Viewing Appalachia with a Different Lens
April 14th, 2015
Introduction to Roger May
Moving from our usual course of action, the last class before spring break presented an opportunity for us to engage in conversation with a distinguished photographer and writer, Roger May. Having been born in what some claim to be Hatfield and McCoy territory, May proudly displays his Appalachian heritage through his photography and writing. Via Skype, we were able to discuss with May the power of photography and his latest project, Looking at Appalachia, which hopes to add complexities to the identity of poverty for which the Appalachian region has become so commonly known. For more information on the project and its goals check out - http://lookingatappalachia.org.
Looking at Appalachia and Digital Literacy
We began discussion by determining ways we could incorporate digital literacy into the Appalachian classroom, a daunting task considering how the majority of Appalachia is represented in media. May acknowledged the double edged sword that digital literacy, specifically social media, has become. Addressing the class, May stated, “Kids that you are going to teach, have taught, have spent time with, consider they have never known a world without social media, that’s a pretty big thing.” Laughing aside, May’s statement is an undoubtable truth. Our students have become so saturated with digital literacy that it would be naive of us to look past tools such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, that can help students reinforce identity amongst their peers, school, and community. Yet, as May reiterated, we need to be mindful of the possibilities of bullying and gossip that social media can create.
May’s crowdsourced project, Looking at Appalachia, hopes to educate people of all ages to more effectively use visual literacy and help them develop their identity not just as an Appalachian, but as a person. Through this use of visual literacy, it is May’s hope that a new identity will be created for the Appalachian region that shows the layers beyond the stereotypes created by the “War on Poverty.”
On a more personal level, May has taken steps to create a project within Mango Country, West Virginia that aims to educate students on the labor of farming through the medium of photography. He wants kids to understand the process it takes to grow something worthwhile. By using traditional developing cameras, he hopes students will better understand that creating something meaningful takes time and dedication.
Photography in the Classroom
Jon was able to drive conversation more towards May’s specialties and questioned how specifically using photography in the classroom could be beneficial. Assuming that administration would be approving of such techniques, May explained how photography could be beneficial not only for the students, but teachers as well. “I think it’s a fantastic tool because I think you can learn a lot about a student. By looking at how they look, how they look at things. There’s almost something that transcends verbal communication when you can see the perspective of the student, what they show, what they choose not to show.” As teachers, why wouldn’t we use this tool? A tool that can so effectively, as May put it, “level the playing field” for those students who might be shy or lack confidence in their work. Photography is a medium which craftily provides educators a glimpse into a student’s thought process and his or her individuality.
Referring to the front page of the Looking at Appalachia website, Carmen made a comment discussing the contrasting ideas the photos depict, “On the website there are pictures of kids playing outside and having fun and then the very next image is of someone coming out of a prescription drug high. And I like that because I feel like it’s not going one way or the other, it’s not majestically representing Appalachia, but it’s not being demeaning too.” May appreciated this an explained how this is essentially the “guts” of the project. As May put it, the object is, “to show Appalachia in all its glory and all its complexities.”
This is a perspective we have considered as a class when addressing students. Having observed, and for some lived, the Appalachian experience we are aware of the stereotypes and prejudices that come with being part of the region. Unfortunately, these negative stereotypes are sometimes a reality for students. In this class, we have discussed the need to see each student as an individual, while still being aware that the negative aspects of the region have affects outside of the classroom. There are overlapping layers within this region, some good, some bad, but it cannot be assumed that a student belongs to one or the other.
As our conversation continued, we began to focus more on May’s work and his straightforward strategies to document subjects that may be considered controversial to the public. Jon asked, “Are there any specific Appalachian areas of interest or any kind of controversial issues that you ever documented exclusively, liked focused on that particular subject with your photography?” May recalled how he began his career in photography and his desire to call attention to the travesties of mountaintop removal. Discovering quickly that his heart wasn’t in the project, May described his present philosophy for what he captures on film, “Being controversial just to be controversial is not of interest to me. I don’t have any reservation about photographing something controversial, but if my heart isn’t it, if I don’t connect with the issue, then I know the pictures are sorta gonna fall flat and if they do that for me then they’re probably gonna do that for you and anybody else that is looking at them.” Is this desire for passion any different than what we portray in our teaching? Having a passion for education is evident in our teaching, and without that passion what we try to convey to students will also most likely fall flat.
Taking Steps Forward
While May might not always depict the romanticized last frontier that is scripted into Discovery and History Channel specials, there is wonder in the complexity of things here. Through May and his projects, identity is being developed by the personal photographs that the people of the region have been willing to share. We are beginning to see the Appalachian region on a personal level that is the full range between trailer parks and mom and pop stores. We must address both sides of the coin, not talking about the things that need to be fixed doesn’t make them go away. May’s work is a step forward in balancing the bad light that Appalachia has come under with the good it has to offer. Yes, it is a reality that Appalachia has some negative outliers, but then again, what place doesn’t?