Watching The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia was a very good experience. After about 5 seconds into the documentary I realized I’ve seen it before and I must have somehow forgotten. But instead of popping the DVD out and going to bed like a lot of other college students I sat about two feet away from my monitor and listened intently all over again.
It’s hard to believe that I could forget about such an amazing body of work but watching the documentary over and seeing the images all over again just sets the artist and the subject matter into a permanent little spot in my brain. In the very beginning is one of my favorite lines from the entire film: “ A photograph that you can remember is just as important as one that you can see.” I love this because if someone has seen an image that they are really drawn to they will remember that, they can picture it in their minds. On the other hand, if someone sees and image that just appalls them, they will remember that too. An image can be remembered as a very positive image or as a very negative image.
Photography for as long as it has been around has had the ability to serve as a misleading medium. Shelby Lee Adams has been accused of stereotyping his subjects into the typical hillbilly category. But in my mind he isn’t stereotyping them at all. I don’t find any of the images to be highly disturbing or appalling. To me they are a strong body of work that represents the people and the area he came from. In the film he mentioned that his subjects are his friends, whom he loves and cares about. There is genuine concern for the well being of the people. They let them into their homes share in meal time and they did this for a number of years. He’s seen deaths and births and almost acts as part of the family when he is there with them.
As a photographer, I believe that it is our responsibility to portray our subjects in an honest manner. But at the same time my honest manner may be something else to another person. Everybody sees things differently and everyone is affected in a different way after viewing things. I think of the woman, I can’t remember her name (she was in the green shirt in the film) but she was very shocked by the image of her sister. In this particular image, a little blonde girl peeks through a screen door, arms crossed and resting her head on her shoulder. In the background a man stands with his hands behind his back next to some empty boxes or bins. The lighting in this is just spectacular and Shelby Lee Adams says so himself, he had to take the picture because everything was set up so nicely. The sister of the little girl in the image is furious with this particular frame. She says in the film her family has been disgrace by Adams and lists a few reasons why. I think the main reason she thinks this is because of the screen and how she describes the look of her sister as being “like she hasn’t eaten in days”. I personally love this image I don’t see a starving child and yes the porch looks run down but who hasn’t seen a screen door that is just destroyed? or a dirty porch floor?
I think Shelby Lee Adams portrayed his subjects in a positive manner. I know the stereotypes of hillbillies include violence and moon shine and much more, he doesn’t show that. If he wanted to misrepresent them and show the hillbilly stereotype he could have set up images of people hurting each other or just drinking moonshine all of the time and doing nothing else. I think every photographer or anyone who would like to call themselves a photographer eventually should watch this documentary.