The Napier Family, 1989

By Shelby Lee Adams

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

Pema Chodron

From the onset of my photography in the 1970′s, my experience has been that the larger national population has always viewed Appalachia as a region in transition, not backwards. We Appalachians sometimes think we are viewed more backward than the world actually sees us. Today this diverse mountain range holds many modern developments and yet still embraces many pockets of isolated mountaineers. Much new media attention has freed up the culture from old Hollywood and news stereotypes. For me, as a native, focusing on the people in the hollows, seems relevant, therein lies the old foundational culture we all come from. This is the world that is changing and disappearing. Many outsiders without depth of commitment or understanding have documented the area. My opportunity is to make photographs from an insider’s perspective with real, established relationships. Trained as a fine arts photographer, I have no political or social bias to entertain, choosing instead to diligently and openly explore my roots, family, people and myself. Now, with more than 34 years invested in one concentrated body of work, the work itself feels complete, but never ending.

This work is a study to be felt. It does speak to you, if not directly, indirectly, more intuitively than in a conscious sense. This is a feeling culture: its people live with memory and spirits of times past. Having the freedom to feel leads to fearless honesty: expressing emotions directly, where others do not, creating volatility and changes at times yet, leading to staying power, never leaving one’s family or place. Faith is important. Jesus says: “Behold, I stay with you always.” Some live with hurt and retribution. They think of the future with uncertainty. Analytic dialogue and planning are not the norm here. This is difficult for some to understand. My work explores both internal and external representation, with more emphasis on the inner processes.

I have an open easy rapport with so much and so many. The camera sees objectively, outwardly, we are taught. This is the obvious. The view camera became my specific tool in 1974; early on my subjects responded to it with ease and curiosity. They could see themselves mirrored back within the camera’s lens; this helped engage and create a sense of timeless reflection. We could see together and view the 4×5 inch Polaroids instantly. Right away in the field, my subjects and I created a participant/observer relationship. The cultural dialogue already existed: I was from there and accepted. To direct the camera more inwardly seemed natural. Multiple photography sessions from years of making portraits with the same families leads to multiple perspectives, creating self-archetypes that resonate and express the inner persona of the subject, their families and the photographer.

When my friend and subject Selina [a mentally and physically challenged child], first told me, “I Love You”, while photographing her with the helpful interpretation of her mother, I was profoundly touched. That was in 1978, I then decided to dedicate a part of my time to working with the mentally challenged. That experience moved my consciousness and spirit to communicate with people in different ways, to try and help facilitate more human communication; to give recognition to my subjects and their families, where there was none. Another motivation and a powerful one, probably where it all began: my mother suffered from mental illness and my uncle Arlie, a doctor, lost his ability to practice because of his mental illness. Both shared so much insight with me as a child, yet something was askew. I wanted to understand more about this abstract world and learn to communicate in these unclear waters. Now I feel this part of my work is a gift.


Mary on Bed, 1990

From the beginning, I never felt the need to use photography to implement change. Certainly not change in the way documentary photography had served us before. This response comes from growing up in Kentucky and seeing how documentary/sociological photography hurt my people. During “The War on Poverty” era, I saw my people shamed by much of the media exposure. When collecting model releases in 1992 for my first books publication, several people said, please don’t write about us living in poverty. I have always honored and understood this request. But, change is an enviable desire. Any serious artist or writer wants to search and establish ways to affect his viewer, develop an audience and achieve some recognition. The change I desire with my work is more about discovering and recognizing internal portrait communications universally; to develop a psychological understanding of how we are all wired and evolving. Making a photograph that communicates through us, in an intuitive, feeling way, opens our hearts to compassion, establishing catharsis. We begin to heal through the recognition that much of the prejudice, devaluation and our own low self-esteem begins in the hollers. By studying our people’s roots with reverence, we penetrate and go beyond the surface of the photographs without moralizing.

For some challenged isolated people, communication is not easy, not linear, but more undefined. They need to be lovingly befriended and encouraged. Their difficulty and hunger to communicate both attracts and challenges. Parents know and learn intuitively how to work with disadvantaged children’s limitations. To photograph these people is a healing recognition and acknowledgement for the subject and family; hopefully this communicates something to you the viewer. That is the challenge, to soften your resistance and open your perceptions positively to others with less communication opportunities.

“We are all of us simultaneously in and out of our own imagined scenarios, depending on who sees us, whenever we venture into the world.”

Max Kozloff – “The Theatre of the Face”

If I’ve learned anything from doing this work, it is that we cannot change anyone, except perhaps ourselves. To change oneself is difficult, even painful. To open new internal perspectives, different ideas, alter, exchange, or modify is all-transformative. Change is hard, no matter what cultural background you come from, especially when one lives in an area where there are less opportunities. Today, in Appalachia limited opportunities for holler dwellers are caused more by internal insecure cultural attitudes than lack of programs. But, one person’s positive transmutation affects their family, and that family can contagiously affect the holler they live in and on to the larger community. To overcome resistance in all directions is a goal. We create resentments through forced implemented change, damaging and destroying culture and its people. Photography, art, music and religion are all examples of tools that give us keys to opening our creative life experiences, which inspire us to be stronger, fuller, more understanding human beings. It begins, by accepting, supporting and studying our authentic holler dwellers first and moving forward.

“In order to embrace and identify common aspirations that define the core values of a society we must look at the edges to help construct that reality. We fear the unknown, we criticize new ideas, we are skeptical of other people and other cultures, and we resist change in the process of locating our zone of comfort.”

Jeffrey Hoone

I have never questioned my people about their reasons for living or doing what they do. It is not my intentions to judge. It is best to spend time with people and let them direct the conversations. Portraits evolve because families share what is happening at a particular time and place. For example, to be able to photograph a willing subject, just after or during a specific tragedy or blessing, is phenomenal. Be that the birth of a new baby, the death of a loved one or a religious transformation. Time is an integral part of the process. Events bring out the unguarded inner person and cultural understanding is critical to working within this matrix.


Scotty with Banjo, 1992

Stories and secrets have always existed in my family’s life that I could not tell, as my relationships grew with my people, we discovered such secrets also existed for many of them. We share this discrepancy, more resonance is established and echoed. Some things can’t be said, not with camera, not with words, not without harsh consequences. This has contributed to how I construct, light and compose certain pictures. You want to put it all in the picture, even the secrets. You must protect the living even after death. It is complex, this method of feeling communication. I sometimes wish I were a fiction writer, thinking maybe that would be easier. I long for and need the full story for my understanding, but much information is confidental between my subjects and myself. Nothing is withheld between photographer and subject. This shared life knowledge makes for more expressive, more confident portraiture. Ironically, the shunned are the ones that want exposure the most, perhaps because a community voice doesn’t exist for them. Most are trusting, sensitive and loving human beings. When they sign a model release, some say, “You know what is best.” I am responsible now for how I present their pictures and words. Many visits follow with photographs, layouts and text in hand. It is this process of visiting, sharing and acknowledging that pleases them the most. It is respectful and so few get visitors. This is my lifetime commitment and integrity is so important. I feel, I am, in a way, charting unknown waters under the guise of documentary.

What we have in an authentic photographic relationship is an accepted container of understanding and expression, not a prearranged negotiation. The photographic portrait making then becomes a merger in which both the subject and photographer become one to present something more whole and complete to you the viewer.

Baudelaire said, “Art is the greatest metaphor.” I have always believed some photographs are transcendent, especially when my subject and I can’t verbalize a literal story. Yet apparently, life energy is communicated within the photograph. These pictures are not so metaphoric, but like mirrors, they reflect and transmit abstract fragments of life. A confirmation is achieved. A person’s thoughts and experiences, when photographed formally and methodologically, come through. There is no contest of wills here. A deep conviction to serious portraiture has not been exercised here before – certainly not in these hollers. This is unmapped territory, filled with a history of misunderstandings. I do not wish to re-traumatize certain subjects [as some photographers do] for effect. My people trust me and have just simply unburdened and bared their souls to me in conversation. I acknowledge, accept, and then photograph.

It is important to communicate to my viewer the consequences and resiliency of the lives lived. Portraiture carries this. Some of my subjects have had amazing life experiences: they are heroes. To open others’ minds, hearts and bodies to travel within this world is the goal. To find our common interconnectedness, some must see their own shadows first. In psychology, the word “affect” is used to describe certain re-occurring unconscious experiences. Certain childhood experiences remain dormant in our unconscious for our life times, but can resurface momentarily at the viewing of a particular photograph. For some, this brings about emotional reactions apart from the photograph seen. This makes the viewing experience difficult to comprehend and understand. Is not one benefit of the photographic arts today to bring forth these unconscious impulses [blind spots] to help the viewer reintegrate, overcome frozen fears and merge into a fuller humanness? This experience when one allows it affirms more of the subject photographed, and vice versa. Integration and wholeness can be achieved, but it is a volatile process. Multiple engagements with the photographs may be necessary by the viewer, just as multiple visits and photographic sessions are necessary for the subject to give revealing portraits. This has been a learned and richly rewarding process for me. So much of contemporary portraiture today denies us this very important engagement.

“We must get beyond our stereotyping histories and fears of misrepresenting poor Appalachian culture as, all of us: when in fact, this work really is about “All of Us” in the broadest sense. We all need to perceive ourselves more clearly interconnected, internally, humanily and less defensively.”

We need to bare our vulnerability. That is what my subjects are doing. We can learn much from each other in this multicultural age, just by looking, staying with, and meditating on that portrait before us. I have not shied away from what and who have been presented to me. Only an insider could share in this world and I’ve worked with that knowledge all along. Indeed, understanding my place within this culture has been part of my motivation. Seeing with mutual vulnerability helps break down barriers. The human imagination contains great healing balms and if the depths are stirred, the images stay with us, hopefully deepening and strengthening our character. We must make the effort.


Chester with Hounds, 1992

“A human being is a part of the whole that we call the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness. This illusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for only the few people nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living beings and all of nature.”

Albert Einstein

With photography, as I further explore truth and reality within this living environment, my experience has shown me that a lot of contradictions and distortions happen in the middle of living life. That accurate heightened visual awareness sometimes is experienced as falling through reality or perhaps being thrown or uplifted. My field work has led me through many exciting, challenging and even distorted experiences, that stretch ones visual comprehension. That edge is humbling and part of my vision and reality. “The ability to experience reality directly increases in direct proportion, as our own self – importance diminishes.” We need to see that we have abused our land and nature, and our own humankind by denying our natural commonality. I’m reminded and inspired by the artistic and spiritual visions of the artist El Greco. We all see with differing eyes.

I want to free us from traditional conventions by staying within them. The archetypes of photography are strong within this genre; it is my intentions to work from the inside outward in experiencing our humanity. My people open and share in ways not seen before; I challenge the viewer to look within this world with new sensitivities. In Kentucky we discuss serious spiritual experiences and visions along with drunken driving and hunting stories, all in the same visit, all with seriousness and humor. These talks influence future photographs. As the Buddhists say, “Experience all as a dream.” My friend Buford Kiser from Pistol City said as an example, “I have two dogs within me, one is black and the other white. There is always a gnashing of teeth.” A yin/yang metaphor I’m certain Buford never realized, yet experienced. My photographs are made within a heightened spirit of reality, intensely stylized sometimes, yet serious, and executed with light heartedness, not obvious distortion.

Photographs can transcend language barriers and communicate to the humanity within all peoples. When we view the dark shadows long enough, they can become quite beautiful. The human eye [photograph] not only allows us to see into another mind, but also enables us to affect what we see, to even bend or persuade another. There is also an eye that looks right through us and does not see. We experience both, we must make room for two-way traffic. We prevail, we continue to search and struggle for our unconscious origins, fighting cloudy imprints and seeking freedom. The hidden hollers of all our minds can connect with the photographic experience; one of many ways to engage.

In conclusion, Appalachia does not have any larger percentage of social and psychological problems than other rural cultures. My personal and subjective reasons for continuing this work and for the directions it’s taken, I take full responsibility. The openness, honesty and acceptance of the people have kept me coming back, again and again. The shared stories, the building friendships, relationships, traveling and events have helped enrich my life. I hope the viewers of this work will find a dedicated study of our shared humanity, its complexity, integrity in exploring our problems, life, defeats, celebrations, pride and redemptions. Get the big picture. In my opinion, this mountain culture should be applauded. Many people there express tolerance of others, resiliency and acceptance with dignity of conditions others would abhor. My pictures could not exist without the timeless patient collaboration of my subjects. The mountain people are an independent lot, shamed and yet unashamed, who risk more to communicate. It’s our way of life, a refusal to wear the mask that pervades so much of our greater society.

They lead the way in showing us, “All of Us.”



(All rights reserved. Text and Images @ Shelby Lee Adams)

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