It’s a welcoming image that caught my eye, a photograph that recalled an immediate nostalgia for a region that I knew well: central Appalachia. My love for the area began in college while working for a home-repair organization. The more time I spent there, the greater my appreciation grew. The people and their kindness were notable. The culmination of my time ended in living with a family in an old coal-mining holler for months. I felt at home.
It’s there where I began to understand the nuances that populate the region, from political and religious issues to economic and educational. The underlying history of coal — its rise and fall — provided a better knowledge of why things developed in the arc in which they did. Over the years, I’ve also witnessed the grinding effects of the resulting poverty on many I care deeply about.
As a result, I cringe at the simplistic narrative and visual portrayal of the region: uneducated, racist, drugged. The list goes on. I recoil at a grotesque representation that some photographers present in a myopic narrative that is often sensational and preconceived.
A renewed media interest in the region developed during the most recent election cycle and in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Much of the reporting in the region focused on the “Trump” voter as if there were a singular bloc and intention behind this connection. A consistent drumbeat of a stereotype developed among many of the fly-in media that covered central Appalachia. What is harder to find, I think, are photographers who go in with a deeper openness and commitment to the time necessary to reflect on the complex. One of those is Brittany Greeson, 25, an independent documentary photographer based in Detroit.
“I think there’s a major disconnect between the national outlets that were covering it and what I was seeing on the ground,” said Greeson. While not aimed specifically at a Kentucky project she’s working on, Greeson points out that, broadly, “with a lot of stories I’ve pitched, editors often ask: How does it tie to the president? People were often cast in stories that were Trump-focused as if it’s always tied into the election.”
Greeson continued, “I’ve been curious about documenting how eastern Kentucky is transitioning from a coal-based economy and what that means for the region and the people who live there. That also includes the history of coal.”
She’s traveled to the region — namely, eastern Kentucky — on three separate trips, with funding assistance from organizations such as The GroundTruth Project, WGBH and most recently the Kentucky Documentary Photo Project, which is creating archival photography for the state of Kentucky. She’s spent two months in all, and her last trip was an immersive three-weeks documentary visit beginning in fall 2017.
Greeson was quick to point out that she didn’t want the work to be politically oriented: “It’s a very lazy narrative. Things are always more complex than they seem.” Greeson noted that it’s not as if there’s a Trump flag everywhere. She, in fact, saw only a few such prominent flags during her time in eastern Kentucky.
“If you have to go looking for these clues and ideas that fit your narrative, you’re not doing a good job at reporting,” Greeson says. “I think there’s a lot of deep-rooted anger that we saw play out in the election because this region has been overlooked historically and has faced so many challenges.”
I agree. I’ve long admired Brittany’s commitment to those around her and the dignity she reflects in those she documents. As someone who has traveled extensively throughout central Appalachia, in a community development role and as a documentary photographer, I feel that carrying dignity and respect for the condition is paramount.
It’s clear from talking with her that she harbors the same sentiment. She’s also dogged and consistently points out her compassion for those she documents. It’s a lesson we can learn from.
She added, “I felt very angry at how other photographers were portraying these people. I was motivated by that anger and wanted to work with them [those she met] on their stories.”