When I was six years old, I shot a man. People think I am joking when I say this, as I do occasionally, if prodded, in a group that wants to talk guns or hunting or the excesses of the rural South. It has been nearly twenty years since I discharged a firearm or spent any time in a deer stand or duck blind, yet I am considered an authority on such matters, since I live among people who are not.
In looking at Appalachia—not just from the outside, but from within as well—we reveal more about ourselves as observers than the region objectively. The subjects show us shades of our own individuality. That’s not easy to unpack, or even admit to, but I think it is why some depictions of Appalachia make us uncomfortable.
One morning in February, I woke up to the tragic news of Jamie Coot’s death from a venomous snakebite. I’ve been documenting the Pentecostal Holiness community since 2011, and this was the second time I’ve witnessed the devastating impact of a pastor’s death on a congregation. These profound events have had an immeasurable impact on my understanding of ethical representation and my belief in the integrity of documentary practice.
For more than a century, Pittsburgh has existed in the shadow of its own industrial-age narrative. Like much of Appalachia, Pittsburgh is a place dogged by stereotypes and assumptions. In recent years, an increasing number of photographers have come to western Pennsylvania with the intent of documenting the aftermath of the steel industry’s collapse. Some offer a fresh take on the present, others reinforce the limited views of the past.
I’d take it out multiple times a day, turn it over in my hands, read the press materials—then put it back. Flannery O’Connor’s prayers. Flannery O’Connor’s prayers. In her handwriting. To peer over her shoulder and read what she’d written to God, and God alone?
I believe that finding one’s place in the world is every individual’s most challenging question. It comes easy to some, but for many others finding that spot requires much groveling and hunting to get there. I have always fallen in with the groveling crowd.
Of all the pitiless opinions set down about family, it’s hard to beat this snarl by August Strindberg, a sentence which appears early in the first volume of his novelized memoir, The Son of a Servant, one of the bitterest condemnations of family ever written: “Family! thou art the home of all social evil, a charitable institution for comfortable women, an anchorage for house-fathers, and a hell for children.”