“In a lonely valley in eastern Kentucky, in the heart of the mountainous region called Appalachia, live an impoverished people whose plight has long been ignored by affluent America.”
This text, which accompanied a photo essay by photographer John Dominis for LIFE magazine in 1964, rings with a tone that’s familiar now, fifty years later. It’s a tone that seems broadly explanatory at the outset, but those select flourishes of prose—lonely, impoverished, plight— mark an attempt to draw details of desperate subsistence into the foreground from the beautiful backdrop of America’s mountains.
That same year, when President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his hope that Congress would undertake “an all-out war on poverty and unemployment,” he had a hope of not only stabilizing the rampant unemployment brought about technological advancement in mining, farming, and other labor-intensive tasks, but also in solidifying a nation’s interest in those whose lives were unduly tied to the success of their region.
In the South, living and dying by the land has long been a romantic notion. But in LBJ’s day and age, where network news reports and magazines like LIFE could easily affect the national conscience, the sight of grubby children living in shacks wallpapered with newspapers or the bleary stares of long-unemployed heads of the household stirred the souls of Americans.
Johnson relied on photographs to send a message, and a few famous shots taken during his tour of poverty-stricken areas were more than helpful in his venture of establishing Medicaid, Medicare, and Federally-supplied food assistance throughout the country. Unfortunately for Appalachia, the images stuck, and for decades, even up to now, whether you consider them self-serving or self-denying, the idea of the poor, luckless resident of a rural Appalachian area overrides almost any other demographic thought in the national consciousness.
Photographer Roger May wants to counteract this kind of easy apprehension of the Appalachian mindset. He’s a son of West Virginia himself, though he’s long been separated from his hometown, having spent many years in Raleigh, NC. May’s relationship with Appalachia is personal, with feet on the ground and family “back home,” but his vision swings wider than the norm.
This year May started Looking at Appalachia, a year-long open call for photographs of Appalachia in all its faces and phases, at all elevations and machinations. Taking the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s War on Poverty initiative and the photographic record that accompanied it as a starting point, his goal is to gather a new, early 21st century cross-section of the people who occupy the long-term aftermath consciously or unconsciously.
When describing the attitude of the assignment photographers who captured the frontlines of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, May says, “You know, at the time, I think the work was well-intentioned. It was made to illustrate the dire circumstances in a particular section of the country. Now, like anything that gets bigger than itself, there’s opportunities for other meanings to develop and other narratives to be written about place or people.”
May is interested in the concepts of othering and stereotypes, especially when it comes to generalizing the citizens of Appalachia, a region that stretches all the way from northern Alabama up through Pennsylvania but is often confined within a dotted border of an imaginary mountain shanty town inside the wider consciousness.
“Certainly those weren’t the first quote-unquote poverty pictures to come out of Appalachia,” May says, “but they visually reinforced and [substantiated] those thoughts or beliefs about what Appalachia looked like. So, it’s this kind of two-edged sword, and I’m really interested in following how images have and have not evolved over the past five decades, because some of them haven’t. Some are still reaching back to those very same themes.”
May’s mother moved him and his brother out of a rural area of West Virginia when she saw a lack of opportunity for both of them. Despite the fact that he’s probably come up better off and with a wider knowledge of the world, he still routinely travels back to West Virginia to shoot, spending weekends visiting grandparents and in-laws and taking photos, then deadheading it back home in time to start his workweek. He compiled work into his first photobook Testify, and his work has appeared in Oxford American and The Guardian.
The Looking at Appalachia project has already collected dozens and dozens of submissions, some of which are highlighted by state on the site. May has solicited an “advisory board” of curators, teachers, and folklorists who share in the selection process. Even though the criteria for acceptance are quite broad, May enjoys the outside input and the collective affirmation when a majority of them are drawn to an image.
“I don’t want there to be this idea that you have to be a professional photographer, but the work does have to stand on its own. I’m feeling pretty comfortable about folks’ motivations and their understanding of this phase of the project at this point,” he says. “Now we not only have folks who are photographing their backyard, but there are people from outside the region who are going there to make work in order to contribute it to this project.”
May is a believer in the physicality of photographs, and is coming up with ways for Looking at Appalachia to “live beyond the pixels.” The main goal is to publish the 2014 photos in a book and use them as a basis for a traveling exhibition. At the same time, he is interested in creating an alternate collection on newsprint that can be produced more cheaply and distributed widely to public libraries and schools throughout the region. His hopes for that format are motivated by his own background.
“When I was 10 or 12 years old, I would’ve known pretty quickly that if I wanted to [pursue photography], I was going to have to go somewhere else to learn and practice that craft. Wherever you are in small town USA, you kind of can’t wait to get out of there and go somewhere else and live kind of a different life, but I don’t think that’s always the best answer or the only option. It would be great if kids could learn these skills and develop their skills in their hometown then choose to leave, not have to leave.”
Long-term, though, May hopes that in another 50 years some work from his project and its contributors will provide another reference point in time where people can look at what was going on in Appalachia and how people saw it, the same way we react to the old black and white images of mountain-hearted people. A reference point that, this time around, includes more than just the stoic or hardscrabble citizens or, for that matter, documentary-style photography.
“It’s an open call, from portraits and landscapes, to still lifes and nudes: all aspects of the genre of photography. Not all of Appalachia looks like the Appalachia we’ve come to know through pictures and movies. What does urban Appalachia look like? And college town Appalachia and queer Appalachia and black Appalachia...It’s reflective of America.”
Ryan Sparks is the editor of Southern Glossary.