Picturing the Many Voices of Appalachia Postelection
May 1, 2017
Coal mining and rural poverty dominate national media narratives about Appalachia, but “100 Days, 100 Voices” shows a more complex and diverse picture. Roland “Smiley” Shambaugh, 82, became restless in retirement, so he took a job hauling water from Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.
Sylvester Edwards, 67, a retired stonemason and co-owner of McDowell County Farms in West Virginia.
Abby Chapple, 77, judges the 27th Annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. She worries about a repeal of regulations that protect drinking water from coal mining runoff.
Jerolyn and Jerry Deplazes and their dog Doofus, photographed beside their home on a road that could become an access route for the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The pipeline would also cross their farm just over the ridge behind them in Giles County, Virginia.
Warren and Judy Ellison, on their farm in Hans Creek Valley in Monroe County, West Virginia, near a proposed natural gas transmission pipeline. Like many people in the area, the Ellisons are concerned that the blasting to create a 10-foot deep ditch through rock will disturb neighboring rocks and ruin water sources.
Major media outlets were asking themselves after the 2016 presidential election how they had underestimated the support for Donald Trump. And the simple answer, if there is one, is that they weren’t listening enough to average citizens, especially those outside major U.S. cities.
But the election results were less surprising to photographer Nancy Andrews and her colleagues at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. They saw the rise of Trump’s popularity in the state, and had been talking before the election “about the need to be recapturing the narrative of people who live in this place,” says Andrews, formerly managing editor/digital media at the Detroit Free Press and now a visiting professor at WVU. “Right after the election we said, ‘We just need to do a reporting project.’”
She launched the online project, called “100 Days, 100 Voices,” in late December. It is part of a larger media project called “100 Days in Appalachia,” a collaboration between WVU, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and The Daily Yonder, a Kentucky-based online publication covering rural issues around the U.S. The mission of “100 Days in Appalachia” is “to take a closer look at just what makes this region such a flashpoint for so many of the social, economic and political fractures in American communities,” according to the project website.
Dana Coester, editor and creative director of “100 Days in Appalachia,” says coal miners dominated the national media’s narrative of the region, before and after the election. “We knew there was more complexity than that. Nancy’s project was about surfacing the multiplicity of voices.” It’s an experiment, Coester explains, to burst “the media filter bubbles that people inhabit,” get beyond the political polarization around the issues, and build a national audience through social media.
Andrews is undertaking her “100 Days, 100 Voices” project with graduate student Justin Hayhurst. The site features portraits, documentary photographs, and voices of people from across Appalachia. It takes inspiration from the oral history approach of Studs Terkel. Subjects tell their own stories, which are presented along with the photographs as an edited transcript of a recorded interview.
The first installment, posted January 20, featured members of the Frankfort High School marching band. They marched in Donald Trump’s inauguration parade. Andrews and Hayhurst interviewed band members—some of whom supported Trump and others who opposed him—shortly before the parade about how they felt about marching, and how they felt about where the country is headed. Their responses appeared with their portraits, which Andrews shot outdoors against the backdrop of the dormant winter landscape of Ridgeley, West Virginia.
That post was followed by others—including photos and interviews with Appalachians who attended Trump’s inauguration, with Appalachians who attended the women’s march the following day, with gas workers, bartenders, Muslims, immigrants and activists from across the political spectrum. Andrews has also found subjects in churches and community colleges.
She says that despite its title, her project will extend beyond Trump’s first 100 days in office. Some of the stories will be based on person-in-the-street interviews. “With every project, you want to have room for serendipity,” she says. “But we’re also looking at specific issues and passion points: What do [potential subjects] care about?” For instance, she was planning to do a story about a group of citizens who had organized to clean up a local stream that had been polluted by strip mining operations.
Andrews finds subjects by word of mouth, reading and researching online, talking to public officials and citizens about projects their constituents and neighbors might be working on, and by attending events. For instance, she saw a flyer for an event called “100 Days of US,” sponsored by The Sprout Fund, a Pittsburgh non-profit. The event was an open call for pitches from those seeking funding for community projects launching during the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. (“100 Days of US” is separate from “100 Days in Appalachia.”)
“I thought it would be a great way to find people” for the “100 Days, 100 Voices” project, Andrews says. She posted a story about the event, highlighting four recipients of the 25 available Sprout Fund grants.
Andrews says she has thought a lot about photographers’ depictions of Appalachia, where people are sensitive to (and offended by) stereotypes of poverty that have persisted in photography of the region since the 1960s.
“When you come here with a camera, you represent everyone who has come with a camera before you, and everyone who comes after,” Andrews says. Poverty is an integral part of Appalachia’s story, and there’s no avoiding it, she explains. But she is interested in a broader, fuller picture. Her “Eureka” moment happened in Rainelle, West Virginia, a town devastated by floods last June. WVU’s Reed College of Media offered to help residents by restoring their damaged photos. But others had volunteered to do that already, and an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer said, “We’re sick of mud. Can you take new pictures?”
Andrews set up a portable studio with an octabox and a printer in a Rainelle parking lot. She photographed everyone who wanted a portrait, and gave each person a print. She says she was struck by their gratitude, and by how surprised outsiders were that the photos had been shot in West Virginia. “It didn’t fit the visual stereotypes. I didn’t go to photograph the poverty, or the flood. I went to photograph the people who happened to be there, in what they showed up wearing, with beautiful light.”
She did something similar after an October 2016 flood in Richwood. She set up a portable studio at the Halloween “Trunk or Treat” event at the town hall parking lot. (Trunk or Treat is a Halloween event where families gather in a parking lot, and the kids Trick or Treat from car to car.)
Andrews says the line for portraits “wrapped around the parking lot.” She was surprised by the creativity of the costumes, and the diversity of ages, ethnicities and family types. “You see friendships and relationships,” she says, and adds that her experiences in Rainelle and Richwood “are the background for what I’m doing now” with the “100 Days, 100 Voices” project.
She’s shooting the project in color, because black-and-white is tied so closely to depictions of Appalachian poverty. Andrews says her measure of success for the project will be what the entire body of work says about the region, “as opposed to what any individual picture says. An individual piece might be accurate, but is the sum total accurate?”
She’s quick to add that her project can’t provide a complete representation of Appalachia. But the idea is to break out of the confines of traditional journalism, which tends to focus on extraordinary stories and miss the big picture. “If we all do [the expected] story, and get the same angle, has the sum total been truth?
“The [predictable] things are really important. Outliers are by definition more interesting. If you cover a parade, you photograph the person with the most interesting costume, not the average person. I’m going to do the same thing, but you have to sprinkle it with other things. Who are voices I can surface that aren’t always there? Journalists come to focus on people related to coal, but there are others that say, ‘That’s not my life, that’s not important to me.’”
It may not be conventional journalism, but if the 2016 elections taught us anything, it’s that journalism is ripe for new approaches, and a broader spectrum of voices.