A cluster of homes are seen among an expanse of trees and kudzu from an overpass in Martin, Ky., on Friday, September 22, 2017.
The GroundTruth Project
Editor’s note: This story is part of Crossing the Divide, a cross-country reporting road trip from The GroundTruth Project and WGBH. The team of five reporters is exploring issues that divide us and stories that unite us. Follow their trip across America at xthedivide.org.
I’ve always had a complex relationship with Kentucky. It’s home but I’m not a native. I don’t romanticize it but I defend its reputation. I have a flat midwestern accent but identify as a Southerner. I’ve experienced wealth in the landscape but have met few that were rich.
The more I grew in my craft, the more enraged I became about how Appalachia was portrayed.
I no longer viewed the photos of dirty children and toothless seniors as an interpretation of the region. I felt like it was just another trophy for someone to put in their portfolio. I saw photography that exoticized the people but lacked substance.
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As I reported in Eastern Kentucky last month, I turned my camera elsewhere, not to ignore the problems but to present complexities that many Kentuckians identify with. I wanted to present the most honest representation of reality that I could, as someone who came of age in the region.
I decided to narrow the focus of my photography to the story of life after coal. However, rather than highlighting how devastated these communities were, as we’ve seen time and time again, our team wanted to offer something different. We wanted to ask, “yeah, but what else?”
My photography in Kentucky comes down to a simple concept: it’s about relationships. It’s about relationships to the earth and how easily the mountains will humble a person. How religion has not only functioned as a driver of culture but a beacon of hope. How communities intertwine and how individuals are forced to fill the gaps when the rest of the country has failed them. It’s about a loss but also a light in the near future. It’s about raising questions rather than having all the answers.
Actor George Takei, known for his role as Hikaru Sulu in “Star Trek,” tweeted he is tempted to move to Kentucky to run against longtime U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. Mark Hamill, Henry Winkler tweeted their support.