those plantation homes. Of course, I didn't believe him, but I ended up in one of them and stayed there for weeks. I became very good friends with the family and have been ever since. 

Given the nature of your traveling around, were more of the encounters homosexual than heterosexual? 
No. In America, people, both men and women are very aggressive sexually; that's my experience, at least. I don't regret it. I felt it was an eye-opener for me to go through all those experiences. 

What motivated you to continue? 
I was just constantly curious. It was like one question led to another. I found out about criminals in the North, then I found an interest in knowing where they came from and what had molded them; so I went to Mississippi to tend cotton picked. 

So you were beginning to analyze what you were seeing even then? 
I guess it came little by little. I would say that the slide show and thereby the film was mostly made per intuition. When I came home to Denmark, I wrote it down in a couple of weeks, the whole manuscript, and I never felt more at ease with something I had written; it was just like it flowed out of me. I had it all built up from five years of traveling. 

You characterized yourself early in the film as a conservative. 
I used to be a member of the conservative party in Denmark. 

And yet at least one critic blasted it as Marxist. 
The Marxism I express in the show is what I picked up on the road in America. It's mostly street philosophy, I would say, and therefore of limited validity. Many Marxists find it interesting, because they find it simply one person looking at a capitalist society and turning into a Marxist -- except that I'm not a Marxist. Today, when I read certain books and talk about the film with Marxists, I do see many similarities, and I understand why they call me a Marxist, but I wouldn't call myself a Marxist. 

The film, as it exists now, is very much like a shaggy-dog story. 
Well, the thing is that it was made as a slide lecture. I never understood the success of this lecture: Thousands and thousands of people were standing in line in Denmark and Sweden and all over Europe to see this show. So, when we decided to make it into a film, I didn't dare change it much. I think this is one of the problems we're having now. Some people, when they see the film, think, "Wow, this is more a lecture than a film," and they're right. Another problem is that it's two films, and in both film festivals, they decided to show the two films at once, so people perceive it as one big film. 

And it's not that at all? 
Not at all. The first part should be distributed, and then, maybe half a year later, the second part should come. When you see it in one sitting, you start getting dizzy; when your concentration is not so great, you feel that it's repeating itself. 

How did you handle the ever-growing numbers of photographs as you traveled? 
I used to send them to a mail-order company in New Jersey immediately after the roll was exposed, and they sent them on to addresses of friends who stored them for me during the five years. 

Those must have been prepaid mailers? 
Yes, it cost five dollars usually. That meant I had to sell blood twice weekly for two rolls of film. 

What type blood did you turn out to be? 
O. But it's plasma that you sell. That's why you can do it twice weekly. In '74 I got a breakthrough when a woman in Philadelphia gave me $70 to drive her car to Miami. That's the first time I had money, and I invested the money in making some of the slides into prints and put them in little books I could show people, drivers and people I stayed with. From then on I got a lot of encouragement, moral encouragement, from people who saw those pictures, and also financial encouragement. Many people gave me five and even ten dollars. At that time, people said I had to exhibit this one way or another, although professional photographers, when I met them, always criticized me for doing this and that wrong; so I never really turned out to feel I was a photographer. 

Do you continue to make photographs? 
Yes, but mostly when I'm out hitchhiking. 

You still do that? 
Yes, I just did it before Christmas, after the film festival in San Francisco. I hitchhiked across the country to meet many of my friends in the North and Northeast. 

So now when you do it, you do it with a purpose: to get somewhere or to see someone? 
I do it with the purpose of constantly updating the thing I made, so that it doesn't end up as a historical document, If it does that, people put the blame away from themselves into a distant, unjust past, which is too easy for most people. 

How did you develop the order of the photos? 
 When I came home from America, I took all the slides -- I had begun this on the boat -- and grouped them in sections: homosexuals, prostitutes, criminals, and so on. I simply made stacks in my parents' home and then grouped the stacks, starting in the South with the cotton pickers. Then the story developed. 

It's an order of ideas rather than of images. You talk about the victim getting blamed for his poverty. 
Conservatives do it, but what I've tried to show is that liberals do it, maybe not in words, but in their actions in thousands of ways. 

You say slavery survives. That's not exactly true. 
Much of what I say in the show should not be taken totally literally. They're emotional words. Many blocks would agree when I say slavery survives; whites will totally disagree with it, because, of course, slavery does not survive in an actual way, but there are many similarities, and it's those similarities I'm trying to show in today's world. 

The notions of false consciousness and the rise of fascism run through the film. 
Since we in Europe have such a strong class consciousness, poor people have a tendency to vote socialist or left-wing, because that's in their class interest. (Even mentioning class in America is a dirty word.) Therefore, we look at poor Americans, poor whites who vote very right-wing -- in many cases they vote for Wallace -- and feel pity for them, because we feel that this is clearly against their own interest. American right-wingers would totally disagree probably, but it's a general European outlook on America, I think. 
As to the rise of fascism: Again, that's a European word. Some poor whites in America go in a fascist direction, where they would support more dictatorial measures, which, for instance, the American Civil Liberties Union will work constantly against. So there's a strong conflict there all the time. 

Would you be open to the ACLU using your film to raise money for its own organization? 
Yes, definitely. I have always supported them. I think the main thing about the show is that it becomes a protector of the American democracy as it really should be, against the interests in society that try to destroy it. In Europe we have always used the show to support different organizations. Mostly what they do is, they organize the screening and as organizers they get thirty percent of what comes in. In Austria, for instance, Amnesty International has a monopoly on organizing all our shows; it's one of their great fund-raising things. In Germany, it's mostly Lutheran church organizations working with political staffs. In Denmark, it's the left-wing socialist party. It's a little bit different in each country, but in America I definitely feel that the ACLU would be one of [the organizations to benefit]. The NAACP also, even though I don't agree with everything they stand for, but I think we have to support those organizations. 

Tell me something about the American Pictures Foundation (for Humanitarian Aid to Africa). What role do you play in that? 
We are twelve people who have worked on this, mostly black Americans who have come over to Europe to help distribute the show. I'm just one of the people, and I don't have more voting rights than the others. We all live together in a collective in Copenhagen -- and live on very little money. Ten of us last year had 150,000 kroner, which is just $20,000 for ten people. Because we've lived in a collective, we could make it so cheaply, and, there, we've been able to make a lot of money for the foundation and to make this film, which has cost quite a bit of money, too. 

How are you viewed in the Danish press: as an eccentric or a hero? 
It's very hard for me to really find out what they think. I do think among a lot of young people I'm a hero, but you've got to realize that people are very afraid of worshiping heroes in Denmark. I do know that many young Danes are taking off on the road after having read my book, and you can find them on the roads in South America, Africa, India, and America, traveling with my book. I found quite a few of them in Greece last summer, just coming there with my book. It has become sort of a traveler's bible. I should also say that the book is a little more travel-oriented than the film, There's a lot of personal stories about traveling experiences. 

Is the book available in English? 
Not yet. I'm going to work on it this spring. 

Have you considered turning your attention to other topics? 
I feel I've stumbled into this success -- whatever you call it -- and I feel it's my duty to get the best out of it. It's easy for any writer or photographer or vagabond to get success by means of poor people. What is difficult is to turn the success into a success for poor people, and this is what I'm just starting on now. I hope by using it in different ways in America that it can have some impact, at least creating a debate around the issue in America. Without a debate, the poor - people are dying. 

 
 
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