Wednesday, April 29, 2015

UPDATED -- On Photographing in Appalachia

Speaking of Roger May, he has gotten himself in the middle of a complex situation up in West Virginia.

It seems a commercial photographer named Marisha Camp and her brother, former MTV VJ Jessie Camp, were driving through West Virginia earlier this year, doing some photography along the way.  

Some folks in McDowell County, West Virginia, who were otherwise minding their own business, noticed these two folks with cameras, driving around in a car with Massachusetts license plates, and wondered what they were doing. 

The Camps and the inquisitive residents of McDowell County met at a gas station, and apparently things immediately got awkward. 

There are several sides to this story, and several versions of what actually happened, and you can read some of them here and here

Needless to say, accusations and explanations were exchanged, and expletives were used. 

A West Virginia State Trooper eventually showed up and escorted the Camps away from the gas station and out of McDowell County. 

The conversation about this event has continued on the various social media. 

Roger May got involved when Photo District News asked him to look into the matter, since he is, all at once, a native of West Virginia, a fine photographer, and the moving force behind Looking at Appalachia, a project that intends to get more photographers working in West Virginia, making photographs that give a fuller, richer, and more nuanced view of his native state to the larger world.

I'm sure when he heard about this, he had a fit of apoplexy. After all, here is a guy who is hard at work trying through photography to bring to a larger audience a more nuanced, more truthful understanding of the good folks in West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia.

Now, all of a sudden, some photographers show up in West Virginia but they go about their work in a way that results on some of the folks in West Virginia behaving in ways that reinforce the exact stereotypes of provincialism, insularity, and hostility toward outsiders (Massachusetts license plates? Gotta run them off!) that May is working so hard to refute.

May got in touch with all the relevant parties. His take on the incident, a long essay with the title "Why a Confrontation Between Photographers and Locals Turned Ugly in Appalachia," is available on the PDN website, here.

May's piece is reasoned, thoughtful, fair to all sides, just what you would expect from him. But, if the extensive -- and often heated -- discussion provoked by his essay on the PDN website is any indication, the conversation about this incident is far from over. 

Nor should it be.  

This incident reveals significant -- and difficult -- questions about regional identity and cultural difference in America, as well as about the practice of photography, with its issues of audience and intent and the ethics of representation, not to mention the ongoing discussions of privacy and artistic freedom in the brave new world of the Internet and social media. 

May reports that the folks in West Virginia claim they were worried about the Camps' photographing their children without parental permission, a concern that touches somewhat on our previous notice of what made Sally Mann's photographs of her children so controversial.

There are way too many issues here to untangle in the space of a blog post. These are issues that are not new to photography in the American South, which for a long time has served as the go-to place for satisfying America's hunger for eccentricity as well as its interest in the consequences of poverty, racism, and economic exploitation. 

For now, however, a few thoughts -- 

As Southern photographers, we live in multiple communities, some of which do not share the values and interests of the others.

We make work as our interests compel and our skills enable us, but the primary audiences for our work are people who are culturally aware and sufficiently successful to frequent museums and galleries. Many of these folks could easily be as at home in New York or London or Paris as they are in Atlanta or Nashville or New Orleans. 

As photographers, we need the freedom provided by the laws about privacy to practice our craft. The law is pretty clear for fine art photography that people outside their own homes and in the public arena do not have a privacy right that trumps our rights as photographers to make photographs of them.

On the other hand, as a photographer, I do not believe in drive-by photography. I believe in photographing people, but I also believe in not photographing people who indicate their discomfort with being photographed.  

I believe in patient engagement with the people who interest me as a photographer, and in development of respectful relationships, in which the work that emerges is as much a collaboration between photographer and subject as it is the embodiment of a single artist's vision. 

So, for me, there are norms and standards of good practice. But people are different, and different groups of people have different understandings of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Even within largely homogeneous groups of people, some will react differently from others when engaging with photographers. 

Its too simple to say that the Camps behaved badly when photographing in West Virginia. Their behavior might well be perfectly acceptable in another place, with another group of people.

Its too simple to say that the folks in West Virginia who responded with hostility to their being photographed were out of bounds and lacking in Southern hospitality.

As Southerners, we are also part of communities for whom the public space of the community is an extension of folks' own sense of personal space. 

If you live in a small town or rural area, and know everyone near you, and, most likely, their parents and grandparents, and their children and grandchildren, then the attention of someone Not From Around Here can feel disturbing.

Some will enjoy or be honored by the attention that being photographed can bring. And some will not. The attention that a photographer can bring to someone not at home in a larger world, perhaps not even all that much at home in his or her own skin, can feel like a violation.

The attention that a photographer can bring to someone from people of differing economic or social or racial backgrounds is, at the least, ethically complex. 

We are dealing here not with rights and wrongs as much as with competing, and sometimes conflicting goods. 

There is no clear way forward. Sometimes, the best we can do is to practice reflectively, hopeful that, as in the incident in West Virginia, when conflict comes no one gets hurt, we can find a successful way out, and we can live to photograph another day.  


Roger May has identified a very thoughtful discussion on The Fader blog with  Chicago-based photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier on the question of the ethics of privilege in photography when there is an economic or cultural disparity between photographer and subject. 

Frazier notes the importance for her own photography of people like Gordon Parks, who, through photography, saw himself as "fighting all the things he didn’t like about America: poverty, racism, and discrimination." 

Frazier says that photographers need to collaborate with their subjects. 

"The number one thing is to listen," Frazier says. 

"Spend time with people before you ever even pull out a camera. Ask people what they need.

"It could be just as simple as asking someone to pick a place: how do they want to present themselves? 

"Make yourself available and supply your services and your skills and your techniques to someone else, so you can use your talents as a platform for their voice and representation."

That's first-class advice for anyone who picks up a camera. 

Frazier so consistently, deliberately, and thoughtfully engages issues of race, class, and culture in her work that I believe she deserves to be regarded as an Honorary Southern Photographer.

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