Robert Gipe

Roger May Interview


There are those who refer to photographer Roger May as “The Steel Bear.” Perhaps this is because of the grace in his gait, his omnivorous eating habits, or his nimbleness on entering and exiting an above ground pool. But for many, the moniker has a deeper resonance. May has, in recent years, established himself as one of Appalachia’s most thoughtful and incisive photographers. Both in his personal work and the assignment work he has done for The Guardian and others, May reveals himself a patient, caring witness to the goings-on in central Appalachia, particularly in the coalfields of the Tug River Valley, his home country in Pike County, Kentucky and Mingo County, West Virginia. May’s double consciousness as a Kentuckian and a West Virginian, and the extended amount of time he has spent in central North Carolina, have given him perspective on the mountains, and have resulted in his becoming one of the region’s most provocative commentators about Appalachian regional identity and regional representation. In his writing on his blog Walk your Camera. and elsewhere, May has revealed a steely protectiveness for the mountains and their people. At the same time, May has encouraged open dialogue, and has done much to punch open new spaces for conversation about photography and Appalachia. May has published a collection of his work in a beautiful hand-bound edition titled Testify, and he is contributor and curator of the crowd-sourced photography website Looking At Appalachia. May also reviews photography books on his website, and in so doing has become an important historian of the annals of Appalachian photography. Over the past several months, Roger and I have been exchanging texts, emails, and messages online. The following interview has been cobbled together from those exchanges.

Roger May (b. 1975) is an Appalachian American photographer and writer based in West Virginia. He was born in the Tug River Valley, located on the West Virginia and Kentucky state line, in the heart of Hatfield and McCoy country. His photographs, essays, and interviews have been published by The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera America, National Geographic, The Oxford American, Le Monde diplomatique, Photo District News, and others. In February 2014, he started the crowdsourced Looking at Appalachia project. May speaks about his work, about the visual representation of Appalachia, and photographs on commission. He blogs at Walk your Camera.


RG: How do you describe your aesthetic? What looks right to you?


RM: I make quiet pictures and try to build out a visual conversation over time. I'm not interested in pushing boundaries with my photography. There's a host of other folks who can have that. I prefer to work slower, with more intention to honor people and place. My personality is relatively quiet, so if I were to somehow try to be something I'm not by making "edgy" pictures, it'd be inauthentic and I'd feel like an imposter. I think people want to be heard and they want to be treated fairly. If I can do that through my pictures, no matter how mundane or uninteresting, so be it. My allegiance is solely to those who allow me into their lives to make work. Everything else is secondary.


RG: Do you have a strategy for how you relate to your subjects and potential subjects? Principles you follow?


RM: Well, I'm always honest about my intention even if I don't know exactly what I'm doing. I introduce myself with my name and say I'm a photographer. I keep my camera out, either around my neck or slung over my shoulder, so it's already a part of the conversation. You know, kings have subjects. A good friend of mine, Ruddy Roye, said that once a few years ago and it stuck with me. I just meet folks and try to build relationships through conversation, common ground, and being there. Going back over and over again is important to me. So many folks have dropped in over the years and never followed up with those who've allowed them access. I don't ever want to do that. I always try to give prints back, to stay in touch through email, phone calls, or letters, and most importantly to return.


RG: Why did you do Looking at Appalachia? What do you get out of it you don't get doing your own pictures?


RM: I was (am) really interested in having a fresh look at how Appalachia is seen today and I thought the 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty was a timely opportunity to do so. Opening it up as a crowd-sourced project combined my love for looking at photographs and for Appalachia and brought about a democratic view, at least I hope in some way, of a region from inside and out, that has often been portrayed with a narrow focus. What do I get out of it? I get to help foster both a literal and visual conversation around these ideas and promote the work and vision of a pretty broad group of folks, professionals and enthusiasts alike. I get to be a part of something bigger than me.


RG: Since we are doing this for drafthorse, the journal about work and no work, tell us about your day job and how you balance it with your photo work.


RM: For sixteen years, I worked in local government in North Carolina. At times, I saw that as a hindrance to the real work, the heartwork, I wanted to do, but over time it became clear that I needed a clear separation between a paying job that I don't necessarily love and the work that I make on my own time. I began to see my day job as sort of a corporate sponsorship, one born out of a need to provide for my family but that also provided an anchor for my ability to make work. That's the thing about heartwork; you can't not do it. And if making work in Appalachia became my full time job, I worried that it wouldn't be that outlet, that relief from the 9-5 job. Maybe I'd feel differently about it. But then, in late October 2016, I interviewed for and was offered the position of director of the Appalachian South Folklife Center at Pipestem, West Virginia. The ASFC was founded by Don and Connie West in 1965 at a time when most of America was becoming familiar with the War on Poverty. To be associated with such a special place with a storied history was a dream come true. What Don and Connie brought to the Center has been cultivated and passed on for more than 50 years. After eight months, I left the ASFC and moved to Charleston, West Virginia to pursue freelance work. I think about Jim Wayne Miller's Brier Sermon and returning to my father's house. He writes "The only road I could go was the road that started from my own front door." West Virginia is a special place to me and I consider it an honor to be able to come home. There’s lots of work to do for sure.


RG: Talk to me about why your favorite photographers are your favorite photographers.


RM: I think William Gedney has probably had the greatest influence on my photography. I think the world needs more photographers and human beings like Rob Amberg.


RG: Talk to me about your love of photo books. What is that about?


RM: I love the tangible nature of books. Even today, with digital cameras, iPads, and everything being digital, I still prefer to read the paper, to handle prints, and to spend time with books, especially photobooks. There's something romantic to me about handling a book, spending time with it, noticing something on the third or fourth look that I missed on the first. Photographs live so differently in books that they do online or even on walls. There's something about the pace of looking through a book, being able to put it down and pick it up again that I find comforting and I connect with. Books are an art in of themselves.


RG: How do your musical tastes run?


RM: I like Tom T. Hall, Phosphorescent, Hiss Golden Messenger, Waylon Jennings, and George Jones. I recently walked out of a bar because the kid next to me asked me who Dwight Yoakam was when he came on the jukebox.


RG: What would you like to say about how you grew up?


RM: You know, I never really thought much about poverty or stereotypes growing up. Being born on the Kentucky side of the Tug River and raised on the West Virginia side, I was aware of being a hillbilly and of the Hatfields and McCoys. But I never really knew I was poor. On paper, we were of course, but by someone else's standard. It wasn't until I moved to North Carolina, to a densely populated area, that I even realized I was poor. Or that I talked funny. The last thing a 15 year-old kid wants to do is stick out anymore than they think they already do, so I learned to assimilate, talk proper, you know? I learned more, experience more, about stereotypes in a few short months in North Carolina than I ever had anywhere else. Over time, I began to think about how a place just 300 miles away could be looked at so condescendingly and be dismissed so quickly. I'd give anything to go back and lean into that 15 year-old kid, put my arm around his neck and whisper, "Don't change how you talk for nothing. It's beautiful just the way it is."


RG: I know you played ball in high school and college. Tell me about your basketball life.


RM: My basketball life? Shit. Man, I was sure I was somehow going to get to the NBA. That’s one of the last things I remember my granddad telling me before he died; “Rog, I sure hope you make it to the NBA.” Basketball was life. It was all-consuming and it was something I eventually became pretty good at. I’m tall, could shoot fairly well, and could dunk. When I moved to Carolina and started high school, that was my ticket to acceptance. I could ball. It didn’t matter what I looked like or how I talked (my accent was the center of a lot of jokes). What mattered was that I could play. Early in my sophomore season, I got pissed that my coach wasn’t playing me more. It was a total reflection of my output in practice, not the personal vendetta I took it as (as a 16 year-old punk kid), so I quit the team and moved to Kentucky to live with my dad and go to Belfry High School (go Pirates!). That re-entry phase was weird because I’d been gone long enough to lose some of my accent and live in a big city, so some boys gave me hell and tried to make it hard for me to fit in. But it all came together on the court and though I didn’t play as much as I wanted to, I did play, and we were good. We made it to the Sweet 16 that year and got to play at Rupp Arena in Lexington. As a lifelong UK fan, that was the highest point in life at the time. Scott Thomas and I got to meet Ricky Pitino and I got him to sign my player pass. It was great. But I moved back to North Carolina because I missed my mom and things weren’t really working out the way I’d hoped they would living with my dad and stepmom in Kentucky. I went to my coach, Coach Dunn, and admitted to his face that I was in the wrong and that if there was a chance for me to come back, I’d do whatever it took. Anyway, I got recruited by some big schools (Alabama, Georgia, Marshall, WVU, and so on), but I wasn’t developing into a Division I level player. Deep down, I knew that and I focused on smaller schools. I ultimately went to Montreat-Anderson (now just Montreat) and played for one year where I quickly realized college sports were not for me. It ran my life and being away from home for the first time, I didn’t want to have every spare waking moment dedicated to basketball. So, after a year I joined the Army and that was that.


RG: On one bicep, Roger May has a tattooed outline of the state of West Virginia. One the other, he has one of the state of Kentucky. I asked him how he came up with that idea.


RM: My brother, Nathan Hatfield, did my state outline tattoos as well as the West Virginia state motto across my chest for my 40th birthday last year. I get asked about them a lot and few people are able to make both states out correctly, which I try to use as a conversational starting point about what they know about the area, how they feel about it, etc.


RG: What’s on your mind when you make pictures now?


RM: I’ve been trying to make work in Appalachia that is somehow less about me and more about people and place. Like, how do I get out of the way. How can I use photography to amplify someone's voice other than my own. Is that possible?


RG: How do you answer the question you pose? Or to put it another way, what are you learning in pursuit of the answer?


RM: I'm learning to slow down, to stay longer, to linger a bit more. Listening is an active thing, you know? The camera is just a tool and I think it's a constant struggle to not allow it to get in the way.


RG: What voices are you interested in amplifying?


RM: I’m interested in amplifying the voices of folks that are often overlooked and unheard. Appalachia, particularly the coalfield region, is filled with stories and the people who've lived them. These are as American as American can get and they're often lost or worse, dismissed as unimportant. I'm interested in anyone who has ever felt like their voice or their story didn't matter.


RG: On one bicep, Roger May has a tattooed outline of the state of West Virginia. One the other, he has one of the state of Kentucky. I asked him how he came up with that idea.


RM: I’m interested in amplifying the voices of folks that are often overlooked and unheard. Appalachia, particularly the coalfield region, is filled with stories and the people who've lived them. These are as American as American can get and they're often lost or worse, dismissed as unimportant. I'm interested in anyone who has ever felt like their voice or their story didn't matter. We’ve talked a bit about the act of photographing and how for some it shines a light on the photographer. I was reminded of a passage of scripture my granddad talked about. He has this way of walking the walk, you know, but in an incredibly humble way, walking out scripture. I had to look it up because I couldn't remember what book it was from, but it's John chapter 3 - "He must increase, but I must decrease." (And that's King James, because that's the only real Bible, but that's another story.) But it made me think about me getting out of the way of the work. My voice and fingerprints must decrease and get out of the way in order for the loudest amplification of folks' voices. The work is about people and place, of which I'm a part, but it isn't about me necessarily. That's a constant process I have to work through. I love the solitary nature of photography, of being in my car alone and stopping whenever I take a notion. But what completes it for me are the people I meet along the way and the stories they share. You know, it's life more than story. That's what's grabs me. Folks’ lives. Who they are in this world, the space they hold, the power - even in quiet moments - they exhibit.


RG: Some of May’s most powerful work was done as part of a 2014 assignment for the Guardian, a British news source with an American edition. May documented the fallout from a massive release of a chemical used in the coal washing process into the Elk River in West Virginia, a spill which left much of central West Virginia, including the capital city of Charleston, with ruined water.


RM: Photographing the Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk River in 2014 was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I don’t think anyone who wasn’t there or wasn’t affected by it can really grasp the enormity of what happened. I was only there for a handful of days and the magnitude still doesn’t register to me like it does the folks living in the affected area. Through Twitter, I was contacted by an editor at The Guardian (US) and asked to go up shortly after it happened. It seemed the spill had sort of fallen off the national news radar already and there was more interest in Justin Bieber’s arrest than news about the 300,000 people impacted by the chemical spill. The Guardian wanted to continue to focus on the story, specifically people directly affected by the disaster. So I went and it was a really moving experience. As I photographer, I was incredibly thankful to be asked on behalf of The Guardian, one of the most respected news outlets in the world, to share stories from my home state. I even got to take over their Instagram account while there, posting iPhone images from the area. As a West Virginian, I was irate and just couldn’t believe this happened. I mean, of course it happened, right? West Virginia has long allowed outside business to come in take whatever they’d like with little regard for the people who actually live there all in the name of jobs and profit. But this was just almost too much to bear. I shot that entire Guardian assignment without once looking at the back of my camera. I shot it digitally, so usually I’ll check the back of the camera to make sure I got something to work with, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at the camera. So, I shot it like a film assignment. And the reason I did that was because I couldn’t break contact with the folks I was photographing. When you’re three feet away from a grandmother with tears streaming down her face as she tries to describe for you the anguish of not having access to clean water to bathe her granddaughter in, you’d better honor that moment by being present enough to not be checking the back of a camera. Instead, I raised my camera and would make a frame and then lower my camera. I was too overcome with emotion to do anything more. On the drive home from the assignment, I realized what I’d done not looking at the back of the camera and got a little worried. What if I blew my first assignment for The Guardian? What if I didn’t get the picture? And then I realized I’d done exactly what I needed to do. I acted first as a human being and second as a photographer. My approach to making personal work and the assignment work I do is strikingly similar. Frankly, I hope that’s why I’m asked to do the occasional assignment. I’m documenting what’s going on, be it for my own interest or that of an agency who’s asked me to share folk’s stories. The audience is a bit different, sure, but all in all, people and their stories are what matter. My approach is that I want to listen compassionately and to make sure folks are being heard at the very least by me. It’s hard to ask someone to be vulnerable in front of the camera without also making yourself vulnerable. People can tune into that, you know? People know when they’re being jerked around. I don’t want any part of that I don’t want to work for anyone or any organization who practices that.


Interviewer’s Note: In May of 2016, I texted Roger May. The following exchange ensued:


RG: Where are you? I am in Charleston, West Virginia looking at Builder Levy pictures and thinking of you.


RM: I'm in Mingo sitting on a strip mine trying to wrap my head around it.


RG: The next day, May posted a video of himself on Instagram walking naked across what appears to be a reclaimed strip mine. Roger wrote the following as part of the post: “During a break in today’s rain and thunderstorms, I decided to meditate for a bit on a series of nudes I’d like to make on reclaimed surface mine sites. And before I thought I’d ask anyone to allow me to photograph them naked, I thought I’d go first. This is above the King Coal Highway in Mingo County, West Virginia.” On seeing the video and reading Roger’s comment, I texted Roger again:


RG: You didn't say you was naked, Steel Bear.


RM: Mingo tuxedo.


RG: This nudes on strip job thing seems major. Can you talk about it in our interview?


RM: Thanks. I hope it will be. And I'd love to talk about it in the interview.


RG: So where did the idea for nudes on strip jobs come from?


RM: I've been thinking for a while about the impact of such an enormous and nebulous process that is surface mining and how the people affected by it are rarely the focus of pictures. Mostly, we see aerial photos or sweeping landscape images of surface mines, but in Appalachia people and the land are inseparable. I thought I'd like to investigate a visual connection between stripped away human form and the land that's been stripped away. Folks will likely be more offended by nude images than they are the raped landscapes they drive by every day. I don't really see this as a way to stop MTR, but rather a contemplation of the impact, the unchangeable impact, of how this forever changes not just the land, but the human condition. Being naked is completely vulnerable, which is how we are in the face of the industry, the money, the lobby, and politics. Only difference is we can put our clothes back on and run the road like nothing ever happened. You can't put a mountain back together.


RG: My initial reaction when I saw you cavorting in the fescue was something close to elation. There was a lifting, a breaking free, a moving beyond to what you were doing and asking us to join.


RM: I like that better!


RG: Tell me why.


RM: Seems less heavy, I guess. It's been a heavy process to figure out how to approach this, to make my own kind of statement. I figured if I was going to ask someone to pose nude for me, I should be just as willing. That's really how I photograph anyway; I have to be as vulnerable as I'm asking the folks in front of my camera to be. Otherwise, I'm just taking.


RG: For me this feels a little more like you making pictures where most of your work seems about finding and/or taking pictures. Can you talk about that?


RM: Well, I guess I can see that. This is much more intentional and defined. Most of my pictures are a result of me wandering around aimlessly (or with aim) and seeing what happens. With this, I've been much more conceptual in my thinking. I like that. I like that this is something new to me. And I like that I'm coming back around to the very subject matter that for me interested in photography in the first place - mountaintop removal mining.


RG: Talk to me more about the nudity. It seems to fit the times as gender and sexuality take more of a central role in the struggle for social justice in Appalachia and elsewhere.


RM: Well, it's such a simple thing, nudity. We're all born naked, vulnerable. Then, we're taught early on to either be ashamed of our bodies, or perhaps worse, not even address it at all. We're maybe not encouraged to question established norms or standards. The same can be said for mining and coal, I guess. Don't question the hand the feeds you. Well, the meals are thin these days and the region is going to have to have a long hard look in the mirror in order to survive. Approaching issues like gender and sexuality in an area so deeply entrenched in religious doctrine can be, and no doubt will be, challenging. But anything worth doing should be challenging. Also, y'all should help me think up a title for this project.


RG: I was gonna ask you what you’re calling it. Do you have a working title?


RM: I was thinking about Laid Bare, but I'm not quite sure.


RG: I love Laid Bare. Lot of ways that can go.


RM: Yeah, maybe. Maybe a working title. Here's some text I've worked on for the web: My point of entry as a photographer was an attempt to photograph the large-scale destruction of mountaintop removal mining in the coalfields of Central Appalachia. Overwhelmed and frustrated by the scale of what I was up against, the conceptual monolith of strip mining, I stopped trying to make those pictures and moved on, but the issue was something I’ve never been able to move on from. Now, I’m returning to the visual conversation of mountaintop removal mining with the series Laid Bare, which introduces the nude form into the decimated landscapes left behind from this kind of mining. Framing form and land together to build a narrative around loss and vulnerability, I look for moments of beauty in the midst of destruction.


RG: Nice. At the beginning of this interview, which we began in February, you said "I make quiet pictures...I'm not interested in trying to push boundaries." How does Laid Bare fit with that? Do I need to take that earlier part of the interview out?


RM: I don't think so. I still don't think I'm really pushing any boundaries with this. Maybe a little, but I think they'll still be quiet. Quiet in the way you just can't find the words for the moment.


RG: Quiet boundary pushing.


RM: Yes. I think so.


RG: More to say on that?


RM: I think it's OK to get people out of their comfort zones. I guess the question is why are boundaries being pushed? I guess I think of this as more of pushing back.


RG: Pushing back against what, exactly?


RM: The industry that allowed this kind of mining and brainwashing in the first place. They've always been able to do whatever the hell they want.


RG: Photography has played an interesting role in that mind manipulation, hasn't it? It's been used to protest and expose, but also to promote the exploitation, or in some cases to suggest that mountain people need something even if it's not much, and in the worst cases, one could argue there are photographers who suggest people don't deserve much more than they're getting. I just finished Amy Greene’s novel Long Man about people losing their place to TVA lakes in the 30s. I’ve been thinking about those federally-funded photos documenting rural poverty that helped justify that project.


RM: All photography is manipulation to some extent, right? Writing, photography, films can all be used to make whatever point anyone wants to make. It’s no secret that photography has been used since its inception to show a very particular perspective. For me, that’s been most evident in Appalachia. Photography, like other things, has been used as a vehicle to suggest that Appalachia needs things that maybe haven’t been universally important to people in the region. I think most people want the same thing, you know? Good schools, clean water, a chance for their kids to have something better than they did growing up. But Appalachia, like other areas (rural and densely populated) don’t necessarily want the conveniences of New York or Los Angeles or Miami. And that’s OK. It’s OK. And it’s alright to say it’s OK. And it’s OK if folks do want that and it’s OK for them to move to those areas to pursue what they want. Someone recently commented on the Facebook post I made announcing the Laid Bare project that “people will still be without jobs and that life isn’t fair sometimes” as if to suggest that it was somehow OK for people affected by MTR (and by god, we’re all affected) to suffer what they have. I lost my fucking mind. Are you kidding me? Life is not fair sometimes? But I guess in a way, I want this work to register with folks just how unfair it has been and continues to be. And I think this is exactly the right time for this project. With coal on a steady decline and folks trying to figure out what the hell they’re going to do, the reality of the permanence of mountaintop removal mining is settling in. And guess what? Those mountains aren’t growing back. The native hardwoods and wildflowers aren’t coming back. The streams that have been buried, rerouted, or permanently altered have caused more 100-year floods in the last decade than you can shake a stick at. It’s all laid bare now.


RG: And so, we leave Roger May, the Steel Bear, bare as the day he was born, laying bare the truths of his home country, in a most unnatural of habitats in the midst of earth’s greatest natural beauty. We leave him, an artist with a day job, in a region whose greatest artists, from Aunt Molly Jackson, to Dock Boggs, to Nimrod Workman, to Harriette Arnow have always had to take day jobs, and like May have always produced art inseparable from the life lived, and the life imagined. And as always, we are grateful that there are such songs and pictures and words, simple and true and natural and accessible as a black bear by the side of the road, both threatened and threatening, easily missed, incapable of not bringing both a smile and a tinge of tragedy to all observant enough to notice and take them in.


Robert Gipe is the director of the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. His short fiction has appeared in the journals Appalachian Heritage and Still. He is the author of the novel Trampoline, winner of a 2015 Weatherford Award. His next novel, Weedeater, is forthcoming in 2018. He lives in Harlan.