Friday, June 20, 2014

1974 - 2019, Celebrating now over 40 years making photographs back Home.

Banks Family Porch, 1989

Banks Family Porch, 1987

 Essay by Shelby Lee Adams


        "Unity is this: that a man feel himself to be gathered together with all his powers in the unity of his heart. Unity brings inward peace and restfulness of heart. Unity of heart is a bond which draws together body and soul, heart and senses, and all the outward and inward powers encloses them in the union of love."

—John Ruysbroeck

The Salute, 1987

"I find your pictures not only beautiful but truthful. You have captured the essence of the Kentucky backwoods. I saw my grandmother in those photographs. She was born and raised in Bailey Switch, a holler between Corbin and Barbourville. It's the eyes that say it all in my opinion. There is a lifetime of hard work, lack of modern convenience, and just plain hard-living that gives their eyes a haunting quality I find comforting and real. "
               —Amy Silverton, Kentucky Native

“Most mountain people, among ourselves are just open and loving to each other, we expect everyone to see us as we do—more caring, causing some never here before, to misunderstand, to label and see us all unfairly.” 
—Rachel Riddle, Leatherwood, Kentucky

       Neighbors look, both within your hearts and into what these photographs embrace. Openly experience this world, a part of our world, without casting judgment or becoming defensive. Just behold, absorb, and think.   To embrace each other we need a more varied, sometimes unsettling and yet more tolerant vision. A photograph can enable us to deconstruct ourselves and to ultimately find connection with each other. Sometimes, a benevolent personal transformation can occur, a touch to one’s heart that makes whole, which gives us the gift to see our interconnected humanity.  Look harder if you will. It is a personal choice, when or if at all, we see and engage each other.

Peggy and Albert, 1999

We see and view photographs of each other with varied beliefs and preconceived ideas. A photograph often invites us to observe and respond, creating a dialogue within ourselves accepting or rejecting an images content. Seeing itself, provides an intuitive key accessing specific regions and hollows within. If you are drawn to or even repulsed by a particular image, speak to that response in yourself. In that picture awaits an opportunity to explore and learn about ourselves as well as others.  Keeping distance only objectifies and constrains, some photographs are intended or used that way.  When we are willing to think of ourselves as a part of a larger and more collective mind, we can examine our own vulnerability, strengths, and flaws identifying with others more easily.

While attending art school in the early 1970’s, some of my fellow students made derogatory and ridiculing remarks about the people in the photographs when we first viewed the work of Walker Evans and other depression-era photographers. My peers did not consider the difficulties of others that might be themselves in another time. I learned then, we all read and respond differently to photographs. I came from a depressed area and saw those photographs in a personal acknowledged reality. The photographs touched me. Although, I felt set apart from my classmates, this experience provided me with a passionate direction. From that time forward, I wanted to make photographs of those I already knew and could easily engage. I identified with the mountain people and wanted to photograph them in my way.

Dan and Flossy, 1999

     For generations, particularly within the region I photograph, resentments interpret how some see their own poor, locals categorize some neighbors as living in somekind of poverty quagmire saying, “If they suffer, it is their own fault.”  The people in my homeland are basically kind good people and a few have worked hard becoming wealthy from coal mining. I think pride with shame intertwined knowing our history with poverty hardens some from our needy solidifying and maintaining ridged boundaries. Here, if poor some do not wish to acknowledge, further isolating those in need.  This causes some to say defensively when looking at photos of our indigent, “That hurtful picture is not me.

       It is my opinion that the person in that photograph is you in some way. What represents a part of all of us, of our humanity together, I urge people to investigate the deeper cause of such initial reactions within themselves, to our neighbors, our communities and our culture. In pride we often lose touch with our vulnerable and more sensitive selves, we sometimes think of ourselves as grander than we really are. To quote Ezra Taft Benson, a Mormon and farmer from our grandpas’ generation, “Pride does not look up to God and care about what is right. It looks sideways to man and argues who is right.”  

              Shame causes withdrawal and shame can embarrass and distort our views of others causing rejections and the denial of those who really need our support. To change and counteract these responses, one could work with the underprivileged or impaired. By visiting—you show your care. By participating with those in need you motivate and mentor folks who have great needs. Recognizing and assisting others is a beneficial action that strengthens our individual compassion and mindfulness, often contributing to all our lives. 

            Developing positive relationships with those deprived provides a pathway to overcome one's own negative thoughts and feelings by seeing affirming actions evolve with those in need. Sometimes when independent projects are ignored or compromised, ones character feels assaulted. We must rebuild again and again, demonstrating to those you are trying to help that they are worth supporting. By example, we lead others to overcome dysfunctional behaviors, inspiring them to develop self-worth transcending societies neglect.

Contented with an acceptance of themselves as they are, is an important cultural characteristic I'm photographing. Where some see only whats lacking, holler people often accept things as they are not worrying. They have strengthened themselves with fewer choices. Yet others consider and judge from their life of many privileges. To survive many mountain people, have to give up individual needs and self-importance to sustain their family as a whole. Later, to witness one who has lived through sacrifices in old age reveals often a strong wizened sage. We see families with very little materialistically, but can't we see their generous, loving and all encompassing family commitments? Many mountain people generally wear no masks, they are to honest to project a facade. Few barriers exist between us—I see and share my life with them understanding most of their viewpoints. It is within their home place and family context that I photograph.

Brother's Praying, 1993

Home Place

 I was thirteen years old in 1964 when Lyndon Baines Johnson launched our nation’s War On Poverty program from a little Eastern Kentucky community called Inez. This changed and altered our culture’s image and national representation, which had already been mischaracterized by Hollywood. 

How do we see others… in need?
 How they really are
       Or how we wish them to be,
                 And do we endure seeing them…

At all…?

            When people’s needs, flaws, and dependence are shown and made into news items without regard to the individuals portrayed, over and over, some cannot bear to stand with or mutually look to each other. This kind of imposed publicity, no matter what the intentions or benefits, shames and turns us against each other. Our people and their needs became a clich├ęd stereotype for the media's usage because we were so accessible and openly corporative. This deepened insecurities already ingrained within our culture when exposed and compared to the rest of our country.   

            Society puts social duty on us, yet many don't want to see some sectors of our people, often the humanity our government is assisting. Many turn away or superficially dodge without connecting or communicating with those in need. From the onset, some have long resented the participation of our government. Look at how many agencies and programs have been created to help the poor, with some overworked dedicated souls and other locals that grow up educating themselves to resent and condescend to their own people. Some regionally trained and educated with our governments funding come from the same communities maturing to begrudge their own. Some mountain folk say, "They draw a check, puttin' us down". 

           To assist others, we need to consistently empathize and listen to those in need. Folks say they feel, ''Lorded Over'' by some locals they work for. Some government workers intimidate their clients, threatening to have welfare now referred to as social services take their children, telling clients how to behave without demonstrating good role models. Neighbor's report each other to authorities for offenses made up, instead of supporting. Some of our indigent are repeatedly threatened with having their food stamps cut off or their welfare checks discontinued, unless they respond in a specified manner, the clients often only hear the threats. 

          Establishing good communications and reliable positive assistance creates genuine nurturing relationships and develop's mutual respect, so that responsible growth can occur. To belittle the family you are their to help is counterproductive and controlling, yet often how some say they feel treated. If we clearly see and stop projecting inaccurate blaming assumptions, people can change for the better. 

There are still great needs.

Some take advantage
Others resent those who give
And those who take.

                   Is it conceivable that those with just a little can create a life for themselves with substance, functionality, and basic achievement? Yes. I know families struggling with only a paltry income, dependent in part on social services, providing for their children the best they can. These families burdened with economic and sometimes physical impairments have an abundance of family devotion, faith and love and they get by. 

                  Why do we not see their goodness? All of us are not born with the same capabilities, but that does not mean those so born should be shunned, isolated or denied recognition. Can we become more tolerant, encompassing others different from ourselves? 

              Some families exist with limited opportunities and capabilities. This is not just an economic question, nor a question of color? Diverse peoples have always been here. Not just located in the  heads of our hollers where differences — are more acceptable. They are in our towns as well, often well hidden. In these rural communities, often misinformed neighbors criticize and spread damaging gossip suspiciously out of ignorance and meanness. Society often reacts guardedly in the presence of difference, detaching themselves, sometimes teasing and testing the impaired, reinforcing and creating more isolation and stereotypes. 

           To acknowledge, and respect the differences, varieties and shapes within our humanity would be a positive social transformation. If we don't start to look to each other with more kindness, communicating and interrelating—we will never find answers. Somehow, back home I have seen more acceptance practiced within our hollers and just as much prejudice and rejection in our towns. Holler people say, "Sometimes living here its like the difference between salt and pepper, Jesus and Satan are here to test you and your kin. You have to learn, those who help and those who hinder." Here established invisible lines are difficult to see and challenging to integrate. 

Burley and Shelby studying a Polaroid, 1976

Most holler people’s ability to accept themselves surpasses that of others I have known. They will tell you with pride that they have the knowledge to live off the land, believe in an after life that God will provide and most important, care and love their family. Holler folk have developed formidable survival skills to support each other, possessing a self-confidence that strengthens. Something many of us do not have.

 “The War on Poverty,” programs, successes, contradictions and misrepresentations by the media in part, inspired my life-long devotion to photographing our people. Making and sharing photographs together became especially important. We see and make photographs representing ourselves and our diverse humanity.  

         For over 30 years I used a large 4 x 5 view camera mounted on a tripod so that my subjects could see where the camera was positioned and know how they were being photographed. I made detailed Polaroids instantly, showing my subjects how their images appeared. But, often we all see the same — differently.

         What participants see, are their lives honestly and humbly portrayed. Some unfamiliar might see more a condition that needs fixing, instead of the independent and self sustaining life our rural people possess. Together my subjects and I have examined other media depictions of some families, certain presentations we felt were truthful and others embarrassed us. I felt then, and still feel that my photography is more of a calling than a profession and how we each see and interpret images is quite personal.

  Our ancestors believed in developing our spirituality and fellowship together, in seeing us all under God's grace. They taught and practiced this belief long before television came into our mountains depicting us as, "The Beverly Hillbillies," or "The Dukes of Hazzard," among other simplistic portrayals. 

          Now it is up to us to reengage and overcome superficial images, valuing and opening ourselves to each other honestly again. But, the media has influenced our different generations. Some now believe in themselves as media hillbillies or something less and others follow their family mountain traditions to the letter, or search for new paths.

       Spending my life visiting and photographing the people of the hollows has created an awareness of our peoples complexity, uniqueness and fragility. Many are spiritual who have plenty of vigor and believe in a personal God that inspires, many believe God listens to their prayers personally and blesses them. Knowing and experiencing part of our mountain religions has inspired me to pursue an even larger connection and more humbling view, observing all of us together.

While visiting and re-photographing my subjects from year to year, our relationships grow and mature. My visual approach shifts as an individual might change, as we become more acquainted and invested in each other's lives. When photographing, I encourage folks to experience themselves within, to bring up, to give, even to give-out a part of their inner being, to strengthen themselves by doing so because many of us are a generous people. I ask folks to look directly and straightforwardly into the camera, to concentrate, then I press the cable release.

Lloyd Deane and Great Grand-Baby, 2010

In making environmental portraits, some photo sessions have become practically therapeutic, providing inspiration and recognition in the remotest of places, where there is often no concern. This practice has developed into a ritual of making and exchanging pictures with some families for decades.

My rural friends confide in me and I listen and try to understand their situations. I bring forward their lives capturing apart of their emotions in the photographs, without causing them embarrassment, yet hopefully revealing and mirroring an important part of their reality—a life that is vulnerable, yet strong, bare, naturally expressed, down-to-earth, and simply honest.

Jesse Estep, 1986

     In our hollers reside the most interesting folks. Together we explore challenging depths because these people open themselves in unencumbered ways. Excitement and reward always come when meeting people faithful and true to themselves, whose diverse personas remain unaffected when photographed, confirming their independence. It feels purposeful and gratifying, making and giving pictures to individuals and their families to keep and enjoy, for them to live with and value, and for others to experience and study, introducing many unknown to each other. 

         To photograph the depths beyond appearances. It is often those without, made of primal and a deeply instinctive blood, our salt-of-the earth people that entice me. Their unencumbered presence seems honest, whole and stripped of hypocrisy.

                When any of us see others with more thoughtfulness and consideration, we see with more compassion. Within loving families, members perceive and feel the radiance and affection emanating through any imperfections in their special loved ones. That is the life caring families are dedicated to. Can we not all become members of this larger family?

      Seeing a community embracing its diverse and poor with value is significant. So often, an isolated rural family just wants and needs respect, or to be seen as they see themselves; just as they are and however they may appear at any given moment. They accept themselves their way. At least that is the intentions and desires of many families making pictures I know. Many ask to be photographed openly posing in their environments, modestly revealing their most basic sentiments. They do not want to be seen as "up-a-de'" or as carnival-like, just as themselves. Can we see another just as they see themselves, simply and respectfully?

Walter and Goldie with family, 1989

             Other regionalists have continually denied the holler folks any social participation or representation. This has been our history, now for generations. If we recognize distance between us we should work to overcome it. Perhaps past derogatory and cartoon-like media characterizations, which portrayed our people as barefooted and living in shacks with dirt floors, still infect the minds of many. It maybe that is all some are conditioned to ever see. 
           Many people write and theorize about mountain folk without having knowledge. You can have kinship, but it is one's relationships that bonds us. Country people are far more accepting of others than credited and certainly open to being photographed. Here photography is common in its appeal, we continually make new pictures, defining and redefining ourselves.

Different Frames*

Hettie and Children, 1977

While attending college I spent a summer working at a large state mental institution in North Hampton, Massachusetts. This two month experience changed my life. I became totally immersed in an environment servicing our mentally and physically disabled. I worked with those that society had hidden, many impaired with various disabilities. Often many patients were depressed, others manic and out of touch or lethargic. As a nineteen-year-old, this exposure challenged me, influencing my development and interest in photographing our diverse humanity. 

Back home In our mountains, I began visiting those with similar conditions. They were not institutionalized or confined to isolated white rooms. The mental and physical aptitudes seemed parallel, yet the rural disabled seemed more content, fulfilled somehow, supported, and engaged with their families. Seeing these rural children playing with pet cats and dogs was inspiring. They appeared to be relating and happy, unlike some of those in institutional life who only had a TV set for companionship. Yet when the country families told me they went into town with their special children they were often ignored and treated scornfully.

The rural families I visit have fewer community interactions, freeing them to establish their own ways of creatively communicating with their children. Those impaired in any way are valued equally. Surely that is where the term “special” originates. A special family's love embraces all their children the same. Are we not all in some sense special children? I photograph with those that may have a sparse material existence but live a confident, loving, open, and naturally self-assured way of life. Unashamedly, they accept themselves and their family unity attest to this.

It should be noted that the percentage of my work illustrating those with disabilities and impairments is roughly 10% of my entire body of work. But, because of how these images affect and disturb others, they have often become the center of attention. Here, I'm sharing some of my thoughts and objectives.

While I attended art school, my uncle Lundy, a country doctor, introduced me to various mountain families, some with special children. These children are often home schooled. When visiting, I found listening to their stories and experiences erases barriers and creates empathy and understandings, at least for me. Knowing them, is to learn about others. Behaviors to the impaired is sometimes cruel and prejudicial and that needs to stop. Many do not understand why I continue sharing these photographs. I consider it important for society to view and study such photos, I feel our awareness and acknowledgement will eventually help improve their situations. Familiarity leads to acceptability and acceptability creates connected and bonding healthy relationships. 

To many rural folk, nervous ticks, disabilities, and other impairments are often received as a part of the whole person. A family member might say, "That's just the way they are, they're still family and we love them." But, the rest of us may still see differently. Those more religious minded believe incapacities are a part of God's plan, even if that brings hardship and struggle, they see the world linked with a larger connection. Those same handicaps are seen as bringing about trials and ordeals that enlarge and strengthen a family’s spiritual core, also increasing a families faith and loveIn their homes, the pictures found on their walls almost always show all the family together, without embarrassment. 

Usually mountain families embrace and support all their kin, with no secrets, while some separate themselves and use another's defects to ridicule and distance themselves. Some within the region, have misunderstood the kindness and honesty in many of our humble people, seeing deficiencies instead of finding love, misstating and exploiting their positive and nurturing quality. Early on outside journalists knew our rural people had no voice to speak to the world. This disparity with no voice from the poor with special children created false stereotypes, producing misunderstandings and falsifications that still echo hurtfully throughout our mountains and the world. Ironically, today many contemporary people awkwardly chastise our own country folk, accepting and believing the misguided stereotypes created by the media long ago.

The special ones generally reach out and touch unguardedly, looking innocently and simply opening their hearts to the world. In our native mountains, families with members impaired often stop going to restaurants because many establishments have told them, “They are bad for business—bad to even be seen in public.” Special families' fear how they will be treated, their children looked upon and glared at. Why do some fear and distance themselves from those different? A good question! Now, when I visit folks with special children usually the mothers and I go buy groceries together and then we prepare supper in their homes. The special ones are hugged, loved and well regarded, and even revered. I have spent my adult life observing and pondering these divided behaviors and polarizing attitudes, wondering why is humanity this way? I continue making my photographs because I feel our culture and society needs to change and accept those who depend on us. 

Acceptance does not have economic, sociological, or geographic boundaries. Acceptance is heartfelt. Our special physically and mentally challenged need recognition, especially the support of family, community and public interactions, not just token offerings. Many special children have an all giving and loving nature that can inspire joy and bring happiness to family's and anyone around them, but visually at first, this may not always be apparent, sometimes we have to work at seeing better.   

             For many, how we see verifies who we are and how we live our lives and associate with others. Appearances are often deceiving, yet what some, scrutinizing and more sociallyconscious up to date people only consider.  Without sight, our physical and emotional feelings, regard for others and ourselves is very much altered. Our social and materialistic positions would be formed more with sensory awareness. If our hearing senses, touch and emotional feelings were more dominate or integrated, we would see with a more heartfelt outlook. 

       As a child I grew up with my grandma being blind I deeply loved her, in part because of her kindness. Observing her without sight, relating and communication begins with something as simple as a handshake, the tone of another’s voice or the touching of another's face. When blind we have to reach out and extend ourselves to make a physical connection. That physicality connects and informs us in diverse ways, so we are sensing and feeling more from another than sight alone can convey. Do you think an impaired child is repulsive to someone blind?

         Singularly, sight alone many take for granted, it often bounds our feelings and restricts our relationships to those like ourselves, because we don't always want to work exploring our diverse larger world, remaining in our comfort zone. The experience of an affirmative touch, a satisfying hug and positive physical bonding—develops relationships, no matter what one's appearance, abnormal or not. It takes sight, touch and an expanding heart together to unify us, to make whole. Yet, many resist touching another when they see arduous differences. I have experienced overcoming fears of the abnormal, learning to keep myself flexible in the presence of what others may perceive as difficulty. Remaining indifferent and distancing implies the inability to connect with or acknowledge how another is, feels or perceives.

         Mountain religious people practice, "the laying on of hands," especially beneficial to our sick and impaired. Supporting them to feel and see more connected to the rest of us is rewarding. Can we be more thoughtful of others more vulnerable and stop dismissing and reacting negatively? Our blind will testify to the irrelevance of appearances, but they insist with certainty, without spoken words when around others, they can feel when people accept them or not. 

Why deny what another's heart is begging us to recognize?

Unquestionably, when someone photographs within an institution or the private life of the disadvantaged in general or those with disabilities in particular, they are often viewed as doing something wrong, immoral or amiss. Critics say, "The subjects [patients] don't know what is going on; they are abandoned by their own minds, living with no purpose.” Some say, even with family permissions, "How can we look at this?" The problem lies beyond the visual images. It has more to do with society’s collective thinking and conditioning from ages of rejection. Humanistic photography will always be in conflict with the ideal, because it represents our human vulnerability. Families of children with disabilities see their own in a positive light and they view their photographs in a healthy loving manner.

Corrine and Selina, 2015

To break down resistant taboos is our responsibility. My friends, the one's who have birthed, understood, raised, lived with, and loved those dependent, have the right to speak for their own, who can't speak for themselves, yet society continues to authoritatively dominate these people. Can we hear the anguish when a mother of special children says, "God give me my children and he give them to me for a reason. I don't feel ashamed... I'm proud of 'em. I'm proud God let me keep my young'uns?" Now deceased, could we have served this mother better?

An Otherworldly Voice

I remember my childhood growing up in Eastern Kentucky. My mother bought me new clothes each school year and gave my old ones away. We visited together and she gave to large, needy families that were our neighbors. She had to covertly slip around my father to do so or there would be a fight. The new middle class of my parent’s day was very self-conscious, and some were embarrassed by the conditions some lived, around us.

       My father worked hard and wanted to keep us separated, socially and physically away from those less fortunate. If he could have blocked our view of poverty he would have done so. Yet publicly, like others within our community of the 1960's and 70's, he volunteered to help, as was expected from those who could. I grew up more sympathetic to my mother's approach, which supported the needy discreetly. But, as a youth, I also wanted to confront the world and stop our hiding of some in the shadows. My parents’ personal and cultural conflicts guided me towards my future life's work.

It saddens me that some of those who are prosperous and born in our region, and who could easily assist those close by, hardly acknowledge or respond. Yet other neighbors with very little often do the most. Some successful locals declare, when watching programs about our down and out, “They showin’ the same old thing.  That’s all people want to see away from here.” Spoken with certainty, they remain numb to what the programming intends, we are a mixed culture economically and socially. Some are convinced people outside our region see us all in need and think of us as desperate…Even if true, one could still help a neighbor close by.

My grandma was an important influence.  She was of the Old Regular Baptist faith and often sang in an otherworldly voice. Some said, "She could melt a heart of stone with her singing." Her voice resonated a deeply felt gentle sound like no other. She cried as she sang, and this moved us all.

               Grandma had a cousin named Rufus, he was of a different nature, he had a red beard, knotted hair and bright blue eyes. He was known for his drunken benders, laying out in the apple orchard during summers drinking, eating apples—guzzlin' moonshine till he couldn't walk, singing and talking to no—one and everyone, for a week at a time, drunk as he could be. He would arrive at grandma's house, after his liquor was drunk. He came to visit and get something to eat, grandma would have him clean up at the barn, wash in the barrel the horse and cows drank from and often still drunk, he had to sleep in the barns hay loft until sober. She would take him some of grandpa's clean work cloths to put on.

          Growing up I was always excited to see Rufus, he laughed and cut up with me, giving me walnuts or buckeyes he'd found in the woods, sayin' they were special, just for me. Grandma always cooked a big meal with fresh biscuits when ever he showed up. Most families I knew then had someone like Rufus at home, maybe others. Many came to ask for food and grandpa would kindly hand them an empty coal bucket and a hoe and show them where they could dig a bucket full of Irish taters to take with them. Grandma would get them some homemade butter from the kitchen, wrapping in wax paper. 

             My grandparents had clear lines of acceptable behaviors for  kin or strangers when visiting their place, yet they never turned anyone away, puttin' up some in the barn loft sometimes. Year's later word came to my grandparents that Rufus had been saved, he had joined the church, hearing this satisfied them. In our hollers, many seem to grow and sprout both the dark and the light; they are dangerously hard on themselves exploring life's excesses and blessed capabilities transitioning back and forth. Some die in the process, others become leaders and beacon's within their communities and still others must leave, going back and forth and never settling.

Self-Portrait with Grandma, 1974

Grandma always believed in and supported folks, even after she went blind in her old age, regardless of another's circumstance. As a child I witnessed how her singing consoled our neighbors when visiting. Humbly moved and sometimes weeping together, folks released their anger and burdens in her presence, encouraging each other. I have always felt that the genuinely inspired like my grandma who could love, motivate, calm, and guide the rest of us—their scruples were rock solid. That confidence was instilled and grew in me from grandma long ago before I took up photography. 

              Studying the history of photography gave me a determination to search for others in our mountains, like my grandparents, Berthie and Lee Banks. Holler folks welcomed me; they somehow knew our legacy had to be recorded. Many have told me, "You're the only one I'd let photograph me. Want' surrounds us, but we ain't run-down, we see otherwise as you do. It took others comin' in to tell the younger generations, they was poor, and that hurt them. Now, many have went on."

Past and Present

Dillon, 2007

To find the holler and mountain people passing from generation to generation seen as a poor condition and not as a self-reliant people is to remain unknown and to be continually ostracized. Perhaps this ambiguous distress and its attendant images started before The Great Depression of our grandfather’s day. Our government began the FSA documentation project among other relief programs, through the FDR NEW Deal, the Happy Pappy days of our fathers’ time and continuing through The War On Poverty years of my own generation, to help the needy. Many would rather not remember this difficult history, our history. Still, there are considerable numbers of those we have not reached or never seen.

The original settlers here were often subsistence farmers, gatherers, and survivalists who understood a more interconnected way of life. They lived day to day: watching and working, supporting and nurturing life itself, helping to support one another.  They would find, incubate, and hatch a chick from an orphaned egg because it was needed. They birthed their own children at home. They tended their fields with farm animals plowing on the hill-sides with productive harvests but also through tribulations and hunger.  They witnessed life’s miracles and defeats ... They functioned definitively while on this earth, with awareness of potential storms and natural disasters challenging their daily existence.

                   They became a part of this place, mixing blood, flesh, and spirit—all primal and deeply connected. Our ancestors practiced the belief that each of us is born with a purpose, to grow and live our lives abundantly and yet independently. When our grandfathers’ met conflicts, and one was “shorted,” or “taken from,” they gave forgivingly—not naively, but generously. They felt forgiveness was their fulfillment and generosity their gift to their fellow man. Our elders also believed something similar to William Blake: "That all true universes are in the human bosom; which is always essentially the same, whether in you or me or any man. The Bosom of God."

                But, some contaminates still need to be hollowed out. It is mountainous and sometimes foggy here, and we are inlaid with some unseen economic and compromising behaviors, where a few have made greed into a tradition, making a good living taking from those with less while rural society looks the other way. When I ask some on assistance, why  permit others in their community to take advantage of them, they answer, “No one else will help or fool with us. We can’t afford no car, and you have to get around to survive and trade where and when you can.”

             There are no taxicabs or bus services in our rural areas; mostly just pickup truck drivers who charge what they can get, and everyone knows the monthly allotments. Those without their own transportation remain vulnerable. Our government implemented a reliable program to transport the indigent to and from their medical appointments, but this is a sizeable and diverse mountain region, and subsidized transportation cannot be provided for many needs.

Groceries and other items in county stores are often more expensive, and credit interest is frequently over-inflated, keeping many in debt. Those without a ride sometimes have to agree to owe a portion of next month’s allotment to get home with this month’s groceries. Some are always in debt. If either side were asked, they would deny this cycle exists because both are co-dependent and fearful of the checks being cut off.  

          For those living in the hollers, if they don’t “vote right,” and support the powers that have “always been,” their symbolic bridge linking them and their children to the modern world may never be built. But when they finally do get to town, to “Do their tradin’” with people they know and work for, folks tell me that some townspeople act like they don’t see you. “They talkin’ above you and behind you, while you’re standin’ straight in front of them, tradin’ your hard earned money, and they, barely’ lookin,’ or speakin,’ at you.” I also grew up under this, so I know these stings as truth. We continue to keep some of our own alienated.

Here is a local mother’s description of her court appearance when a social worker required her family be taken to court because of alleged child neglect: “When we went in front of the judge, the judge acted like we wanton' there, like we wanton’ even in the court room. Wouldn’t look at us. The social worker told us, the judge will’ do what we want."

Oma, 2014

Another man who had just quit his job told me, “That’s just the way some people is to work for. Always’ putting people down. Cursing at one another, their own workers. I couldn’t take it. I walked off from a job where people were cursing me all the time. They don’t pay nothin,’ no way." Not a lot of opportunities exist for some, and when holler folk do find work, they tell me their local employers, often those they have grown up knowing all their lives, take advantage. 

    We live in complicated times. More and more, others are coming to us looking for homesteads, what we now call house seats or home lots. Those who have moved off with others, want to come back and resettle. They see peace here, where in the cities violence and shootings are increasing. Our family feuds made us famous, now that stigma is faded and we are viewed as peaceful again. Away from the coal mined mountains, beautiful scenic landscapes are waiting to be developed. But, will the new residents take to the old-culture seeing our mountain folk's with value? Will they want to accept, coexist and be with our holler peoples? Or will they be like some of our own, putting down those who have long clung and adapted to life in the mountains, treating them as less?

In the beginning of the twentieth century, nonresidents bought up all the great timber in our mountains, paying nominal fees, but if the timber brought in a small reward, a landowner’s mineral rights and coal were virtually given away. These purchases were legal and forever binding.  They were signed at a time when a miner, a mule, and a wooden sled worked the coalmines, when coal was toughed out from underground with a scoop shovel. This was the only kind of coal mining that our turn-of-the-century mountaineers knew when they signed or put their X’s on what was then called  broad form deeds.*


Federal Courts upheld the mining companies' use of the broad form deed; some say this is why Appalachia has remained so poor, since these deeds created many nonresident millionaires. 

Coalminer, 1993

The new modern day anomie, mountain-top-removal mining provides the largest economic development to the region, moving multiple-tons of coal daily with heavy equipment now from atop the mountains. This can be troubling and distressing to one’s view of some mined mountains changed forever, defying nature to see. But, perhaps mining should not be stopped. This is home for many and the jobs and income the coal extraction provides is the most prosperous work for those living here, the only work for some. Everyone knows the coal is here and it will continue to be taken, one way or another. Because of this, new ways of mining with better safety regulations and stricter environmental management should be our highest priority. 

Hopefully, we have learned from the controversy of our grandfathers, who sold our mountains mineral rights for fifty cents an acre. Now our people need work and participate in mining and reclaiming parts of our scared lands in order to survive and support their families. What we didn’t see plainly before was that, mountains can be cut away, our coal is quite valuable and that people are just the way they are, often not considering our folk or environment. Maybe our people’s ways, their humanity, benevolence, rituals, culture and customs—the last of something special, will still somehow prove worthy to continue.

Will our authentic culture be preserved in an Appalachian theme park somewhere? Educating ourselves and communicating to meet our challenges with each other is vital. Now is the time to envision our future survival. I think many young people see ahead quite clearly.   

While some will take advantage or dismiss them, our people will always have more to give than most can perceive. It is their kindness and generosity, not their welfare allotments that others point out, that actually contributes to keeping them poor. The old saying, “He is good enough to give you the shirt off his back” is a real characterization. I continually discover that they, the holler dwellers, are rich in spirit, charitable, and a soulful people. Seeing from within invites one to experience a more complete picture.

              I consider it my duty and responsibility to search out and create a vast and embracing view of our incomparable and sensitive people, to do so as truthfully as I can, morally, ethically, and compassionately.  I have tried to make a visual library of recognition from decades of personal collaborations and friendships: acknowledgements of an often-ignored rural people. To construct a body of work for future study, patiently with understanding and love, for the holler peoples and others, has taken a lifetime.

Shelby Lee Adams 
August 2016

To Anne S. Leaf, whose spirit and love have inspired and guided me always. With special thanks to Liz Buckley and Stephen Knepper for their assistance, patience and editing skills; and to many other encouraging readers.

Selected Sources

Gandhi on Non-Violence, Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1965

John of Ruysbroeck, 14th-century Dutch mystic writer

Saint Cyprian, De Zelo ET Livore, 3rd century Christian writer, Carthage

Ezra Taft Benson, Mormon religious leader and farmer, 1899-1994

Can Humanity Change, J. Krishnamurti, Shambhala, 2003

Look for Yourself, The Science and Art of Self-Realization, Douglas E, Harding, InnerDirections, 1995

Cormac McCarthy, works in general

Reflections on the Art of Living, Joseph Campbell, and other works in general, 1991

Psyche and the Sacred, Spirituality beyond Religion, Lionel Corbett, Spring Journal Books, 2007

Blake's Vision Of The Book Of Job, Joseph H. Wicksteed, Haskell House, 1971

The Eyes of Shame, Mother—Infant Attachment and Psychoanalysis, Mary Ayers, Brunner-Routledge, 2004

Unstrange Minds, Remapping the World of Autism, Roy Richard Grinker, Basic Books, 2007

Faces, A Narrative History of the Portrait in Photography, Ben Maddow, New York Graphic Society Boston, 1977

The Theatre of the Face, Portrait Photography Since 1900, Max Kozloff, Phaidon, London, 2007

Face, The New Photographic Portrait, William A. Ewing with Nathalie Herschdorfer, Thames & Hudson, 2006, London

Ghost in the Shell, Photography and the Human Soul, 1850 - 2000, Robert A. Sobieszek, 1999, Los Angeles County Museum, LA

On Ugliness, Edited by Umberto Eco, Rizzoli, 2007, NY

Night Comes To The Cumberlands, A Biography Of A Depressed Area, Harry M.Caudill, Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1963

Worlds Apart, Why Poverty Persists in Rural America, Cynthia M. Duncan, Yale University Press, 1999

Children of Crisis Series, Robert Coles, Little Brown and CompanyBoston

River Of Earth, James Still, The University of Kentucky Press, 1940 & 1978, Lexington, KY

CD—Old Regular Baptists, Lined-out Hymnody From Southeastern Kentucky, Smithsonian Folkways, 1997

Touch, Gabriel Josipovici, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1996

Kentucky quotes and personal sources: Lee and Berthie Banks [grandfather and grandmother], Dr. Lundy Adams [uncle], Brice and Crow Caudill [childhood neighbors and friends], Helen Adams, Pearl Banks, Wasper Collins, Chester Adams and family, Dan and Flossie Slone and family, Jesse Estep, Ellis Collins and Family, Roy Banks, Sherman and Hermie Jacobs and family, Rachel and Wayne Riddle and family, Arch, Jerry and James Napier and family, Arnold and Gladis Shepherd, Debbie Hall, Martha and Kizzie Joseph, Walter and Goldie May Holbrook and family, Heddie and Burley Childers and family, Hort and Henry Collins, Lloyd Dean Noble and his extended family, Oma Collins, Peggy and Albert Campbell, and Amy Silverton, among many others.


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