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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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