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‘Looking’ exhibit examines ‘Appalachia’

By Staff | Oct 6, 2017

Chronicle photo by Jessica Sharpless Roger May speaks to a crowd during his lecture at the Scarbourgh Library on Shepherd University’s campus on Sept. 29. May’s exhibit, “Looking at Appalachia” examines the statues of Appalachian life through photography.

Roger May is often soft spoken man and not the type of person you would see starting a visual movement to make change. Yet, his idea generated a curated photo collection that is growing every year, and a visual display that has been touring the country for three years.

In his lecture on Sept. 29 at the Shepherd University Scarbourgh Library, May told the story of his project, “Looking at Appalachia,” and reflected on its journey.

The photography project began in 2014 when May was looking at doing something in response to the 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty.” In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his – and America’s – war on poverty in the United States. The “war” yielded many photographs that, in their effort to display rural poverty, came to define Appalachia. May wanted to try and change or expand that view.

Initially he started with a simple Instagram post asking if individuals would be interested in the project displayed, along with a map showing those counties officially considered in Appalachia. From the posting the project took off, quickly gaining almost 3,000 submissions in the first year. It continued growing to have a website, Facebook presence, Twitter and, eventually, getting to the point where May was approached by Duke University with a request to be the repository for the project.

According to May, the project is and has been about “deconstructing stereotypes.”

“(Appalachia) is a diverse community. It is not homogenous – not all white or rural poor. Yes, those things are there, but they are not all of it,” May said.

In this approach, the project takes general submissions from anyone, as long as they meet basic guidelines. May notes some of his favorite submissions are from people who do not call themselves photographers.

The display featured a variety of images showcasing May’s vision of the project and its success.

Among those images displayed is one taken in Jefferson County by then-local photographer Ashley Hoffman, featuring a woman shooting an aluminum can with a BB gun. Hoffman was present for the lecture and got the opportunity to talk about her photograph.

“This photograph was taken on the Fourth of July at a cookout in Jefferson County. I thought ‘This feels very Appalachian.’ I did like that this is a woman firing the gun, which is not what people would typically think of in that situation,” Hoffman said.

All of the photographs paint a picture of what Appalachia is as viewed from the inside. This approach has given the project a startling impression as noted by one of May’s lecture attendees, Shepherd graduate student and former Massachusetts native, Megan Rynne.

“Sharing these photos without the labels, you wouldn’t know that some of them were taken in Appalachia,” she said. “There is power in these photos and in that feeling of unity.”

To view the photography of the “Looking at Appalachia” project, visit lookingatappalachia.org.