In January of 1964, when Life magazine published pictures by the renowned photojournalist John Dominis in a 12-page feature on Appalachian poverty, the magazine reached millions of people each week. Across the country, readers held in their hands stirring images from eastern Kentucky: “sad-faced and prematurely aged” young women; little girls holding dirty, unclothed dolls; “ragged urchins” playing on front porches; a father and son collecting stray lumps of coal from a railroad track to heat their home; an exhausted mother caring for sick children.
These photos became iconic fodder for the War on Poverty, inspiring concern, sympathy, and action in a place where many were struggling to get by. But for many people, they also came to define the region as a whole: a single, narrow representation of what it meant to be Appalachian, one in which the people were poor and white—and largely objects of pity.
Fifty years after those photos were published, some artists, activists, and academics are working to expand that definition. From a photographer heading an art project to crowd-source new pictures of life in the region, to organizations working with Appalachian youth to both critique and create their own media representations, there are efforts underway to provide a more diverse and nuanced picture of Appalachia and the people who call it home.
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Appalachians have long been painted by outsiders as not only downtrodden but also, in many cases, degenerate. As someone who grew up in West Virginia, I’m acutely aware of these stereotyped representations, from The Beverly Hillbillies to Deliverance to any number of reality-TV shows today.
Right-wing Fox News host Bill O’Reilly gave us a pointed example of this narrative in 2009 when he described the culture of the region as one that “harms the children almost beyond repair,” where “kids get married at 16 and 17” and “their parents are drunks.” O’Reilly concluded that if he’d been born in Appalachia, he would move away “the first chance I get.”
Given the long history of exploitation that led to the region’s deep economic problems, such stereotypes serve to direct attention away from larger systemic issues and place the blame on Appalachians themselves, says Carissa Massey, an art-history professor at Adrian College. They also serve to “repress the agency of people in Appalachia.”
Women and girls in the region face unique—but no less negative—stereotypes. Sally Ward Maggard, who taught sociology at West Virginia University, outlines the two dominant stereotypes of Appalachian women: They are either “quiet caretakers” who craft, cook, and garden, or “voluptuous, vacuous,” barefoot-and-pregnant women. Girls from the region are faced with representations that paint them as trash. Becky, a former participant in a now-defunct leadership-development program for girls in Lincoln County, West Virginia, described it like this: “Every time they do a report on [my county], I think they go find the worst people they can and put them on TV. They don’t find the smart people. The way people look at you—it’s like you’re trash or something…. They don’t think that much of people in Lincoln County, especially the girls.”
From Dominis’s era to the present day, popular representations of the region have also tended to erase the experiences—even the existence—of people of color. The author and feminist theorist bell hooks, who was born and raised in Kentucky, writes that “the black Appalachian experience has always been contested by folks who either know little about Kentucky or refuse to accept the diversity of that history and the true stories of diversity in these hills.” In reality, people of color represent roughly 17 percent of Appalachia’s population, and racial diversity has been increasing in recent years.
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In 2014, photographer Roger May launched a crowd-sourced photography project aimed at exploring the diversity and expanding the visual representations of Appalachia. May initially considered taking all of the photos himself, but he wanted to avoid depicting the region only through his own eyes. Instead, his project—called “Looking at Appalachia”—encourages amateur and professional photographers to submit their own pictures.
May lives and works in Raleigh, North Carolina, after growing up near the border of West Virginia and Kentucky. He’s especially interested in how Appalachia is “looked at and talked about” half a century after the War on Poverty photos, and he hopes that his project will help create a “visual counterpoint” to those images.
“I can’t really say for sure if it equally helped and harmed, but at the time I think it certainly served its purpose,” May says, speaking about the iconic photos. Although they did “a phenomenal job of highlighting need,” he adds, the pictures left viewers with “this indelible impression that that’s what Appalachia is.”
Which is not to say that his new project intends to deny or gloss over the poverty in the region. Appalachia’s poverty rate is more than 17 percent, nearly two points higher than the national average. And in some places, the rate is even higher—as in the Appalachian counties of Kentucky, where one in four people, on average, lives in poverty. May says that while much has changed since the 1964 photos, “unfortunately, a lot of the problems that existed then still exist now—they just wear a different mask.”
For “Looking at Appalachia,” May works with a team of other photographers to select and curate the pictures that will be included in an online gallery and a traveling exhibit. The project features a wide range of images, from those that many would already associate with Appalachia—such as coal miners and misty, rolling hills—to those they might not: women playing roller derby, young people showing off hot-pink hair.
“When you look at a geographic region [that runs] from southern New York all the way to northeast Mississippi,” May points out, “that’s a pretty broad spectrum of not only physical geography, but also human geography.”
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For the past two years, researcher Tammy Clemons has been working with young people in West Virginia and Kentucky to study how young Appalachians produce and use media to envision their possible futures.
Clemons says that some of the young women talk about drawing inspiration from May’s project, which is “reconnecting a new generation of youth to this body of visual productions that maybe they weren’t aware of before, but that [has] partly constructed the reality in which they’re living.” It has also provided young people with a way to respond directly by posting images of their own.
One of the places that Clemons has conducted her research is at High Rocks Academy, an all-girls youth-development program in rural West Virginia where she’s taught media literacy and production for the past two summers. In the class, participants deconstruct stereotypes of young women and Appalachians; learn how to shoot and edit their own videos; and examine the power of visual-media representations in their daily lives. One focus is on media consumption as an active, rather than passive, experience for young people.
“You can choose how to consume something,” Clemons says. “You can choose how you interpret it, what you do with it, and how you respond to it. One response is making your own media.”
Another site for her research is the Appalachian Media Institute (AMI), a project of Appalshop, a media and education center in southeastern Kentucky established in 1969 that gives local people the opportunity to make their own films and tell their own stories. Here, young people participate in intensive summer internships in which they research issues, create media products, and lead outreach campaigns on issues like environmental degradation and domestic violence.
In “Appalachian Youth Re-envisioning Home, Re-making Identities,” a recent essay from the book Transforming Places: Lessons From Appalachia, one former AMI intern talks about the power of looking at the region in a new light: “So, as kids, I would say the majority of people that I went to school with were really embarrassed to be from here. And that’s just the reality of it…. And in AMI, when I came here and I saw some of the films and talked to people, it really hit me that outside perception of the area was really robbing me of my history and culture and making me feel ashamed.”
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After moving away from the region and returning many years later as an adult, bell hooks wrote about her surprise that “so many of the negative stereotypes about life in Kentucky are as fixed in our national geographic imagination as they were when I first left the state years ago.” In the project of re-envisioning Appalachia, especially the portrayal of women and girls, there is still much work to be done.
Novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns of the “danger of a single story,” and for decades the dominant story of Appalachia has been one of “ragged urchins,” of empty-headed women, of low-life hillbillies. We have always been more than this story. And through projects like “Looking at Appalachia,” there are finally new ones being written.