American Pictures - reviews

September 16, 1992 
The News & Observer, Raleigh, NC 

A Danish traveler shares the America he

 saw on a 5-year hitchhiking odyssey 

Staff writer 

Jacob Holdt is in such demand that he now carries a pager. Twice a year, he travels from his native Denmark to New York, then flies all over America making appearances, conducting workshops. He has a family, a son even. He owns a car. 

None of that is the least bit remarkable unless you consider that he arrived at this point in his life using primarily his camera and his thumb. For five years, starting in 1970, Holdt traveled the United States as a poor, homeless vagabond, living off the generosity of strangers who gave him a ride and a roof for the night. He figures he logged 113,750 miles in all and stayed in 434 homes in 48 states along the way. 

As he puts it, "I came to this country with $40, and it lasted me five years." The drug addicts, drifters, murderers, Klansmen as well as socialites he photographed became his friends, and eventually, the subjects of "American Pictures," a book on his experiences. It is a horrifying, at times touching, portrait of the underclass as well as a journal of his own emotional odyssey. 

Since 1983, when the book was first published in Denmark, he's been taking a multimedia version of his documentary around the world. The New York Times has described the work as "powerful, intense," and The Village Voice praised it as "a master piece." 
Tonight, he brings it to Duke University. His publicist estimates that about 2 million people have seen it. The book has been translated into five languages. He has been courted by Hollywood producers eager to make a movie about the Danish drifter with the long, braided beard. 

But Holdt, 45, isn't interested in that sort of success. He prefers to keep addressing the problems he encountered in America 20 years ago, namely poverty and racism. Twenty years, and the problems haven't disappeared, he says, citing the L.A. riots that erupted earlier this summer. "For instance, the crime is so much worse," he says in a phone interview from New York. "But how do you photograph worse crime?" 

The majority of the 3,000 images in his program depict abject poverty, misery and suffering among blacks, with whom he spent much of his travels. The show overwhelms, upsets and angers audiences. Which is Holdt's intention. "I hope to make people more aware of their responsibility. They don't see themselves in relation to how it affects others in society, how it affects blacks," says Holdt, who conducts workshops on racism. "Most of us aren't aware how racist we actually are. No one can escape it. I'd be a fool if I didn't recognize my own racism." 

In 1970, when Holdt left Denmark for Canada, he wanted to avoid America altogether. In his mind, it was rich, predominantly white and dangerous. He was on his way to Latin America -- just passing through -- when he made friends with some folks in South Side of Chicago and found his first American home. They showed him around their all-black neighborhood and described a segregated society. Before he left, they braided his long beard. Intrigued, Holdt decided to hitchhike around America, even though he'd heard he might be arrested or beat up in the process. Standing by the road, he held his reliable sign: "TOURING USA FROM DENMARK." "Americans don't trust Americans," he says. "They're scared." 

Holdt, however, was fearless, almost nonchalant, about approaching strangers. "I was brought up to trust people. I grew up never seeing people hurt people, never seeing guns." He met all types, from unemployed whites and blacks in pick-ups to a millionaire in a Rolls Royce. 

North Carolina, he says, was his favorite Southern state during his travels. "I found it was one of the easy states in the country to hitchhike. The police never bother you." says Holdt, who traveled back and forth between Greensboro and Little Washington, where he had made friends. "Yeah, I think I've been on about every road in North Carolina." 

He wrote his parents about the people and places he'd seen. They mailed him a camera. In order to buy film, Holdt sold his blood twice a week for $5. With the keen eye of an outsider, he proceeded to capture the troubling, conflicting sides of American society: a Ku Klux Klan rally, someone shooting up through a vein in his foot, his homeless buddies lying bloodied and passed out on the sidewalk and a family struggling to get by in a leaky shack without electricity. 

The book also contains his letters, which describe some bizarre encounters. Having made friends with a rich woman in Columbia, Md., Holdt went for a drunken ride with Ted Kennedy and Burt Bacharach and wound up at the composer's house for more drinks. 
Holdt occasionally worked odd jobs. During a brief stint as a doorman at the Gaslight club in New York, he tossed out Bob Dylan after the singer entered the club without paying the cover charge. 

But most of his stories are disturbing, graphic tales of inner city violence and rural poverty. Living with prostitutes, pimps, addicts and sharecroppers, he considered himself a social worker as well as a photographer. 
Holdt says he was welcome because he wasn't a threat. He was foreigner, an outsider, like many of the people he encountered. 
"They were so insecure about who I was, that I felt total honesty was the right approach," he says. 
"I told them I was completely lost and didn't have any money.... I constantly had to prove myself to win their trust." 

His beard was an icebreaker and at times, a life saver, says Holdt.  Approached by armed robbers in a New York ghetto, he pulled out the braided beard he had tucked down his shirt. It broke the tension. These young guys were laughing with me. They had never seen such a crazy man," he says. "Once they laughed, they couldn't hold me up. They couldn't look me in the eye and be angry." 

Back in Denmark, though, his grandmother was worried by the stories she read. She told him to come home. Through seven generations his family, the oldest boy had become a minister. But Holdt, who was kicked out of high school and the military, had a different calling. When he finally did return home, he toured the country giving a presentation of his trip. Shortly before she died, his grandmother, 90, saw it and told him, "Well, son, I think you've become a minister in your own way." 

These days, Holdt misses hitchhiking and photographing strangers, which he doesn't have much time to do anymore. "I can't take the sort of intimate photographs I used to," he says. "That takes five years to get so personal." He spends half the year in Denmark, with his family. "I'm constantly experiencing the culture shock. That's one of my biggest problems today. I sit down in Denmark to write and I forget how Americans think," he says. "I should probably live all my life in America." 

When he returns, he still visits many of the people he met, although 22 have been killed one way or another since his travels. And, naturally, when he's out driving, he picks up a lot of hitchhikers himself. He gets lonely. He itches for the excitement of connecting with a total stranger. "I learn so much from picking them up," he says. 

Last year, in Louisiana, a hitcher told how he'd "killed so many blacks he couldn't count them on his fingers and toes." Holdt drove the fellow four hours out of his way to hear his stories, rather than kick him out. "If we kick them out, we're doing opposite of what they need," says Holdt, "We're adding hurt to hurt. We're doing the oppressing in society. They're acting out of such obvious pain, they need help. The minute you give them attention or affection, you help them feel better about themselves. Then they can't go out and victimize someone else. I never met a bad American when I was traveling. I saw some thing good in every one of them." 


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