It has been one year since Roger May brought the Looking at Appalachia photography project to Alleghany County. The 75 photos were exhibited in the Blue Ridge Business Development Center for one month and were viewed by people from 12 states and two foreign countries. The timing of the exhibit coincided with an ongoing effort to engage in economic and community development in Alleghany. It was hoped that the exhibit would generate conversation about how we, and others, view our county and region.
Since last October, the photos have been shown in at Radford University (Radford, Virginia), the University of North Carolina – Asheville, Adrian College (Adrian, Michigan), Robert Morris University (Moon Township, Pennsylvania), West Virginia University and will be shown at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, NC this November. After that showing, the current exhibit will be retired.
Roger has also been busy. He has led an online class with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and taught a class on Multimedia Storytelling at the Appalachian Writers Workshop. He has also started a new photography project, Laid Bare, which examines the effects of mountain top removal for coal extraction in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.
In a recent interview, Roger reflected on the past year and shared insights he has gathered along the way.
When he looks back at the show in Sparta, Roger describes it as exactly what he envisioned when he and others began talking about taking the photos on the road. “The reception was one of the best attended, and was supported by a cross-section of the community,” he said. “I’m glad that Alleghany took a chance on us. At that point, we weren’t completely sure what the trajectory of the project would be.”
Roger said that one of the most surprising aspects of the project is how interest continues to grow in Appalachia. He said that the region is incredibly diverse and defies broad generalizations. “When you consider the breadth of culture, economy and even dialect, there are vast differences across Appalachia. We tend to forget that cities such as Asheville, NC and Chattanooga, TN are in the heart of Appalachia.” He points out that those urban areas are much different that the stereotypical hills and hollows, and th extractive economies tied to coal and timber that we often associate with Appalachia. And even in the more rural areas, an interstate highway or major manufacturing facility can completely change the socio-economic conditions of a county.
What’s next For Looking at Appalachia? May hopes that the project will continue to evolve and take on new shape and form. He hopes to expand the website to include audio and video stories. He has ambitions to start a podcast as a way to amplify voices of those in the region, especially those who seek to document the people and places of Appalachia.
Perhaps his most thought-provoking statement about the future of the project also strikes at the core of any regional social or economic strategy: “We (Looking at Appalachia) have to be open to change. We have to be conscious of not only how we view ourselves, but how others see our region. Once we limit our perspective, we lose the reason for the project.”
Photos from 2015 can be viewed at http://www.lookingatappalachia.org. Photos for 2016 can be submitted at the same site.