An elusive and blurry line has thumped itself down in documentary work, probably since we humans began to document our lives and tell our stories. (I can see it now: the Anasazi pictographer being ostracized for her version of “the hunting and gathering.”) While watching The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia, the question persists; at which point does one cross the line from documentation to exploitation?
Shelby Lee Adams has been taking pictures of the Appalachian people of Kentucky for thirty years now. Born in Hazard, Kentucky, Adams comes across as sincere while explaining that the people of Appalachia, or “holler dwellers”, are his people and his friends. The subjects of his photographs, whom he has known for decades, reiterate this sentiment. It seems that Shelby Lee’s detractors come in the form of native, local Kentuckians, embarrassed by a part of their past and present, and art critics looking for new and ready subjects to discuss.
And who can blame them? The line here is blurred, and becomes even more hazy as Shelby Lee’s Kentucky drawl becomes more and more, well, noticeable. (Not to say that my Laawng Islaand doesn’t emerge the closer to the L.I.E. that I get, but I digress.) No one can ever know the true intention of another, and even worse, we are hard pressed to understand our own motives at times. It seems that Shelby Lee Adams thinks that his intentions are pure and documentary in nature. It also seems that he will do anything to preserve his relationship with this community; whether to ease his guilt of having a classist father, protect his cash cow, or truly to celebrate the lives of these people and retain their dignity, I can not say.
I can say that, to me, the images Adams’ creates do not provide dignity to these people, but rather, perpetuate the Deliverance stereotype we have all grown up with. Because the deeper in the holler one goes, the more isolated and poverty stricken the families become. Because images of families of eight in a one room house with no shoes for the kids but satellite TV’s and dead pigs and sinister, inbred smiles DO NOT provide dignity. (I have to say, the serpent handling rituals are fascinating, but still…) And perhaps my own classist reaction is shining through more than Adams’ portrayal of the Appalachian way of life. If, however, I am to transcend the stereotype of a particular social group, you must give me more than magnified visions of the same.
David Burn says
I agree that his images tend to sensationalize his subjects. But I don’t know that what he does is bad, or wrong. At least he invites others to see, which is the first step towards understanding. I think real prejudice is the product of not seeing.
I completely agree. It’s disgusting and demoralizing and only perpetuates these terrible stereotypes. Basically I looked at it in the sense that “could some bible thumper use these images to get me to send money, just the price of a cafe latte each day, to bring the light of technology to these people?” and yea, they totally could. good call on this one–it made my skin crawl that his exploitation of his self-proclaimed “own” people could be the reason he’s rich.
Gary Strong says
I understand Mr. Burn’s point, however, the illustration in the story certainly is more likely to strenghthen existing prejudices than to foster an understanding and dispel that prejudice. You can get rich with these images?
I agree, but I have to say I was most troubled by the images of the two young adults with disabilities. I am a parent of a child with a disability and have worked in many areas of “service delivery and systems change” to hopefully to offer more choices to this community.
When I saw these two adults living in these conditions I was overwhelmed, but I had to ask myself would they be better off in a group home somewhere or some sort of supportive living facility. I believe we have to respect this different culture and see through the horrific setting and see a family who is trying to give of themselves, the best that they can. I could feel the pain in the voices of these strong women when they sang of death, poverty and hopelessness. The setting is ,I admit ,a bit scary but the story was one of resilience. I do think that Mr. Burns is an opportunist, but as the women in this documentary might say “what goes around comes abound” and Mr. Burns will have his day. Your article did a wonderful job casting light on this complex film.
David Burn says
My name is Burn, not Burns. And I’d love to hear more about how I’m an opportunist. How do you figure?
Dear Mr Burn,
Not only did I spell your name wrong ,I incorrectly addressed my comments to you instead of Shelby Lee Adams. Please accept my humble apology. I’ll be more careful in the future.
David Burn says
Apology accepted. Thanks!
these images are not created by the photographer, but by the subjects
in the photos. he didnt create the stereo type, it only rings true
through the realness of the project.
My thoughts are a little different. I spent my summers with my grandparents in some very remote parts of the Tennessee and Kentucky and Virginia mountains as a boy, and I know of a very different (though all too often vanished) way of life up there. Sure there were places with wood burning stoves and no electricity… but then, as a boy, I never really seemed to miss it. We had the creek and the woods and the caves and the old people and stories. Now and then, I saw shades of the kind of thing that Mr. Adams has depicted, but it certainly wasn’t all there was. I suppose my question here is whether or not he has gone out of his way to capture the absolute worse of Appalachian life (that which has always been there, and that which has gotten worse in time) and, if so, why? If he is trying to show the true degradation of a way of life, then I can appreciate that, yet… wouldn’t it be good to show the contrasting versions of Appalachian life, perhaps to offer contrast? Or can he not even find them anymore? That makes me sad to think…. since I will always have a connection with the mountains and the creeks and the nearly vanished culture that I found so rich in them. Maybe it is not “nearly” vanished anymore, but completely gone…. so that as Cormac McCarthy said, we can look for it only in “myth, legends, dust.”
I don’t know. I do know from my childhood though, that the answer is not to get, “some bible thumper use these images to get me to send money, just the price of a cafe latte each day, to bring the light of technology to these people”. It isn’t about that. People can lead lives of dignity, not impoverished mentally or dietary without “technology” and, as I have witnessed so many times, without even electricity. What you do need is education (no, not always the kind from public schools) a sense of self worth, and the understanding that life is not about living closer to the Walmart. I can’t abide these people that think buying someone a smart phone is going to educate them, or make the learn a better way of life. It doesn’t usually work like that. In my opinion, there are a number of contending factors in how it got this bad up there, among them coal mining, the loss of one’s ability to make a living farming, satellite T.V., and the double edged sword of the corrupt and all too often times quickly crippling welfare system. The meat and three gets replaced by an all starch and meat diet and soon the emergence of gas station food. Prison’s move into the areas and people begin to work with or associate with convicts. Or the communities break down, the old people die, and little girls are left alone with creepy uncles. In truth, so much is at play that it is hard to just say, “because it’s poor” or “because it’s isolated.” It was that way in the mountains when these same people survived the great depression, and often times they did it with a dignity and a sense of self worth and work ethics that is, in our time, long lost. As to why, well, there are a lot of reasons… but reasons worth considering none the less… because if you view eastern Kentucky hollers worst as the end of a road in a trend towards isolation and dehumanization and lack of community and self worth, aren’t we all on the path for trouble?
Enja McGuire says
I am American by choice, not birth.
I now live in New England and seldom, if ever, have seen families like those photographed by Mr Adams.
I view the images and am shocked.
I’ve seen, and lived among poor people.
These Applacians are not only poor: they are filthy, ignorant, and Mr Adams photographs of them do NOT portray them as dignified or respectable at all. He portrays them as ignorant, filthy, inbred, over- breeders.
Is this exploitation?
I don’t know.
It is clear, however, that he assures that we feel no obligation to send them money.
The photos exhibit people who are responsible for their own pitiful conditions.
The images induce my feelings of pity, but not compassion at all.
Do I look down on these ignorant, filthy, stupid inbred root diggers and coal miners who choose to live as they do?
Yes, I do,
In truth, don’t you?
Would you pay for satellite TV whilst leaving your children shoeless?
Other impoverished communities have a sense of priorities that these holler dwellers lack.
Adams fears that they will soon be gone.
I think that would be a good thing.