Looking at Appalachian Transition

I’ve always been a words person. Thinking doesn’t feel like thinking for me unless I’m punching keys; I don’t know what I know unless it’s spread out in lines on a page. And so gripping the barrel of a digital camera these past few weeks has felt like experiencing the world with a brand new skin.

My fellowship revolves around an initiative called What’s Next, WV?, a bunch of conversations about building more vibrant local economies that will unfold in communities across West Virginia in the coming year.  A good deal of the work will be co-coordinating the daily in’s and out’s of a statewide initiative—the website, the outreach, the emails. 

But truth be told, what gets me out of bed in the morning are stories—finding them, searching for their tap root, and shaping them into something that can be shared with an audience. Luckily, storytelling is a big part of What’s Next, WV? too. This coming year I’ll be capturing and sharing the stories of my fellow West Virginians who are doing particularly interesting, innovative, or effective work in their local economy. 

That’s how I arrived at the Highlander Center with a brand new Nikon D3200 dangling around my neck, generously purchased for me by my host organization, the WV Center for Civic Life. What better way to practice the language of photographic image-making than a 12-day immersive tour of Appalachia with fourteen transition rockstars? (Check out the photo collection here

The stories we tell about ourselves are not unrelated to our economic future. On June 10th, the Appalachian Transition Fellows arrived at Appalshop in Whitesburg, KY, the region’s headquarters for community-based documentary. We were greeted by Ada Smith, a leader at Appalshop, who told us: “When you have people living in the place deciding the story they want to tell, they begin imagining and transforming their futures. … Storytelling is essential for reaching a different economic future, because we have to believe something else is possible.”

Ada Smith, Photo by Catherine Moore

Ada Smith, Photo by Catherine Moore

 Making images of Appalachia is, of course, fraught with all kinds of anxieties, first and foremost the tendency—the tradition, really--of artists and journalists from outside the region parachuting in to extract images that both create and reinforce painful stereotypes about our culture (poverty, ignorance, lack of diversity, etc.). Given this inheritance, it sometimes feels like Appalachians are afraid to be looked at. Not being seen at all is safer than facing the truth about how “the outside” sees us. 

I’d like to share some recent and ongoing image-making projects that I’ve found particularly interesting and thought-provoking. Some insist on holding up the megaphone to residents themselves. Others were produced by artists who live far away. All are provoking lots of conversations within the region about how Appalachia is, or should be, seen and understood:

Jane George. May 18, 2014, South Pittsburg, Marion County, Tennessee, from Looking at Appalachia – “In an attempt to explore the diversity of Appalachia and establish a visual counter point [to “War on Poverty” imagery], this project will look at Appalachia fifty years after the declaration of the War on Poverty. Drawing from a diverse population of photographers within the region, this new crowdsourced image archive will serve as a reference that is defined by its people as opposed to political legislation.”

Jane George. May 18, 2014, South Pittsburg, Marion County, Tennessee, from Looking at Appalachia – “In an attempt to explore the diversity of Appalachia and establish a visual counter point [to “War on Poverty” imagery], this project will look at Appalachia fifty years after the declaration of the War on Poverty. Drawing from a diverse population of photographers within the region, this new crowdsourced image archive will serve as a reference that is defined by its people as opposed to political legislation.”

“Rod Mayberry shines his shoes as he and Dan Brewer, both members of the Bluefield Marine Corps League, prepare to participate in a Memorial Day parade in Bramwell, Mercer County, West Virginia.”  (Photo courtesy Looking at Appalachia, Photographer Lauren Pond)

“Rod Mayberry shines his shoes as he and Dan Brewer, both members of the Bluefield Marine Corps League, prepare to participate in a Memorial Day parade in Bramwell, Mercer County, West Virginia.”
 (Photo courtesy Looking at Appalachia, Photographer Lauren Pond)

Bertien van Manen’s Moonshine – “Spanning almost three decades, Moonshine is a portrait of the American Appalachian folk, a mythologised region populated by ‘moonshiners’.”  See also Roger May’s interview with van Manen and Nate May’s take on the work. 

Bertien van Manen’s Moonshine – “Spanning almost three decades, Moonshine is a portrait of the American Appalachian folk, a mythologised region populated by ‘moonshiners’.” 

See also Roger May’s interview with van Manen and Nate May’s take on the work. 

Hollow – “Hollow is an interactive documentary and community participatory project that examines the future of rural America through the eyes and voices of those living in McDowell County, W.Va. Hollow combines video portraits, data visualizations, photography, soundscapes, community-generated content and grassroots mapping to bring these stories to life through an online experience.” 

Hollow – “Hollow is an interactive documentary and community participatory project that examines the future of rural America through the eyes and voices of those living in McDowell County, W.Va. Hollow combines video portraits, data visualizations, photography, soundscapes, community-generated content and grassroots mapping to bring these stories to life through an online experience.” 

Stacy Kranitz’s “As It Was Give(n) To Me” – “An archive of collected images, text, drawings and objects that traces exploration and extraction in central Appalachia. These documents reflect on our relationship to representations of reality and the inherent flaws and ruptures in constructed notions of truth.”  See also an interview with Stacy talking about the work, and look for a review of the work by Jeff Whetstone in the next issue of the Journal of Appalachian Studies. 

Stacy Kranitz’s “As It Was Give(n) To Me” – “An archive of collected images, text, drawings and objects that traces exploration and extraction in central Appalachia. These documents reflect on our relationship to representations of reality and the inherent flaws and ruptures in constructed notions of truth.” 

See also an interview with Stacy talking about the work, and look for a review of the work by Jeff Whetstone in the next issue of the Journal of Appalachian Studies

Megan King’s “Hispanic Appalachia” –  “These photographs focus on Latino culture in the changing social landscape of Southern Appalachia. By photographing businesses, people, churches, homes, and other aspects of the community, I am attempting to show the importance of emerging diversity in this historically conservative region of the United States.”

Megan King’s “Hispanic Appalachia” –  “These photographs focus on Latino culture in the changing social landscape of Southern Appalachia. By photographing businesses, people, churches, homes, and other aspects of the community, I am attempting to show the importance of emerging diversity in this historically conservative region of the United States.”

 - Catherine Moore