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The faces and places of Appalachia

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A boy walks along the foggy streets of the McDonald Heights neighborhood of Aliquippa, Beaver County, Pa. on May 7, 2015. Photograph by Pete Marovich.

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February 16, 2020

The faces and places of Appalachia

Crowdsourced project gives a fresh look at the region

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By Kimberly Palmiero // Photographs used with permission/Looking at Appalachia

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The West Virginia photographer behind a one-of-a-kind exhibit wants to show the many faces and places of Appalachia beyond stereotypes.

Roger May, a self-described “son of Mingo County” issued a call in 2014 for photographs of a region that’s been fodder for visual tropes of poverty and despair in the last half-century. 

Almost immediately, images began to pour in.

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“This takes a fresh look at a region that is often visually maligned.”

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Today, the Looking at Appalachia project contains a trove of visuals from 13 states. More than 60 of those photographs by 45 contributors are part of an exhibit at Ohio University in Athens through Feb. 28.

“This takes a fresh look at a region that is often visually maligned and sort of used to illustrate whatever example of the narrative of poverty they want to make,” May said.

The increased use of phones that can take photographs and lower prices for cameras means that more people can document day-to-day living. And that’s reflected in some of the submissions May received.

“Some of my favorite email submissions start with ‘I’m not a photographer but…this is what I see looking out my front door and this is what I see looking out of my driveway and it’s important to me to be considered to be for the project,’” he said.

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“Some of my favorite email submissions start with ‘I’m not a photographer but…this is what I see looking out my front door and this is what I see looking out of my driveway and it’s important to me to be considered to be for the project.”

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May himself is not a full-time photographer but views the medium as a powerful way to shape perception. 

“Photography is a democratic thing — it is to me anyway — and it was important to me that this be accessible,” he said.

As the founder, he directs Looking at Appalachia and has an editorial team that helps to select the images. 

It was images, too, that gave rise to May’s effort.

A series of photos in Kentucky in the 1960s drew national attention to a poverty-stricken lot of rural families in parts of Appalachia. There were mothers, looking bone-tired, holding babies, their faces smudged with dirt. Homes without plumbing. This was, Americans might view, the face of rural poverty.

In the 1950s and 60s, economic collapse in gripped Eastern Kentucky as mechanization meant fewer jobs in coal mines. 

The photographers Andrew Stern and John Dominis, among others, documented the hardscrabble lives of some of those families and indelible images of rural suffering that fueled a sense of public pity. 

Around the same time, President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty, which led to modern-day Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start, job initiatives, and more — today’s federal safety net for the most vulnerable.

The Looking at Appalachia project is described on the site as an “archive will serve as a reference that is defined by its people as opposed to political legislation.

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