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.