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American pictures: a personal journey through the American underclass.

American Pictures: A Personal Journey Through the American Underclass.

American Pictures: A Personal Journey Through the American Underclass. Jacob Holdt. American Pictures Foundation, $14.00. With American Pictures, Jacob Holdt unabashedly follows in the footsteps of muckraker Jacob Riis, who, like Holdt, left Denmark to travel among America's dispossessed and expose their misery. But this book, which was released recently to accompany a multi-media show the author has presented on college campuses, also raises some questions about now much the muckraker can contribute to the pain he documents.

Over five years, Holdt, a high school dropout and devout leftist, managed to travel 113,750 miles and visit 434 homes in 48 states. A camera his parents sent him captures what he saw in chance run-ins with Senators Jay Rockefeller and Edward Kennedy, the Indians at Wounded Knee, bank presidents, and denizens of migrant slave camps and urban shooting galleries. A short-hair wig gained him access to rednecks who otherwise might have distrusted him.

The success of Holdt's campus road show lies partly in the challenge he poses his often well-off audiences: why does slavery continue unchallenged by, even unknown to, most of American society?

At times, he means literal slavery. By befriending an armed guard he managed to slip into a Florida migrant camp where men live apart from their families and ride in trucks from behind barbed-wire fences to work in fields. His photos show child labor and dead bodies along roads. Later in his travels Holdt encountered "slave catchers' from such camps in the deep South rounding up winos in a black bar in North Carolina.

For the most part, though, Holdt depicts a figurative, though perhaps equally restrictive, slavery. He photographed one Louisiana sugar cane plantation whose owner pays families of six $3,000 a year, then lends them money to live in one-room shacks that have no electricity or running water. The planter owns the only store around and charges inflated prices. Few people ever work their way out of debt, of course, and the landowner's guards make sure nobody leaves without paying what they owe.

Holdt's book inadvertantly poses a second uncomfortable question: when does the muckraker turn slummer? How much can a sincere middle-class white man crusade for the black poor before he, too, ends up exploiting the people he hoped to help?

In addition to misery, Holdt encountered the reformer's classic conflict between striving for a distant social goal and trampling on the individuals in the way. In his case, some of them died. Whites in one Southern town, angry over Holdt's affair with a black woman, firebombed her house, killing her brother.

You can't fault Holdt for associating with people of different colors in a segregated society in which "race-mixers' are attacked. But you can blame him for at times ignoring the consequences of his actions. Holdt himself recognizes that unlike the disadvantaged enslaved by their society, he had the freedom to escape to more comfortable homes when he needed nutrition and sleep.
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Copyright 1986, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Bass, Paul
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1986
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