Representing place is a complicated negotiation. How can a photographer demystify stereotypes, represent culture, sum up experience, and interpret memory and history? The following images are excerpted from As It Was Give(n) to Me, a book that attempts to answer that question using images of exploration and extraction in Appalachia today.
At one time, the federal government believed it could eradicate poverty in the United States. The War on Poverty initiated by President John F. Kennedy and implemented by Lyndon B. Johnson was a radical policy initiative: billions of dollars were doled out to programs to solve the problem of poverty in America and turn it into the “Great Society” it was meant to be. In the Appalachian states where these photographs were taken—eastern Tennessee, West Virginia, southwest Virginia, western North Carolina, eastern Kentucky, and southern Ohio—this grand gesture attempted to undo the region-wide devastation caused by the coal industry in the first half of the century, which poisoned the waters and obliterated the mountains, offering little or nothing in return to the people who lived there.
Photographers descended on the region, and Appalachia became the poster child for American poverty, a reputation that has haunted its people ever since. The producers of these images likely had the best of intentions, but they did more harm than good. No community is reducible to its gravest problems, and the unfair stereotypes—think moonshine, diabetes, feuding, inbreeding, bigotry—only further alienated a group of people who already felt ostracized from the “Great Society.” As I began to make work in the region, it became clear that I was part of the legacy of photographers whose use of the medium fueled further problems.
I realized I had come to Appalachia with a fantasy of what I wanted it to be—an amalgamation of Cormac McCarthy’s Tennessee novels, the CBS miniseries Christy, and other sources—and that this fantasy collided with my desire to realistically portray the places I visited and the people I met. My work in Appalachia is about the tension between the two. I do not want to make images that reinforce views of Appalachia as a poverty-ridden region, but I do not want to ignore the poverty I encounter. Selectively showcased positivity would be as problematic a way of looking as the negative stereotypes it’s meant to counteract. Instead I have chosen to carve out a path that makes no claims to an authoritative view of the region. The work destabilizes the certainty that the meaning of things can ever be perfectly “known” at all. I’ve come to Appalachia to open up a new kind of narrative, one that examines our understanding of culture and place while inhabiting the space between arguments about right and wrong.
Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, 2012.
Grundy, Virginia, 2011.
Beckley, West Virginia, 2012.