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Looking at Appalachia founder, Roger May, pictured in Schoonover Center 145, surrounded by photographs cultivated from the collection of online submissions, on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. Looking at Appalachia is a collaborative photo project, including photographs taken anywhere in the 420 counties that make up the region.

'Looking at Appalachia' exhibition empowers the region’s people

Think about Appalachia. Think about the region and its connotations. Picture the images that come to mind: gardening, bluegrass, living off the land. This is what Evan Shaw, a documentary filmmaker at WOUB, is reminded of when he thinks about Appalachia. 

Shaw, who is from Meigs County, realizes that his conception of Appalachia isn't what comes to mind for everyone. He knows that exploitation of natural resources, drugs and poverty are what may come to mind for other people. 

Appalachia is often subject to the clashes between reality, history and stereotypes. The people of the region are subject to the clash between media narratives and crafting their own. “Looking at Appalachia,” a visiting photo exhibition, takes a region-wide, collective approach to Appalachian storytelling. 

Looking at Appalachia” is a project founded by West Virginia-based photographer Roger May. Looking at Appalachia is a crowd-sourced photo project made by and for Appalachian people. The project aims to “complicate the visual narrative of Appalachia” by showcasing visual stories told by Appalachian people.

People can submit their photos to “Looking at Appalachia” on its website. Photographs must be original, taken in the current calendar year and goes of the Appalachian Regional Commissions geographical definition of Appalachia, which includes 13 states, encompasses 205,000 square miles and has a population of over 25 million people.

The idea for “Looking at Appalachia” came from the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty in 2014, May said. 

“I was looking around online, trying to see if there was going to be a project to mark that milestone,” May said. “I thought it was a significant event and a good opportunity to do a project of something like this.”

The War on Poverty was government legislation passed in the 1960s with the goal of helping impoverished people, Tiffany Arnold, an assistant professor and associate director of Appalachian Rural Health Institute, said.

“The War on Poverty was very impactful on this region,” Arnold said. “In a lot of ways, it solidified the view of this region in the minds of the rest of the country, for better or worse.” 

Following the legislation, the media flocked to Appalachia to do stories on Appalachian people. Arnold said most of the images captured were black-and-white photographs of white, sad-looking and coal dust-covered people. 

“Looking at Appalachia” is a democratic way for Appalachian people to represent modern Appalachia and photography, May said. For him, it’s been in the making for a while.  

“I think (‘Looking at Appalachia’) gave some framework to what a lot of people have been feeling for a long time,” May said. 

Though May founded the project, he stressed that it’s been a true collaborative effort by those who submit photos.

“I hope that the project is a collective of voices that is part of conversation rather than the project trying to singlehandedly reframe that,” May said. “For me, as an Appalachian, as a photographer ... it means a great deal to me that people feel like they can participate in representing themselves in their own spaces.”

May also said though “Looking at Appalachia” has received national media attention, from the likes of National Geographic and The New York Times, the project truly relies on crowdsourcing. 

“We don't buy advertising,” May said. “It's really a grassroots project, spread by word of mouth by sharing online.”

May estimates that there are about 600 images in the “Looking at Appalachia” archive, and that the project has probably received 8,000 to 10,000 submissions. 

Shaw, as a filmmaker, helps reshape the visual narrative that has followed Appalachia for the past 50 years, too. He said his films are built on a sense of positivity and regional pride.

Looking at Appalachia is on display in the School of Visual Communication Gallery, Schoonover Center, 20 E. Union St., and will be up until Feb. 28. There is no admission to the gallery. 


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