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When Strangers With Cameras Travel Inside Appalachia

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Rebecca Kiger
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Looking At Appalachia
Rebecca Kiger. July 23, 2014. Valley Grove, Ohio County, West Virginia

What happens when strangers with cameras come to Appalachia? It’s a complicated topic that many Appalachians have strong feelings about. We’re taking another listen to an episode we aired in 2015, but it seems like this issue never goes away.

Who gets to tell our story? What is the right way to photograph a community? We’ll hear from some Appalachian photographers, writers, and social media experts, and we’ll talk with a person who has been on the other side of the camera.

We’ll also look at a photo essay that was published in VICE magazine, called “Two Days in Appalachia,” which caused a lot of debate throughout our region, and we’ll hear from artists and photographers who are hoping to cultivate more diversity and civilian artists.

1967 Shooting In Kentucky Left One Photographer Dead

"What is the difference between how people see their own place and how others represent it? Who does get to tell the community's story? And what are the storyteller's responsibilities?" - Elizabeth Barrett

In 1967, a man in eastern Kentucky killed a photographer. Documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Barrett, director of Stranger with a Camera, grew up near where the shooting happened. In her documentary, Barrett recounts how, during the War on Poverty, lots of photographers and TV news people came to this region to specifically document the poverty of the region.

Two Photographers Draw National Attention in McDowell County

In March 2015, brother and sister photographers Jesse and Marisha Camp were traveling through McDowell County in southern West Virginia when they stopped at a gas station to take pictures. Upon returning to their vehicle, they discovered they were being blocked in by angry residents who believed the photographers were taking pictures of their kids. The police were called to break up the argument.

What can explain a group of people reacting so negatively to a stranger taking a few pictures? We talked with Sabrina Shrader, native of McDowell County, to get an insider’s perspective. 

Listen to photographers Stacy Kranitz, Roger May, Malcom Wilson, Catherine Moore, and poet Crystal Good about being photographed by the media.

Reactions to Bruce Gilden’s “Two Days in Appalachia”

A 2015 photo essay by photographer Bruce Gilden sparked a lot of conversation on social media. It’s a series of street photographs called “Two Days in Appalachia,” published in VICE. Many have said the way the photographs were taken, with a bright flash and in black and white color, shows the subjects in distorted and grotesque ways.

While this is Gilden’s style, it has still struck a nerve with some of those who call Appalachia home. Gilden did not respond to our request for comment, but we talked with Stacy Kranitz, a photographer who met up with Gilden on his journey through southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Kranitz says the photo assignment did not go as she had planned. The two artists got into a yelling match when Gilden showed up late to a church service in Pikeville, Kentucky. Eventually, the two of them split up and did separate photo shoots. Kranitz called her photo essay "There Aint No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down," which takes its title from the song by Brother Claude Ely.

Looking at Appalachia

Roger May is a photographer who’s originally from Mingo County, West Virginia. He now lives in Alum Creek, just outside of Charleston, West Virginia. For several years, May has been curating an online photo project called Looking at Appalachia, which strives to open up more diversity in the ways Appalachians are viewed, and how Appalachians see themselves. May launched the Looking at Appalachia project in time for the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. Since then, his project has collected hundreds of photographs from across Appalachia and it receives submissions from photographers, professional and amateurs alike.

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Credit Malcolm Wilson / Humans of Central Appalachia
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Humans of Central Appalachia
Summertime relaxation at a local watering hole.

Humans of Central Appalachia

A Facebook page, inspired by the famous Humans of New York project, called Humans of Central Appalachia, is a page where folks can scroll and find black and white photos of Appalachians and their stories told in their own words. The pictures are taken by the administrator Malcolm Wilson. He travels to places where he can interview several folks at one time like at festivals or weddings. Wilson encourages people to post their own content to their Facebook page. Jessica Lilly spoke with him to find out more about the project. 

wvpublicnews · Photographing Appalachia -- Inside And Out

Music in today’s show was provided by Jake ScheppsHurray For The Riff Raff with “Blue Ridge Mountain," and James McMurtry with “Ain't Got A Place” as heard on  Mountain Stage.

Inside Appalachia is produced by Roxy Todd. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Andrea Billups is our executive producer. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. We’d love to hear from you. Send us a tweet @InAppalachia.

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Jessica can be heard on Inside Appalachia and West Virginia Morning the station’s daily radio news program.
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. Her stories have aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards for Best Use of Sound and Best Writing for her stories about Appalachian food and culture.