• February 6, 2015

A Fresh Look at Appalachia—50 Years After the War on Poverty

Becky Harlan

I could introduce this post by listing all the hackneyed misrepresentations of Appalachia. It would be easy. Boxing people in is easy. Writing off a region is easy. What’s more difficult is shedding some of those cliched ways of seeing in order to really look. That’s what Roger May, a photographer with his heartstrings tied to Appalachia, is trying to do. And the most important thing about his journey to re-see Appalachia is that he’s not doing it alone. I called May and asked him to tell me more about “Looking at Appalachia,” the crowdsourced photography project he is very thoughtfully facilitating.

Picture of a young boy wearing galoshes holding a mason jar filled with tadpoles
Mason prepares to release tadpoles that were collected nearby. Hocking County, Ohio.
Photograph by Dennis Savage

BECKY HARLAN: How do you think people outside of Appalachia view the region?

ROGER MAY: My take is that it seems like the last bastion of America that’s sort of generalized, lumped together, and made fun of. It’s a relatively common thought that people from Appalachia are underprivileged, poorly educated, and backwoods. That probably says just as much about my bias toward outsiders as their perceived bias about Appalachia. I also know what I see and what mass media feeds our culture, and that is this pervasive view of the celebratory hillbilly. If that’s the filter that’s put on Appalachia by mass media, then shame on us if we lay down and take what mass media is feeding us.

Picture of two women sitting on a bench outside of a tavern smoking cigarettes
Two local women take a smoke break outside of a tavern on West Main Street in Frostburg, Allegany County, Maryland.
Photograph by Mike Baker

BECKY: And what about how actual residents view the region?

ROGER: I think people in Appalachia are aware, to some extent, of the stereotypes. And in all fairness those stereotypes aren’t 100 percent inaccurate. To say that would be a huge disservice to the truth. I think some of those are celebrated and some of them may have been true at a specific point in time or in a specific place. But any time we make broad generalizations we paint a pretty limited picture.

It’s important not to overromanticize the region, to not only photograph these wisened mountain mothers and old bearded men who look like they’ve worked with their hands for 60 years. There’s a whole Appalachia that I think has been unreported. One of the things I hoped this project would bring about is a balanced view of a place. And to think about the scale of Appalachia as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission map—from southern New York to northeast Mississippi—that’s a huge region. We’re talking about some pretty big urban areas, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Asheville, and Pittsburgh.

Picture of the backs of two billboards with trees growing up behind them
Billboards in East Wilmerding face away from town and towards the Triboro expressway that passes by Wilmerding in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
. Photograph by Stephen Speranza
Annual garage sale in a vacant grocery store to benefit the local explorer scout troop in Athens, Bradford County, Pennsylvania, May 12, 2014
Explorer scouts raise money for their group by organizing an annual garage sale in a vacant grocery store in Athens, Bradford County, Pennsylvania.
Photograph by Brett Carlsen

BECKY: You use President Johnson’s 1960s initiative, unofficially called the War on Poverty, as sort of a jumping off point to take another look at this region. Why do you reference that?

ROGER: If you Google “War on Poverty,” you’ll be inundated with images of Appalachia. There are all these photos that circulated in the late ’60s that were used to illustrate the need in pockets of Appalachia. I think they somehow went on to visually define an entire region, however unfair that may be. And they were perpetuated by these other stereotypes, like holler dwellers and moonshiners. We started becoming inundated with photographs of broken-down cars and rail-thin kids out gathering coal by hand. I’m in no way saying those things didn’t happen or weren’t true at some level, it’s just that when Life magazine, in January of 1964, published a 12-page spread on eastern Kentucky, it was pretty heavily embellished with pictures of extreme poverty. I think the word “shack” was used near half a dozen times in the captions for those images.

Four teenage boys dressed in hoodies, three of them standing and staring at the camera, one looking down at his phone
Wilmerding youth hang out behind the vacant Westinghouse Elementary, formerly the Westinghouse Memorial High School. The school has been vacant since 2008. Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
Photograph by Stephen Speranza

BECKY: Why do you think the more stereotyped images seem to dominate?

ROGER: Maybe it’s that it’s already an established narrative. It doesn’t challenge what people know or think they know. I mean, poverty exists, right? There is suffering and struggling everywhere; it’s not just happening in Appalachia. People both inside and outside the region want that to be known. And those pictures are easy to make. They’re drive-by style. Making different pictures requires getting out of the car, talking to people, coming back. But most importantly, it means listening to people. Pictures of “normalcy” may require a bit more work. For those that are willing to slow down and settle in for the long view, I hope this project offers something worthy of their time and attention.

Picture of an older woman wearing a sun hat and a yellow shirt
A woman pauses from her work in the front yard of the house she shares with her son. She used to tend a large flower garden, but now her yard is neatly kept grass. Berea, Madison County, Kentucky.
Photograph by Meg Wilson

BECKY: What inspired you to begin putting together this project? How did it turn into such a large collaboration?

ROGER: 2014 was the 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty. I looked around and didn’t see anyone doing any committed photography project to mark that, and that’s a pretty big milestone. I thought it would be interesting to take a fresh look at a region half a century after the fact.

When I sat down at my dining room table with my Appalachian regional map and tried to plan a trip to 13 states and 420 counties, I realized pretty quickly that even on an accelerated schedule it would take me three or four months of being on the road to get around and make any meaningful photographs. I’m not in a position with my work to take that much time off. I have three kids at home and one in college. Even more so, I think it would be kind of flat to have just one photographer’s work. The real push of the project is to show the range and the breadth of the people and place, and having one photographer do that is not unlike having one mass media outlet portray a region in one way. So it made sense to put out an open call for work from anyone who was making pictures in one of the 420 counties in 2014.

Picture of a Sunday School attendance board over a green chair
An attendance board hangs in the lobby of Boomer Baptist Church in Boomer, West Virginia. Boomer Baptist also serves as the only K-12 school in the town, with a total of 12 students and four faculty members. In better economic times, more than 300 people attended church here. Fayette County, West Virginia.
Photograph by Justin Gellerson

BECKY: What were the most common types of image submitted?

ROGER: There were a lot of vistas. If people think of Appalachia they’re thinking the Appalachian region or the Appalachian mountains, and there’s some overlap there because obviously the mountains run through Appalachia. You get to this point where you’re like, “Okay, another vista.” And it doesn’t resonate in the same way.

Picture of a little boy pushing a babydoll in a storller and his grandmother sitting in a recliner working on a laptop and smoking a cigarette
Two-year-old R.J. plays at his grandmother Tammie’s house in Glouster, Athens County, Ohio. R.J. is Tammie’s only grandson. She watches him most afternoons while his mom takes nursing classes.
Photograph by Andrea Morales

BECKY: What surprised you?

ROGER: I said in a radio interview that my favorite emails were the ones that started with, “I’m not a professional photographer, but here’s a picture of my great uncle’s 90th birthday.” Or, “I don’t have a website. I hope that doesn’t exclude me from the project, but I wanted to include these pictures.” And more often than not I was really impressed with the quality of the pictures.

BECKY: What were some of the themes you picked up on?

ROGER: I think overall it’s just a fierce independence—a willingness to strike out and do your own thing and be your own person, to not conform as easily as people would like you to.

Picture of a sign that reads "tent revival" surrounded by kudzu
Tent revival in Baisden, Mingo County, West Virginia
Photograph by Roger May

BECKY: You received over 2,000 submissions. How did you choose the final images?

ROGER: I knew that I couldn’t curate this thing on my own, that if I did it would be my aesthetic at work. So I asked seven other photographers whose work I really admire and [who I] am personal friends with to form an editorial board. There are a variety of photographers, from strictly film shooters who only shoot 4×5 to digital run-and-gun kind of photojournalists. It was a fairly balanced, democratic process.

Picture of a woman in a yellow ballgown and tiara riding down the street on a float and waving at observers
The Corning-Monroe Fall Festival queen waves from her float while in the Jacksonville Old Settlers Reunion parade in Jacksonville, Athens County, Ohio.
Photograph by Andrea Morales
Picture of a man dressed in camo resting in the back of a truck and a man dressed in camo walking down a path
Turkey hunters near Keysers Ridge in Garrett County, Maryland.
Photograph by Joshua Yospyn

BECKY: Where do you think this story is headed?

ROGER: This project is sort of a broad stroke, but that brush is made up of 298 bristles—that’s the number of photographs that were included in the 2014 selection. That broad brushstroke gives us, hopefully, a more balanced view of a place, and then each of those individual pictures tells their own story. What I hope by continuing the project is that each year we’re able to build on the previous year, that we can expand the story. To really continue to build this out, not so much rallying under the banner of, “Hey, that’s not what we look like. This is what we look like,” but, “Hey, let’s just take a fresh look at Appalachia.” And we may or may not be surprised at what we find, but the hard work is done in the looking.

Want to get involved with Looking at Appalachia? Roger May wants you to too.

“I would just encourage folks to have a look at the project, and if there’s anyone that wants to host a show, or host a talk, or be at a panel discussion, just give us a holler.” —Roger May

See more of the 298 images that were chosen for the 2014 collection of Looking at Appalachia on its website and follow along on Instagram.

See more of Roger May’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

There are 40 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Kathy
    April 30, 2016

    I applaud your project. My husband and I were born and raised in Appalachia MD. My grandfather worked in the coal mines of the area at the age of 12 yrs. None of my grandparents had a high school education but they self educated themselves for the rest of their lives and were model and respected citizens.
    We’re blue-collar workers and high school graduates. We have raised 4 children, all of whom are now college grads, the youngest just recently graduated from an accredited college with full honors as a chemist (you can tell, we’re very proud).
    I was raised on a farm, canned (still do), sew and knit. I cannot begin to explain our deep rooted love for these mountains. We are people who have instilled values of others “letting us live and leaving us alone”. You’ll find that in most Appalachian folks.
    The stereo-typing continues and has followed our college grads in spite of them “moving up” into the world. Sad but true.
    We’re American and we’re proud.

  2. Caleb Booth
    March 23, 2016

    The “War on Poverty” effects me by.Its where i live it affects my daily life.What picture i think reflects us the most is. the picture of our youth hanging out. As they hang out and have a good time. People must think of us as hillbillys because we out in the hills and hunt and are outdoors alot

  3. Christopher Motte
    January 26, 2016

    I lived in Pisgah forest north Carolina for a year; and I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have which is something I regret. The mountains are a beautiful place and if you live in one of the metropolitan areas’ spoke of in the article where you have the conveniences of a city, and/or you have the money to live in the surrounding area than it is probably even more so. Though if you don’t living there may be quite hard maybe even more so than living in other remote areas’ away from cities. Just working for someone and not having a specialized skill set may not be enough to support oneself or they’re family, probably why so many mountain people turned to making moonshine. Then again maybe those people didn’t see themselves as poverty stricken, maybe not until somebody told them.

  4. Dani Knul
    January 26, 2016

    The picture in the article seem as they are middle class. It is sad that they lived in poverty, there are other people that lived in poverty out there and they may have different saying about their life. Some of the comment disagree about all Appalachian being in poverty. I think that is true because there are areas that are growing and being more educate, I think there should be more positive side of the article. The areas that are growing should spread the knowledge and technologies that they develop so that Appalachian can gain what they do not have so that they may get out of poverty and have a better future.

    January 18, 2016

    Your poverty pictures and comments are very impressive to me because mountain peoples can not have good communication or supports, compared to city peoples, but they are trying to overcome the poverty continuously.

  6. mwade
    January 17, 2016

    I think the propaganda such as the pictures of “certain folk,” and the scenic views are used to “shop”(sell) the Appalachian region. The region is presumed by people who have not otherwise visited the region, to vision the region as wholesome, and content. It would seem to me that the people within the region don’t take it personal. Perhaps there is nothing to be offended by, perhaps there are actually no stereotypes that the community has been put on the spot to offer an explanation concerning these misconceptions. Pictures from Appalachia have been used to support the war on poverty that was presumed to be an issue at that time. Presently it does not seem to be an issue, just people who won’t let the past be the past. Appalachia to support the “war on poverty” Appalachia is not being held back by “stereotypes” or misconceptions. Appalachia presents a region where the people are generally called ”folks”.

  7. Christopher Singleton
    January 16, 2016

    After reading the article and looking what people had said in their comments was a different outlook on what I had thought poverty was. And how there was two different views on how they live in the Appalachia.

  8. Christopher Singleton
    January 16, 2016

    As I read the article and the comments that people said was found interesting to me because they had different views on what poverty was and what is like to live in Appalachia.

  9. Cortney
    January 15, 2016

    I don’t believe Berea, Ky is actually within the Appalachian area. Am I incorrect? Even the map I checked shows the Appalachian area just east of Berea.

  10. Izac
    January 15, 2016

    It is very unfortunate that these people live in poverty. I think that the people of Appalachia are simply different from other people who don’t live in poverty. They shouldn’t be criticized because they are different. I think that calling someone a hillbilly is is a form of stereotype. The photographs tell a lot of information about the people who live in Appalachia. Many people fail to attend school, church, and college, which is way out of question for these poor folks. The people in the photographs seem quite happy with their life choices. Maybe they don’t want financial help and maybe they do like the way they live.

  11. Izac Lakey
    January 15, 2016

    It is very unfortunate that these people live in poverty. I think that the people of Appalachia are simply different from other people who don’t live in poverty. They shouldn’t be criticized because they are different. I think that calling someone a hillbilly is is a form of stereotype. The photographs tell a lot of information about the people who live in Appalachia. Many people fail to attend school, church, and college, which is way out of question for these poor folks. The people in the photographs seem quite happy with their life choices. Maybe they don’t want financial help and maybe they do like the way they live.

  12. Izac Lakey
    January 15, 2016

    This article has great photographs, they really helped me get an understanding of how people live in Appalachia. It is very unfortunate that people have to live in poverty though.

  13. ramonta galloway
    January 14, 2016

    I do remember all the hillbillys shows that they used to run on tv. So i understand why there’s that typ
    e of sterotype on community’s such as Appalachia, but I think it’s ignorance to assume before you experience and get to know people from that community.

  14. Emoni Shuler
    January 14, 2016

    As I read the article it made me think and realize that most people do have a set bias about people, ones choice of living arrangements, and what they believe to be true; so seeing this made me remember that there will always be a bias about poverty and which state or country is quote unquote “poor” or “poverty stricken”.

  15. Anthony Dow,s
    February 12, 2015

    Great photographs of the place I call my home. Thanks for the coverage.

  16. Bernard Salzman
    February 12, 2015

    Even though the citizens who reside in Appalachia are often lumped together as one culture, we are all individuals. We all have our own hopes, desires and feelings. The negative images some people perceive have to do with poverty. This poverty is mainly due to years of non-sustainable business activities such as exporting our resources until depletion, then abandonment. The book “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” by Harry Caudill explains this very well. Perhaps a follow-up article could include some of the wonderful and positive things that are happening in the region to promote a lasting prosperity.

  17. Eliot
    February 11, 2015

    Lovely photos! The photos are amazing, my delight.

  18. Cindy Lowe
    February 10, 2015

    My daughter is the young lady getting out of the racecar, Kealey Lowe. She is not a hillbilly or a red neck. She races cars and she is also a member of the cheer leading squad at her high school. She has been involved with a ballet studio right here in Cumberland County since she was 2 years old.. We have lived in Cumberland County all of our lives. I think parts of this story are great, but I feel as if there is not enough positive involved. There is still a lot of poverty in this area, but we are not backwards hillbillies. I work at Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Admissions. We are a technical college. We have the technology to educate people and the students to prove it, but the jobs are just not in the area. We need to start showing more of this side of Appalachian areas and the growth that has come and stop dwelling on the negative. We need to help the area grow with positive images and industry to attract companies to our area.

  19. Gini Coover
    February 10, 2015

    Seems you have defined Appalachia by the war on poverty, a deceptive way to look at the people of Appalachia. What Appalachia needs is a war on GREED, the greed of the coal and energy companies that came into Appalachia, bought up the land, cheap, and extracted the resources making huge profits, and leaving the people of Appalachia behind with environmental destruction and limited resources. Why don’t you write about that? Given that reality, the survival of the Appalachian people in the face of those great odds is impressive. And the corporate greed has not ended. It is now returning full force for the final destructions of parts of Appalachia by breaking up the rock layers under the land to extract gas and drill holes to deposit toxic waste materials from all across the country. If you get rid of the corporate greed that is destroying Appalachia, the people and the land would survive beautifully. The people are strong, brilliant, and resilient.
    They care more about the well being of their families and communities than becoming rich and destroying other people’s communities for profits.

  20. Eaton Beavers (Infidel Kafir al-Amriki)
    February 10, 2015

    I appreciate the attempt, but there is not balance in these photos. Where were the pics of the businessman, athlete, average person? Too many smokers in run down places.

  21. Bryan Wodaski
    February 9, 2015

    In many ways Appalachia is a forgotten world. I see the beauty of nature but I also see poverty, drugs and despair. No offense to the author but Appalachia needs help. It and it’s people don’t have jobs and many have lost hope. I would like to see that covered more somehow. I say that because these are a forgotten people.

  22. Shannon
    February 9, 2015

    I enjoyed the photographs and the interesting article and viewpoint on our local area. Well Done.

  23. DakotaRayJohnson
    February 9, 2015

    Wow thats pretty cool but i don’t have a grandmother she died when ever i think i was 11or 12…

  24. JULIE
    February 9, 2015


  25. Karl Hill
    February 8, 2015

    Harmon Jones: She didn’t define the Appalachian region. The Appalachian Regional Commission did that.

  26. Arthur
    February 8, 2015

    What a way to catch life with photos. excellent.

  27. Harmon Jones
    February 8, 2015

    Can Miss Harlan name the mountain range that exists in Mississippi? Can she even give us a single mountain in Mississippi? Of course, geographically savvy people know the answer to that. Please give us factual reporting, not fanciful reporting.

  28. Linda F.Cooke
    February 8, 2015

    Looking at the photos, I had the feeling of a developing middle class strata of America, such that was present, in my neighborhood, when I was a young teen in the 60’s. I find poverty down my street, in the rural areas, I live by, near Gainesville, Florida. I have great hope for the peoples of lower income, in our country. With world wide technology, more are aware of what is needed to stamp out poverty, however, America is one of the lowest contributor for poverty, in the world and Americans, some of less donating. Maybe we should get our priorities straight, and not showcase the biggest celebrities’ bottoms as news, and give a more accurate picture of our peoples’ needs….slam your congress representatives with what we want addressed….and no….I don’t think the majority is involved with our needs….too busy worrying what the media says we need.

  29. Amy Kline
    February 7, 2015

    My daughter is pictured and I feel very honored by that. I also feel very blessed to live in this area. There are a lot of opportunities not just employment but life lessons that may not have been learned living somewhere else. Thank you for shining a different light on us “hill billies”

  30. David Underwood
    February 7, 2015

    This is an important story, and I hope the photographs are widely seen. In the summer of 2014, my wife and I started a small scale publishing company. Our third book will be an Anthology of Appalachian Photographers, and it is due for release in late spring 2015. We put out a call for all photographers living in southern Appalachia to submit photographs, and we received very high quality, interesting, and diverse work from 117 photographers from ten states. Appalachia is full of amateur photographers, as well as college-educated, terminally-degreed artists, medical doctors, lawyers, and other professionals of all disciplines. Appalachia is a diverse place. Yes, we have poverty, but we also have highly respected institutions of higher learning, hospitals, art organizations, churches, large cities, and small mountain towns. Our forthcoming Anthology of Appalachian Photographers will include top quality work from 82 individual photographers, and will include such a variety of work that many viewers will be surprised. Check out the Sapling Grove Press web site for more information, at: http://www.saplinggrovepresss.com.

  31. Ted
    February 7, 2015

    It was not only the US government that created the stereotypes, but writers associated with rich industrialists who saw the area as a source of raw materials with local people potentially standing in their way. The parks came later.

  32. Dan Parker
    February 7, 2015

    We are no different than many places in this country. Appalachia is just another unique area of the country where, unfortunately, poverty is wide spread. We are no different than the inland empire of central California, the reservations of the western states or remote native villages of Alaska. Appalachia is like a brand…we are a strong people and have our weaknesses and strengths and someday with hard work and education Appalachia will become an accepted term instead of a stereotyped region. Great article!

  33. sue Lewis
    February 6, 2015

    i enjoyed the insight. I was born and raised in Hinton WV. You can’t imagine how hard it is to dig out of poverty . We wasn’t raised with the idea of having a profession. To most it was finding a job, any job. This was 75 years ago. It always surprised me how many people were content with their lot in life and no desire to do anything else. I always long to see the world and to live a fuller life that I read about in the few books that our libraries at school provided. The schools didn’t furnish any technical trading or encouraged us to think about college. It was out of reach for many. I found my way out by joining the military. I love to go back and see the place where I grew up. But, sad to say it looks shabbier than ever. Lots of my friends and family still live in the area. Some left and came back after retiring. The adage of there’s no place like home.

  34. West Virginian
    February 6, 2015

    I wondered why there wasn’t a portrait of Senator John D. Rockefeller IV who spent so many years in the U. S. Senate representing West Virginia — and the years he served as Governor of West Virginia?

  35. Dalla
    February 6, 2015

    Lovely photos! In regard to the hillbilly stereotype of people in Appalachia, I learned in a History class that the stereotype was created and spread in the early 1900s by the US government. Smearing the character of these people was apparently part of a government effort to secure land for the creation of the National Parks system. This was achieved by hiring several noted authors to publish documentary-style stories of the “hill folk” which painted them in a very negative, backwards (and false) light. The idea was that once these stereotypes were accepted, the American populace would see the Appalachian people as backwards and morally corrupt, and nobody would raise a fuss in their defense when the US government finally did confiscate these peoples’ land. Throughout much of the park system today, it’s typical to hike past old abandoned homesteads, farms, and cemeteries that had to be left behind.

  36. Buckeye Ranger
    February 6, 2015

    Outstanding Mason!

  37. Diana
    February 6, 2015

    Wonderful and vivid photos.

  38. bibol
    February 6, 2015

    Sometimes poverty is a lifestyle. Some of my family married people there. The ones that did married ambitious men. But the in laws only worked to survive. They lacked vision and only worried about the next day

  39. Emily
    February 6, 2015

    I hate to point out a typo, but “Berea”, KY, is the location of the woman in the yellow hat – not “Bereak”. 🙂

    • Becky Harlan
      February 6, 2015

      Thanks so much for pointing that out, Emily. The typo has been corrected.

Add Your Comments

All fields required.