“In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared unconditional war on poverty in the United States, and nowhere was this war more photographed than Appalachia. A quick Google image search of ‘war on poverty’ will yield several photographs of President Johnson on the porch of the Fletcher family home in Inez, Ky.
“Many of the War on Poverty photographs, whether intentional or not, became a visual definition of Appalachia. These images have often drawn from the poorest areas and people to gain support for the intended cause, but unjustly came to represent the entirety of the region while simultaneously perpetuating stereotypes.”
These paragraphs launch photographer and historian Roger May’s Crowdsource-funded website “Looking at Appalachia.” They might also be said to contain some of the motivation for “Visualizing Appalachia,” a two-day symposium held last week at Shawnee State University.
Another reason for the symposium might have been to point out SSU’s home city of Portsmouth has a bit of an image problem. From various books and articles depicting Portsmouth as the “pill mill of America” to a 1989 Life magazine article highlighting poverty in Portsmouth, the city has gotten a bad rap, said Andrew Feight, a professor of history at SSU and director of the recent symposium.
On Friday, during one of the symposium’s last sessions, featuring a discussion of two upcoming video projects focused on Portsmouth, Feight began his comments with some less-than-flattering words for independent journalist Chris Arnade. Arnade may have a following, including with some conservative Washington D.C. think tanks, but he probably doesn’t have a lot of fans locally. Feight showed excerpts from a speech Arnade made to the American Enterprise Institute, one of those D.C. think tanks. Arnade talked extensively about supposed “pain and despair” in Portsmouth. He claimed it is very telling that the city’s former steel mill is now a Walmart. Further, Arnade, in somber tones, alleged he watched a woman shoot up a man in a car in the store parking lot while children sat in the back seat.
“Hope has left Portsmouth. Hope left Portsmouth almost 20 years ago,” Arnade declared at one point.
“Did you catch that?” Feight asked the audience. “Do you feel hopeless?” His question earned laughter and a round of applause from those gathered.
In addition to May, Friday’s panel included Jack Shuler, an independent journalist and professor of English at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Shuler and videographer Doug Swift of Wild Fire Video, are working on film projects involving Portsmouth. One revolves around Portsmouth’s semi-pro football team, while the other addresses issues surrounding the local opioid epidemic and Portsmouth’s history with supposed pill mills. Like Feight, Shuler is not a fan of Arnade. “Arnade is not a journalist, he just documents, he doesn’t verify,” Shuler said.
Shuler and Swift already have begun work on their film projects, Swift saying he had been shooting around Portsmouth for about two weeks. The pair showed off five unedited clips, including an interview with Lisa Roberts of the city health department, who was described as a “bad ass.” Shuler especially praised Roberts for starting a needle exchange program in Portsmouth. In addition to Roberts, Shuler also screened a clip of a recovering addict talking emotionally about losing friend after friend to addiction and overdoses. “I’m dealing with the loss of a generation,” the woman said, adding she expects to lose more friends.
According to May’s website, Appalachia covers a huge amount of territory, stretching all the way from southern New York state south to Alabama and Mississippi, running through all or parts of 13 states, including Southern Ohio and up to northern Ohio and Lake Erie along the Pennsylvania border. While some might question whether Portsmouth is representative of Appalachia, May said he was born in Appalachia, and in his few days here, felt right at home. May joked he heard the word “crick” several times in his first few hours here. He added the hillsides and just the feel of the town felt familiar.
For his part, Swift said he admired what he called the “scrappiness” of a community which fought to close local pill mills. Swift earned laughs upon noting his visit to the local Walmart did not include watching anyone shoot up in the parking lot.
Later that evening, May gave the symposium’s keynote address. During his discussion with Swift and Shuler, May talked about how now is a great time for a storyteller such as himself to be alive, thanks mostly to all the digital equipment now available. Swift said filmmakers no longer need thousand-dollar cameras, but can shoot quality work on a cell phone. “You can use what’s in your pocket,” he said, though it also was noted obtaining decent sound is key.
Indeed, emphasizing the use of modern equipment to tell the story of Appalachia was a central component of the overall symposium. SSU soon plans to offer a certificate in what Feight called Digital Appalachian Studies.
Reach Tom Corrigan at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931