It has been some time since my trip to Appalachia, but I have always appreciated how it showed me an unseen glimpse of American life. An interview with Paul Hagey of Streetwater, an exploratory crew of photojournalists who travel to exotic locations to capture amazing images, helped me revisit Appalachia and reflect on my interaction with a particular warm family. This pair of father and daughter taught me to never judge a book by its cover. Looking at the photograph again after some time, I can’t help but feel a little pride as an artist and a photographer. Because I tried to do them justice through my lens – and the entire experience taught me a little bit more about the world, the U.S. and more importantly, myself.
Read the full interview at Streetwater. The full text is also included below.
Streetwater interview with me on Jan. 28, 2011 What were the circumstances of that photograph?
I had done a lot of traveling and I felt like I had examined a myriad of countries and cultures, but I hadn’t really explored the U.S. What intrigued me about Appalachia is it feels so different, but at the same time, it’s in our country. I wanted to document an unseen glimpse of American life, and specifically, the struggle and hardship of the Appalachians. I was fortunate enough to receive a Julia Dean scholarship, which gave me the opportunity to explore this part of the United States through photography.
How’d you meet the father and daughter?When I got to Appalachia, I rented a beat-up Subaru and started exploring without much of a plan. The house was so eclectic and unique that I told myself, ‘I have to go in there and meet these people.’ So I got out of my car, walked up to the front porch and knocked on the door. I’m so grateful that the father and his daughter trusted me enough to let me into the house and photograph them. When I was leaving, the daughter told me, “I want you to have my stuffed animal.” It wasn’t like she had a lot, so I was really thankful for the gesture. The house itself was a physical display of their hardship.
Any cool aspects of the scene or experience?What really interested me about Appalachia were the opportunities for capturing the fullness of each character. There has been intense media obsession over Appalachia and the people here were not always portrayed in a positive light. So it was particularly challenging to get them to warm up and trust me to do them justice. Naturally, as they have been depicted as outcasts or as different from mainstream America, they were a little skeptical. However, we got to talking and I found that they were just genuine, normal folks who are trying to get by with everyday life — struggles, problems, happiness, boredom — just like the rest of us. And they were so nice and warm to me when they saw I was genuinely interested! As an artist, I learned how important intention was because you can’t really get anything authentic if your subject doesn’t trust you. You have to be culturally sensitive and try to break down those trust barriers.
Anything else you care to add…Don’t judge a book by its cover! Most of the shots I’ve loved and treasured have started with an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach, like before I walked up to the door of the Appalachian house. It was uncomfortable. When you are in the vicinity of the house, you can be totally overwhelmed by the crowdedness of the place. There were farm animals everywhere, dogs, ‘Beware’ ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs, and plus, the imposing natural surroundings — all of a sudden, you are smothered under a heap of things. Yet, when I sat down and talked to these people, I started to relax as they were so kind and warm even though I’m an outsider; the daughter even gave me her only stuffed toy. Keep pushing your limits and get out of your comfort zone. It definitely broadened my point of view and as an artist, that’s how I improve and keep learning about the world.