In his historic 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty, wanting to find ways to changethe lives of those the American dream had left behind. LBJ believed that America had the resources to wipe out economic scarcity, and he used military rhetoric to rally the people around the cause. Central Appalachia became the frontier for the initiative.
This region comprises all of West Virginia and parts of southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, southeastern Ohio, and western North Carolina. It is a large swath of land that runs along the Appalachian Mountain Range.
News organizations descended on the region to put a face to the War on Poverty. Journalists depicted it as an unseemly place to live. These representations have haunted its people ever since. Those responsible, had the best of intentions, but ultimately they contributed to unfair stereotypes of a rural group of people who already felt ostracized from the American Dream. Fifty years later, most of the programs put in place to eradicate poverty have been severely hindered by reductions in aid.
I have been making photographs in the region for five years. This past summer I collaborated with VICE and local writers Juliet Escoria, Catherine Moore, and Jacob Knabb to tell stories that offer a complex and nuanced understanding of what central Appalachia looks like 50 years after becoming the poster child for poverty.
We focused on the effects of the declining coal industry, systemic problems with the healthcare system, the struggle against the obliteration of mountains due to strip mining, the drug epidemic, and the history and meaning of the terms redneck and hillbilly.
I did not want to produce a series of stories that reinforced mass media's view of central Appalachia as a poverty-ridden region. I also do not believe it is useful to ignore the poverty and only showcase selectively positive things. Both strategies fail to acknowledge the complexity of life in any region. If we want to utilize mass media to demystify stereotypes, represent culture, sum up experience, and interpret memory and history, we must collectively acknowledge that these stories do not offer an authoritative view of a place. Central Appalachia is too vast and complicated for this.
Despite the failure of past depictions, there is value in thinking through how and when we attempt to change the circumstances of people through government-initiated policies. There is value in reporting that examines what it looks like when these policies fail. It is useful to understand how marginalized communities continue to struggle. It is important to remind ourselves that there was a time when a president thought he could eradicate poverty in the Unites States. As we prepare for a new election and a new president it is valuable to revisit the issues at stake in overlooked parts of America. It is valuable to provide representations of life in Appalachia that are dimensional and considerate of its effects on those that live in the region. –Stacy Kranitz
Below is a preview of the stories in Ain't No Grave:
The child of a drug-addicted prostitute, Shawn grew up in the projects in Charleston and started selling drugs at 14. His life is dotted with death—the murder of a friend, a car accident that killed his mother—stints in rehab, and almost ten straight years in prison. What is unexpected is his softness, something he admits is new for him. –From "The Hard Times, Struggles, and Hopes of Addicts in Appalachia"
"There would be a lot of people hurting if this didn't exist." –From "Watching Lives Get Saved and Teeth Get Pulled at a Remote Medical Clinic in Appalachia"
"Whenever I take people and show them the disaster site up there I try to make it a point to say to them, 'This isn't capitalism gone horribly, horribly wrong… It's the American way and capitalism gone horribly, horribly right.'" –From "How Environmental Activists Are Fighting Back Against Pollution and Big Business in Appalachia"
"What's my life like? I work daylight to dark every day. I pay my own way. I don't the government for nothing. I don't want the government to know about anything I do. I don't ask for no welfare. I do my own thing. I work in the sawmill. I'm a professional board stacker. A true redneck don't give a shit about nothing but putting food on the table, working, and getting drunk. A man ain't got a job and can't provide for himself can go to hell as far as I care." –From "What It Means to Be a 'Redneck' or a 'Hillbilly'"
People like Bryan Dunlap were once the middle class in Boone County; they could buy cars and houses, pay property taxes, and go to the mall. With coal's death, all that's gone. What's left is extreme poverty and those who have always been really well off, and they'll stay there. –From "A Portrait of Coal Town on the Brink of Death"