Contemporary Photographer Series - Roger May

Aunt Rita, Mingo County, West Virginia. April 2016. © Roger May 

Roger May (b. 1975) is an Appalachian American photographer and writer based in Charleston, West Virginia. He was born in the Tug River Valley, located on the West Virginia and Kentucky state line, in the Hatfield and McCoy Country. His photographs, essays, and interviews have been published by The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Al Jezeera America, National Geographic, The Oxford American, Le Monde diplomatique, Photo District News, and others. In February 2014, he started the crowd-sourced Looking at Appalachia project. May speaks about his work, about the visual representation of Appalachia, and photographs on commission. He blogs at Walk your camera

Looking at Appalachia explores the diversity of Appalachia and establishes a visual counterpoint to stereotypical representations of the region, fifty years after the Declaration of War on Poverty. Drawing from a diverse population of photographers within the region, this crowd-sourced image archive serves as a reference that is defined by its people as opposed to political representation. 

Roger May was recently interviewed by James Edgar for our Contemporary Photographer Series (CPS).


Goody, Pike County, Kentucky. July 2014. © Roger May 

Looking at Appalachia began in 2014 as a crowd-sourced image archive, collecting diverse, contemporary views of the Appalachian region fifty years after Lyndon Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty. After an initial wave of well-deserved attention, how has the project evolved over the past three years? What's the outlook for the future?

It was fascinating to watch the project develop and unfold. I never knew that a single Instagram post would strike the curiosity and interest of so many folks, both inside and outside the region. It's still hard to wrap my head around sometimes. The first year, we got two or three thousand images, and we accepted about 10% into the online collection. From those approximately 300 images, we selected just over seventy to be part of the print exhibit. Logistically, it has been a challenge at times, but it's been amazing to see that first year's work still be relevant, and still be interesting enough for galleries and libraries to host the exhibit. 

It's created some really fantastic spaces for conversation about identity, about place-based work, regional-based work, and the insider-outsider dynamic, because we opened it up to anybody that made pictures in the region, not just residents. It's helped reshape my understanding of how photography can be used to facilitate conversation, and not just to make a statement, but to really open a dialogue with folks. As far as the outlook goes, we plan to continue the project on an annual basis, until we feel like there's just not much interest anymore. I really don't know what the estimated shelf-life of a project like this is, but ultimately, I would hope that the work, the academic research that's been done about it, and some of the writers that have expressed interest in collaborating -- that all of that would coalesce into a book form.  That's something that I would like to see happen at some point in the future. 


Wharncliffe, Mingo County, West Virginia. July 2008. © Roger May 

For me, the genius of Looking at Appalachia is in its diversity of contributors and subjects. Three years on, are there certain aspects of the region that you feel continue to be underrepresented within the framework of the project? 

I think so. It's still by and large mostly thought of -- and maybe fairly -- as an incredibly rural region, although we know from larger cities and urban areas, that are very much Appalachian, that that's not all there is to the region. I love historical archives and FSA photographs, and spend a lot of time digging through work like that, but I'm interested in what younger people are doing today.  I'm forty-two, and I feel fairly current with what's going on in the region, but there's a whole generation of young artists who are out there making work that I'm certain I haven't seen, that hasn't been circulated. I would really like to get in touch with the young folks who are making work about a region that is forming and shaping them, while they continue to make it their own.  I'm interested in what that looks like to a younger generation, who is growing up in a completely different culture than older photographers and older folks in the region, and getting their voices out there. You have women, people of color, LGBTQ folks who are out there making work, who for whatever reason aren't getting their work seen. I'm interested in connecting with those voices and getting that work out there. 

As someone who has studied the history of image-making in Appalachia, could you discuss some of the photographers who have most successfully produced significant, engaging art, while maintaining an awareness and sensitivity to the region's legacy of representation? Who should we be looking at, and why?

Mike Smith is still someone whose work isn't talked about nearly as much as it should be. 
It's amazing work that was made over decades, that is engaging, yet quiet and thought-provoking. 

LaToya Ruby Frazier and her book, The Notion of Family. Frazier is a younger photographer who has been making work about her hometown Braddock, PA, and the way that capitalism, industry, and big money have done the same things as they have to my part of southern West Virginia. Her work is just stellar, the book is wonderful, she's a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grant recipient, and has a whole list of other awards. I think she is definitely someone who should be seen, studied, and talked about more.

Rob Amberg, out in western North Carolina. Rob is not a native Appalachian, but he has lived in Appalachia for more than forty years. He sometimes asks the question, at what point do we become from a place if we weren't born there? His work is deeply engaged in history, current culture, economy, and community.  He's got two great books out that I think every photographer should own; one is called Sodom Laurel Album and the other is called The New Road. If I understand correctly, he is in the process of working on a third book that will sort of complete the experience that he's been working on for over four decades. 

Those are a few photographers to whom I would point people to about Appalachia specifically. 


Mr. Tom Pecco Jr., 91, of Belfry, Kentucky at his store, Pecco's Carry-Out, in Williamson, West Virginia. May 2013. © Roger May 

Despite the best of intentions, the easiest images to see and photographs to make often seem to be those that affirm the stereotypes we've been conditioned to recognize. For young photography students making work in the region - whether the work specifically addresses "Appalachia" or not - what are some of the common pitfalls to avoid, that may reinforce stereotypes and contribute to an ongoing mischaracterization of Appalachia?

One of the things that I try to practice, and encourage other photographers to do, is just come prepared to spend time in a community, and come prepared to spend time with people. All of those pictures that we think of as stereotypical, as sort of the low-hanging fruit, if you will -- I don't know that those pictures aren't okay to make. They fit into a larger context, but they become problematic when they're the only thing that younger photographers and students think exist in a place. If you spend time with folks, and you understand where they are coming from, what their life is like, and some of the choices that were made earlier in history by state legislators, politicians, the coal industry, the timber industry, and things like that, you can kind of weave together a more informed picture of a place. Those pictures, for me, are less problematic if you can show me that there's more to a place than just a run-down trailer, or a broken-down pickup truck, or dirty kids playing out in the road in Appalachia, or whatever sort of stereotypical image.  It would be dishonest to say that those don't exist, and to not photograph them, I think, is not okay either. I just encourage folks to hang around longer, ask more questions, listen more, and come back over and over again, so that each time you come back, you're willing and ready to see something different, or to see something that you might have missed before, and make a stronger image or series of images, so that the singular stereotypical image doesn't stand alone that much; that it depends on other pictures to tell you a more informed story.


Logan County, West Virginia. June 2016. © Roger May 

In previous interviews, you've expressed a resolve to continue making work in Appalachia, and it seems like your interests lie closest to your roots in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Can you catch us up on your most recent work, and talk about what subjects or themes you might explore in the future?

That's absolutely the truth. I consider it incredibly rewarding to know what I want to do and where I want to do it, and I don't take that for granted. I'm honored to be able to photograph home, and to know that there's really nowhere else that I want to be making serious photographs. In the summer of 2016, I started a new project called Laid Bare. The intent of that project is still taking shape, and I'm still trying to write about it, and think ultimately what to do with it. It's basically a virtual pursuit of the destruction of the mountains in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, and wherever there's been surface mining or mountaintop removal coal mining.  Although coal mining is on a decline, and surface mining is on a decline, long after everything is idled and we've switched to another type of fossil fuel, the aftermath of that type of mining is still very much a part of the landscape and the local geography. I'm trying to figure out how to convey to people that this is still an issue. Even after the coal has been mined, we're still left with this altered landscape, this very vulnerable landscape. So, I've visited these reclaimed surface mine sites, and I've asked people to pose nude for me in those environments, so that there's this parallel of human vulnerability and the vulnerability of the land. And to take it a step further, I'm specifically looking for people who have ties to the community they're being photographed in and asking them, in addition to being photographed, if they would write in their own words what that destruction has meant to them, and how they've moved forward in light of that.

I'm also doing some archival projects right now that are related to work made in the 1960s and 1970s in Kentucky. I have this incredible book dummy from the late 1970s that has 165 prints in it -- it's one of only four in existence -- and I'm taking these mostly 8x10 darkroom prints, scanning them front and back, making notes, and seeing what might come of that project. So, I'm kind of trying to make my own work and then dig into some archival work as well. 

See The New York Times' Lens Blog for May's article on this project. 

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