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Updating the Image of Appalachia

a©2014-2016 Looking at Appalachia | All featured photo, audio, video, and writing content belong to respective artists.

Fifty years after the ‘War on Poverty’ a North Carolina photographer set out to update the image of Appalachia.  The Exhibit, now at the Radford University Art Museum, is a crowd-sourced collection that defies stereotypes and expands the picture of a part of the country, the rest of the world thought it knew.

Like the surprising variety of photographs in this show, the region that is officially called Appalachia is larger than many people realize. 

Steve Arbury, Director of the Radford University Museum of Art says, “And we’ve got a map over here of just how large Appalachia is. When you look at that it goes all the way from Mississippi, parts of Mississippi all the way up to parts of New York. It really is about 20% of the entire continental United States. So it really is huge, huge area.”  

But those stark images depicting a downtrodden region as ground zero in the war on poverty persist, more than 50 years after they were made.

Roger May, the photographer coordinating the show says, “The 1960s was certainly not the first time that Appalachia had been looked at and stereotyped visually, but in recent years, the last five decades, those images I think, really worked to sort of weave this visual photographic definition of the region.”

The anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty last year gave May the idea for this exhibit called “Looking at Appalachia; A Fresh Approach.” But instead of making it one photographer’s perspective, he put out the call for pictures from photographers all over Appalachia. 

They had to be shot within the calendar year and they had to be counties the Appalachian Regional Commission officially designates as part of the region that embraces the mountain range of the same name.  That approach is what’s expanding and reformatting stereotypical views of a place outsiders thought they knew.

Credit Old Time Fiddlers Convention. Monterey, Highland County, Virginia. ©2014-2016 Looking at Appalachia | All featured photo, audio, video, and writing content belong to respective artists.

Roger May says, “As a white male photographer, who started this project it’s very easy to get into cruise control and see it from a privileged white male perspective.  When in fact Appalachia is as diverse as any other region in the nation and I think we do a disservice to the region and people if we don’t pursue that diversity. So we’re really pushing to be more inclusive of people of color and the breadth and the depth of Appalachia. We really want that to be represented. So we’re hoping that as photos continue to come in, we’ll be able to show that.”

This is the second year for the Images of Appalachia project. And the editorial team is will be taking submissions for the 2016 show until the end of this year. May says he’s grateful that smart phones have helped make photographers of everyone.  There are no requirements for a certain type of camera or format. As he puts it, the best camera is the one you have with you.