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A girl of about eleven wears a bikini swimsuit and sandals, even though there is no body of water in sight. She stands next to a half-painted cement block building, with forested hills rolling into the horizon behind her. Arms outstretched, face to the sky, eyes closed with an unselfconscious with a surety only found in the young. The caption reads, "Self-portrait reaching for the Red Star sky."
This photograph was taken in the 1970s by an elementary school student in Eastern Kentucky. It is part of the story told by the new documentary film, Portrait and Dreams, about a student photography project and its impact.
As a writer and a transplant to Kentucky, I have a healthy sense of trepidation when I write about the Appalachian region. My nine years here, in the geologic and human time of the mountains, is not very long. As a journalist, I have found myself asking the questions that underpin the film. Who has the right to tell these stories? How is Appalachia portrayed to the outside world? How does the media create opportunities for Appalachians to speak to one another and to others of the wisdom of their culture?
This latest film by Kentucky-based media organization Appalshop sheds light on how some children in Appalachia have answered these questions.
Portraits and Dreams was 45 years in the making. It began as a teaching project in 1975, when teacher Wendy Ewald moved fresh out of college to a beautiful and remote holler in Letcher County, Kentucky. For six years, she put cameras in the hands of Appalachian children and gave them the rare opportunity to frame and capture their own lives. Their assignment was to photograph what was close to them—themselves, their families, their dreams.
"Having a camera gives anyone power, but particularly children," observes Ewald in the film. Photography gave the students agency, the ability to tell their own stories in their own way. For the Kentuckians in the film, it was transformational.
Del Shepherd moved away from Eastern Kentucky when he graduated from high school, but returned after his parents passed away. Playing bluegrass music and photographing people were the ways he integrated back into the community.
"It just meant so much," he reflects about his time as a student photographer. "It taught me the meaning of life, and that there was no boundaries to what we could do or couldn't do. It was whatever we set our mind to."
Twin boys sit in an upholstered chair together. They have on matching clothes and pantyhose over their heads, making their faces look smushed. One has on a necklace that the photographer describes in the film as magic, able to do anything. The caption reads, "Phillip and Jamie are creatures from outer space in their spaceship."
Shepherd and his classmates, with Ewald's guidance, developed a collaborative vision of photographic education and developed powerful images. That cooperative approach went beyond the classroom; the film reveals glimpses of the life Ewald and the students shared, taking pictures together on the weekends and long talks about life after school. "They weren't just my students, they were my creative collaborators," she says.
Together, they compiled a book of the students' pictures and personal interviews, published in 1985 as Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories by Children of the Appalachians. The book and the film reveal the sophisticated photographs taken by the students and lift up the creative work of both rural people and children.
Two of the childhood pictures that Denise Dixon Benge took are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the film, at the reunion, she shares that she had recently picked up her camera again to capture weddings and special occasions. A photographer and artist now in her own right, Benge and Ewald curated an exhibition, featuring both her childhood photographs and her recent work for The People's Biennial at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit. She wrote about her photography, "I realized that it will always be a part of who I am."
This year's film came out of Ewald's reunion with her former students, when she returned to Kentucky 40 years after the start of the project. It was a special time of reconnection and communion, but she realized the story was not yet complete. Together, they revisit their book, relive memories, and reflect on how they were shaped by their photography project.
Sue Dixon Brashear is now a school principal with 18 years of public school service. She becomes emotional in the film when she shares the personal impact of the photography project. "We were important because we were taking those pictures," she says. "I was one of the children that I have now, and I want to make a difference in their lives and inspire them the way that you inspired us."
Brashear also raises an important question. She had recently rediscovered the book of her youth after attending a workshop on children and poverty. "We were not poor. We might have been financially, but otherwise we were not," she says. "I have always wondered about that, when you did take [the photographs] to other places, how did people really feel about them? Did they feel sorry for us?"
Ewald answers, "When people would say, 'Are these people poor?' I don't talk about that because that's somebody's idea coming from the outside. That's not what these pictures were about when they were taken and they're not about it now."
Appalachia has a long history of misrepresentation in the media, and of exploitation and stereotyping—especially when it comes to rural poverty. The movie does not shy away from the hard circumstances, financial, educational, and familial, of some of the former students. But it also does not make those hardships the main narrative arc of the story. The film is inclusive of diverse financial and vocational situations of the now-adults in the film. One is a school principal, one worked his way up in the local power company, one works at a college lab, and one is a machine operator in the coal industry.
Challenging media representation is part of the mission of Appalshop, which helped create the film. For 50 years, this rural media and culture hub in Whitesburg, Kentucky has centered the real stories of Appalachians, by Appalachians.
All of Appalshop's work—filmmaking, a radio station, live theater, a record label—lifts up a broad picture of the region's people, inclusive of queer teens, coal miners, and those incarcerated in local federal penal institutions.
Portraits and Dreams co-director Liz Barret is a lifelong resident of Eastern Kentucky and has spent her film career exploring media representation of Appalachia. Of special note is her 2000 film about a very different photographer. Stranger with a Camera focuses on the shooting and death of a Canadian documentary filmmaker in Eastern Kentucky in the 1970s. The film looks with an empathic eye on all the characters and asks a question that still reverberates today: Who has the right to represent someone on camera and who has the right to profit off it?
Although the enduring and tender relationships between Ewald and her former students are at the center of the film, there is a thread of cultural tension running through Portraits and Dreams. We hear from the students, but it's clear Ewald is the main character. Even more significantly, while the book was a collaboration between teacher and students, Ewald is the face of the work in the world outside of Letcher County. She's the one who earned recognition for the collection of photographs, and the one for whom it catapulted a career.
Ewald has a love for the students and their culture, but she is still an outsider. She was not from there.
She talks in the film about an earlier sense of guilt, that she left and the students stayed. But it's not clear that the students share the sentiment. As the film's director, Barret said in an interview, "The students are so strong. They are nobody's stereotype." The photo project gave them at a young age a trust for their own perspective, their own lens. It served to root them more firmly in their culture and give them a contentment with who and where they are.
In another picture, a man sits in a shiny recliner next to a coal-burning stove. There are spots on the chair's arm that are worn bare, stuffing coming out, but the viewer barely notices. The man sits, relaxed, eyes closed, arms crossed, head tilted. But his grin. It captures pleasure, contentment, and possibly mischief, all rolled into one.
With the perspective of 45 years, Ewald has a hopeful and insightful view. "What I couldn't see then is how resilient my students were and what thoughtful and creative adults they would become," she says. "The kids taught me it is less interesting to frame the world only according to my own perceptions." A camera can be used to capture, or it can be used to explode the limits of our own perspectives—to dislodge us from the recliner and thrust us out into the Red Star sky. As I contemplate these self-portraits, I find in them wisdom, context, and a lens through which to approach my own writing in this place.