Take a look through Roger May’s crowd-sourced photography project Looking at Appalachia and you’ll gain a perspective of the region in stark contrast with the images born out of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty a half century ago.
Black and white images of Appalachians became the cornerstone a national narrative when legislation was enacted to combat poverty and unemployment in wide spans of rural America in 1964. Somber front-page photographs defined Appalachians as poor, white, and uneducated members of a culture that had failed to keep up economically with the rest of the country.
Today’s attempt by homegrown photographers to bring light to the growing diversity in Appalachian culture is led by May — a Kentucky-born, West Virginia-raised, North Carolina-transplant who has recently returned to West Virginia to become director of the Appalachian South Folklife Center. In that role, as well as directing Looking at Appalachia, May hopes to dispel the stereotype that Appalachia should be understood exclusively as poverty-stricken.
“We don’t give a voice to anyone. We all have voices on our own,” May said. “But we can help amplify the voice.”
The official geography of Appalachia connects city dwellers and coal miners alike — in both cul-de-sacs and 100-acre farms — from Binghamton, New York, to Birmingham, Alabama. May’s photo collection includes submissions from each of the 13 states with counties considered to be part of Appalachia, as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Just three images from the same state can convey completely different stories of what living in Appalachia is like, as noted by Rosemary Hathaway, a West Virginia University English professor who specializes in folklore and American literature.
May’s photograph of a man sitting outside in front of a blue and green mountain backdrop in Pipestem, West Virginia, reminds Hathaway of how she grew up hearing her grandmother name their backyard mountains from closest to farthest away. Ryan Stone’s image inside a Hinton barbershop makes Hathaway think the area transcends time, that the same community members have gone through this shop for years without question. Then she saw Pang Tubhirun’s photo of the “hipster bike guy” in Shepherdstown.
“We may want to frame our Appalachia in a time that’s slow and nostalgic, but this picture is in the same exact time as the previous one and defies that,” Hathaway said.
For Michael McCawley, a professor of environmental health at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, perusing the images of West Virginia on the Looking for Appalachia website revealed a common theme of the state: the color green.
People who leave the state and return many years later tend to notice the overwhelming amount of green found in the trees and the distant hills, but McCawley said the green is always contrasting with something else. Take Kristian Thacker’s shot in Halltown, where a bright sunset and winter snow are eclipsed by a big green recycling mill. Or look at Pat Jarrett’s picture of a Charleston chemical storage facility, where a sliver of green flora neighbors bright, white storage tanks owned by the company that was responsible for the January 2014 chemical leak into the Elk River.
“This is the image people are taking away from Appalachia,” McCawley said. “It’s a pretty accurate description of the area, but it’s not everything.”
So how can members of the media and citizen photojournalists help cover the wider perspectives of life in Appalachia? WVU professor of Appalachian history Ken Fones-Wolf says the most effective projects in the War on Poverty were the ones that started with listening to the people and asking directly what kind of help the people suffering in poverty wanted. When the individuals are overlooked, he says, the mass media throws the label “Trump Country” over the entire state and region.
“Historians have been working the past 50 years trying to undo the stereotypes of the region,” Fones-Wolf said. “When people ask why Trump won, they point to McDowell County, West Virginia, or Harlan County, Kentucky. For the national media, that represents Appalachia?”
McDowell County has been a featured site of major media stories (including by The Guardian, CNN, and the Washington Post) that attempt to explain Donald Trump’s popularity among rural counties. But as McCawley will remind you, poverty and rural geographies aren’t mutually exclusive. McDowell County was one of the richest counties in America because it had “some of the best coal in the world.”
Likewise, May recalls his grandfather telling the same story — that McDowell County was the only place other than New York City you could buy Chanel No. 5 perfume because it was that booming.
The misleading national attention given to small portions of a large, diverse region keep May going.
“I have a knee-jerk reaction. I’m hyper protective,” May said. “None of us as individuals can truly represent a place, even on our best days. It takes a collective.”