Where is this place called Appalachia?

Covington, Va as with most small towns in America has one main industry. In this case it’s their paper mill. When driving through on Rt. 220, the distasteful smell of sulfur is unavoidable. The log trucks grumble loudly down the main road using their jake brakes and soon enough, the deteriorating company houses become very apparent alongside the road. For many commercial buildings, there have been a half-dozen businesses that have come and gone.

Places like Covington aren’t dead; it’s just that their cycles of prosperity aren’t sustainable enough for future generations to stick around. And by most standards Covington isn’t nearly as rough as places deep inside West Virginia coal country, but it still remains true that little has changed for the city’s appearance in roughly 50 years. And for Alleghany County (where Covington is located) the highest annual income was last reported in 1999.

The West Rock paper mill in Covington

This all may come across as being jaded and cynical, but I’m rooting for places like Covington. Towns that represent the beauty and spirit of American rural living are virtually always the underdogs. These places don’t have enough economic diversity or name recognition to recover quickly, but they are full of good people who look for the intrinsic value instead of an asset to take advantage of. The pace of life in the mountains is more relaxed and poised, making it less competitive and more focused on community. Places like this are unknown to the world, but certainly have the attitude and self-willpower to redevelop themselves into something the world could never offer them.

Covington is just one window of view into this very complex region. Appalachia, for the most part, has been left behind in time; almost forgotten. Even today, with its trove of economic and social issues; LBJ’s war on poverty is the most prime example of the region’s lack of modernization and growth.

However, a new “crowd sourced image archive” called Looking at Appalachia aims to redefine what Appalachia means and erase backward labels that are prevalent in the public. This isn’t an attempt at revisionist history, but rather a medium to influence a change of thought. Looking at Appalachia intends to “establish a visual counter point” by “[d]rawing from a diverse population of photographers within the region”.

Appalachia certainly isn’t without its share of problems; it’s by no means a polished diamond. Struggling with extreme bouts of poverty and obesity; places in Appalachia get labeled by their stereotypes: backwards, ignorant, and poor. Even West Virginia gets stigmatized by its name alone. The mountain frontier gets defined by its struggles instead of its achievements. But, what Appalachia has is a sense of character and humility that can’t be taught elsewhere.

However, the problem that is most difficult to overcome for people in the region is the sweeping generalizations that put them almost in another social class. People in the region get portrayed as simpletons that are dumb and shiftless. This makes locals wary of outsiders and creates a sense of animosity amongst each other. Although people might be known for being hospitable, strangers from out of town definitely don’t gain trust easily. People in the region aren’t dumb; it’s just that the rest of America never gave these people a chance to demonstrate their own self-worth, but rather kicked them while they were down.

Showing the humanity in a subject that would have otherwise been distant and unfamiliar is one of the biggest weapons a photographer can employ. This photo project won’t tear down stereotypes, but it aims to influence the public’s perception. The region seems to get represented by opinions that don’t reflect its values. Country, backwards, and uncultured are all words that can’t fairly describe Appalachia’s charm and beauty.