One Night in an American Picture

By: Bernd Wechner
© October 1, 1999

One Night in an American Picture

One Night in an American Picture

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: October 1, 1999

Some time ago, surfing the web, I came across a loose reference to hitching on a web site called American Pictures. It looked to concern itself primarily with a slide show, and a book on racism, neither of which I'd seen so I book-marked it and let it sit. Then I found the book ...

I'd not read such a moving book in years. This very frank account of modern poverty and discrimination in the United States, was not only an eye opener, but a life changer. Here was a man, a Dane, Jacob Holdt, who had done all the things I'd dreamed of as a youth. He'd spent some six years on the road, a true vagabond, his only income from the occasional donation of blood, relying otherwise on the gifts of others - and what a gift that was.

One of them was a camera, and he went on to photograph almost rabidly, ultimately producing the slide show and book now advertised on his site. But American Pictures is not just a picture show, indeed the text is even more moving than the images. Jacob was a true hitch-hiker:

    "The most fantastic lottery I can think of is hitch-hiking. There is a prize every time. Every single person can teach you something. I have never said no to a ride - even if there were pistols lying on the front seat, or four sinister-looking men wearing sunglasses in the car. Every person is like a window through which the larger society can be glimpsed."

he writes.

It brings him into contact with all walks of society. In a culture as motorised as the United States, everyone drives, the rich, the poor, the white, the black, men, women, young, old, wise, weary ... the only thing that characterises drivers who stopped was their readiness to share.

But it's mostly the doors of the poor, the blacks, that are open to him. He's more selfless and giving than anyone I've ever met. On saying yes he writes: "The greatest freedom I know is to be able to say yes; the freedom to throw yourself into the arms of every single person you meet." and by compromising his own identity he is everyone's brother. He lives not only in the shanty towns and slums with America blacks, but in the haughty mansions of the elite, even some Kennedys cross his path.

His greatest woe is the endless racism, the extant slavery (and yes, he illustrates the reality of modern slavery acutely), and oppression in a country otherwise so open and hospitable. But he can't bring himself to blame anyone, not even the whites most forcibly enacting it, themselves slaves to their own ideological blinders. So rare it is to read such enlightened love of humanity, so boldly attacking the systems and not its enactors!

Well, I had occasion recently to track Jacob down, and catch up with him, a quarter century after those vagabonding years of his. Not much of a task I should add, as he publishes his address openly everywhere he goes, with an open invitation to visit.

    "Invite every single hitch-hiker or tourist home, not to speak of others who have a need for a roof over their heads or human togetherness. You will discover that they are far more interesting than books like this one. And if you already have all your floor space filled up, or for other reasons are not able to have them staying with you, then please send them to me."

he writes boldly!

I'm sure the limits of that invitation were as clear to him as he wrote it, as they were to me reading it, yet he pursued the offer to the limit, his floor space literally covered with visitors until he himself moved out!

He's a family man now, married, with kids, but his passion hasn't died, he's most busy presenting his four hour slides wherever he can, touring America, Europe or wherever he can for a good part of the year it seems. His trademark braided beard is still there but the years are showing a little with splash off grey here and there.

His most striking confession as I arrive, is that he can't recall who I am. That someone was coming to visit he could remember, but not who. A kind of blur no doubt introduced by hundreds, thousands of visitors and guests over the years, as people pick up on his invitation or just come to him in the glow of the modest fame he's acquired.

Jacob struck me as unusually taciturn at first. But I understood without comment, a little fame and an endless stream of people leave their mark. And sure enough, before long he apologises without prompting, that he's disappointed a lot of people over the years, who've described him as distant and anti-social, expecting the gregarious, happy-go-lucky fellow portrayed in the book. "How could such a cold guy, worm his way into so many households?", he hears them thinking.

On his web site he defends the criticism of being an overly serious person, because of course, he can and does laugh, and we had a wonderful night musing over our tales of the road. Before hitting the sack we'd awakened in him a nostalgic longing for the road again. He describes the beauty of hitching, the flowing sense of time and space, waiting for rides on starlit nights in the Arizona desert with thunder storms on the horizon ... as only a fellow lost soul, thumbing spirit could really understand. I have to confess, I felt akin. I rarely have someone so elegantly describe, what I feel of thumbing, and he too rarely has someone to mirror it so.

He just hasn't the time to hitch anymore! He has a van with a fortune of equipment in back with which he tours the States presenting the slide show. He's on the road alone now, barely finds any hitchers on the road anymore, and most of those are criminals, or smelly bums and deadheads (Grateful Dead groupies). But they're the best kind he reminisces, the most interesting and most needy. Still, he's lonely.

I told him of a businessman who picked me up around 2 a.m. one summer night, as I slept with my head in my lap at the exit of some motorway services headed for Berlin. He'd backed up up off the motorway, having spotted me there while racing by, unhindered by any competing traffic. As we spoke of hitching, he said much the same, of his lack of time, of his longing for the road, that sense of freedom, unhurriedness, unplannedness. I think by the time we'd got to Berlin, I'd convinced him to take a holiday again and thumb the time away.

So too, I like to think that maybe Jacob will make some time again, for the road.

Daniel, his son of 19 years, in the Danish Guinness Book of Records as a 2 year old who'd hitched 16,000 km, was full of questions. Two years running now he'd inter-railed Europe with his girlfriend and recounted tales of attempted rapes and sleepless nights on Gypsy plagued trains ... I'm sure he was thinking too, that they may well be safer on the road ... how ironic.

Well, I too was short on time, and was back in Geneva the next day again (ironically, as Jacob jested, not by thumb!), but I cherished the encounter, and hope Jacob did too, and might remember who I am next time. He has a most amazing history, a most amazing heart, and the picture show to tell it ... and a cause, against racism, that drives him on, and can only win him support! Show yours, and look up the slide show, buy the book! Rarely can I express such unqualified support ...

Tracing details for the bookworms:

American Pictures
Jacob Holdt, 1985
American Pictures Foundation, Copenhagen
ISBN: 87-981702-0-1

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