Go back  April 21, 1985  Vanguard Press, Burlington, VT 

By Barry Snyder 
Jacob Holdt's three-and-a-half-hour multi-media American Pictures is one of the most incredible chronicles of the modern age you are ever likely to see, and you should see it. An almost incidental offshoot of a young Danish vagabond's sojourn among what he calls the "American underclass," it is impossible to categorize as either art, sociology, travelogue or political tract. 

All those things imply a distancing, whereas Holdt submerged himself in the harrowing reality that American Pictures describes body and soul. His almost Christ-like mission was simply to assent to everything: all rides, all sexual advances, all points of view, all the love and hate this country had to pour into him. 

Holdt's account is extraordinary not only for the intimacy of its detail but for the depth of its compassion. American Pictures is beyond a doubt the most devastating and uncompromising indictment of discrimination I have ever encountered, but what lends it moral authority is its hatred of systems rather than people. 

Holdt not only lived among such brutalized victims of the system as slaves (yes, they still exist), criminals, drug addicts and transsexuals, but also Klan members, plantation owners and such icons of the ruling class as Ted Kennedy and Jay Rockefeller. Holdt's understanding of the mechanism of oppression goes far deeper than smug hatred of its symbols. He insists we locate its source not out there but inside us, an inherited disease, insidious and ravaging. 

His vision is a potent antidote to the trance of complacent chauvinism cast by Reagan. By making us look at a reality we keep forcibly hidden, and by comparing it with the humane solutions of other countries, Holdt totally destroys the smug picture we have of ourselves as leaders of the civilized world. 

Far from a free society based on principles of equality, the Orwellian picture evoked by the photographs and commentary is that of an armed, demented camp locked in a self-imposed prison of fear, hate and endless violence. The ghetto, Holdt likes to remind us, is not a place isolated in time and space. It is a mental condition that encompasses all. 

In that, American Pictures is the ideal counterpart to Roz Payne's Project to Study FBI Counter-intelligence Against Blacks, to which the proceeds of the show's return visit to Burlington will be applied. If Holdt's belief in the systemic nature of racism is based on the circumstantial evidence of his photographs, Payne has in her possession 400,000 FBI documents to prove it. Released through the order of a judge in the trial of a Black Panther Party member, the documents are among the most damning testimony to date of the vicious workings of J. Edgar Hoover's infamous COINTELPRO, a program specifically targeting the black unity movement. Payne's goal is to index the files on a computer, and so make the whole sordid business available for public consumption. 

Payne's files reveal more than the unbelievable vicious nature of the FBI'S dirty tricks, including everything from injecting oranges with laxatives to creating phony letter campaigns, undermining support outside the black community and sowing dissention within. 

The files hint at connections between our esteemed secret police and the fate of such prominent blacks such as prison reformer Popeye Jackson, whose assassination so dispirited his friend Holdt (the 12th person he knew to be killed during his stay) that he finally left the country in despair. 

The bitter effect of COINTELPRO, at any rate, was to utterly destroy the organizational base of the black nationalist movement and to thoroughly neutralize its most vital leaders. 

American Pictures makes chillingly clear the ends of that ancient and ongoing American process. Payne's files make chillingly clear the means. 

Copyright © 1997 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.
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