Looking at Appalachia: Fifty years after the War on Poverty

LBJ with the Fletcher family of Inez, KY.
LBJ with the Fletcher family of Inez, KY.

During his State of the Union address in January 1964,  President Lyndon B. Johnson unveiled his plans to address the nation’s poverty, which then hovered at a rate of nineteen percent. The major legislative initiatives in what became known as the War on Poverty included the Food Stamp Act, the Social Security Act (which created Medicare and Medicaid), and the Economic Opportunity Act (which created Job Corps and the Volunteers in Service to America programs).  This year marks the 50th anniversary of War on Poverty and, as with most historical anniversaries, both the media and scholars have weighed in with critiques and analyses of its legacy, often leading to statements about how we, as a nation, have lost the war on poverty.

But will any of it make a difference in how we view those in poverty?  And will we continue to dismiss the real struggles of the men, women, and children living in poverty with biased and uninformed assumptions about their bad decisions, their alleged laziness, or their desire to live off the government?

Very often, stories and images of Appalachia are used to illustrate the nation’s poverty.  This was the case in the 1960s and it’s still this way today. The New York Times does so with regularity.  (See, for example, this article or this one.)

Leroy Rigman, Pendleton County, WV. Photo by Chris Jackson, April 26, 2014.
Leroy Rigman, Pendleton County, WV. Photo by Chris Jackson, April 26, 2014.

But hope abounds.

There’s a terrific documentary photography project called Looking at Appalachia that operates from a different set of assumptions. Poverty is not just about statistics, it’s about human beings. More than that, poverty is not always a choice. And as for Appalachia, despite its issues with poverty, it is also home.  The images from this project reflect the beauty of the landscape and the people without succumbing to stereotype. And here is where art makes a difference.

As the Looking at Appalachia project notes:

Many of the War on Poverty photographs, whether intentional or not, became a visual definition of Appalachia. These images have often drawn from the poorest areas and people to gain support for the intended cause, but unjustly came to represent the entirety of the region while simultaneously perpetuating stereotypes.

 

Tent revival in Pike County, KY.  Photo by Roger May, July 19, 2014.
Tent revival in Pike County, KY. Photo by Roger May, July 19, 2014.

The project’s director, Roger May, is a documentary photographer from the Tug Valley region of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.  I asked Roger about how his project might help to dispel these stereotypes:

Well, it’s important to realize that this project can’t or won’t single-handedly dispel decades worth of stacked myths and stereotypes. We all know how powerful images can be. We certainly didn’t get here overnight, so I don’t think we’ll reverse course that quickly either. What I like about the idea of this project is that it’s purpose isn’t to negate those pictures and ideas, but rather hopefully it’ll dilute them to a point that folks who both are, and aren’t, familiar with Appalachia will have another frame of reference for people and place. I see these photographs as added voices to a conversation that started well before the War on Poverty was declared and ones that’ll be around for a long while to come. We can’t ignore stereotypes and at the same time, we can’t deny elements of truth in them. What we can do is keep our hands to the plow of reminding folks that people are people no matter where you go. If we’re collectively willing to sit a while, listen, and try to understand on an individual level, we might surprise ourselves with what we find.

Cullman County, Alabama. Photo by Tamara Reynolds, Jan. 4, 2014.
Cullman County, Alabama. Photo by Tamara Reynolds, Jan. 4, 2014.

And what has been the impact of this project so far?

“The impact I’ve noticed from the project so far has been positive. Folks seem to be generally excited about Appalachia being shown in a different light, a more modern take on a place we all tend to see stuck in the past. Appalachia is one of those places that’s easy to romanticize and quite often the “othering” that happens there is, I think, somewhat self-induced. That’s really OK, but I think it’s important to pursue and embrace change, whatever that might look like. Traditions don’t have to be sacrificed for modernity, but let’s be truthful in our representations.”

Carl Elijah Johnson, Asheville, NC. Photo by George Etheredge, May4, 2014.
Carl Elijah Johnson, Asheville, NC. Photo by George Etheredge, May4, 2014.

Aside from the project’s website, what are your plans for extending the life of the project?

In early 2015, I’ll be working with the project’s editorial and advisory boards to work through the online images and make selections for print. We’ll be coordinating with galleries, colleges, and universities throughout the Appalachian and outlying regions to host exhibitions of the work and would like to see it travel throughout 2015 and 2016. I’d love to see a companion catalog of work release next year as well, but funding will dictate most of this. At this point, we haven’t secured an grants or private donations. Moving forward, I plan to continue the project as long as there’s an interest and folks are willing to submit images. I’d also very much like to see a quarterly print publication evolve from this.

Moundsville, Marshall County, WV. Photo by Rebecca Kiger, July 17, 2014
Moundsville, Marshall County, WV. Photo by Rebecca Kiger, July 17, 2014

I encourage readers of Pop South to take visit the Looking at Appalachia website as well as Roger May’s personal site called Walk your camera.

One final note from Roger: I’d just really like to take an opportunity to thank the folks who have helped so much with this project behind the scenes and who helped get it off the ground. Aaron Blum, Kate Fowler, Chris Fowler, Raymond Thompson Jr., Megan King, Susan Worsham, Pat Jarrett, John Edwin Mason, Pete Brook, Joy Salyers, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Rob Amberg, Nic Persinger, and many, many others. This project couldn’t move forward without their help and support. And of course, all the photographers who have submitted work so far. This project belongs to everyone.

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