CD: Roger, thank you for participating in the Fuse Visual Project. I have deep family roots in West Virginia and absolutely love the work that you are producing. To me, it is a true and accurate account of West Virginia. Lets start in the beginning. Who is Roger May and what drives you?
Roger May: I was born in South Williamson, Kentucky, a stone’s throw across the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River to the West Virginia side, where I was raised. There are two hospitals in the area, one on the Kentucky side and one on the West Virginia side. All of my dad’s people are from Pike County, Kentucky and mom’s people are from Mingo County, West Virginia. I guess I sort of have dual citizenship. My mom, tired of scraping by on welfare and looking for a fresh start, moved my brother and me to Raleigh, North Carolina in 1989 which was the summer before I started high school. I always knew there was something special about being born and raised in Appalachia, but like most cases we don’t appreciate those kinds of things until we’re older and have covered some ground. Now, I can’t stop thinking about ways to move back and share my passion for storytelling with folks in local communities throughout southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.
I think the thing that drives me the most is making sure I share my voice about Appalachia and how it’s represented. I want to add my voice to the greater conversation that’s been going on for a while now about how place is visually defined, how stereotypes are confronted, and the sheer power of storytelling and all the imperfections that come along with it. I want to listen and I want folks to be heard. That’s what I try to do with my pictures. Of course, I’m also making a statement as an Appalachian and an artist.
CD: The “Til No More I Can” series on your web site starts and ends with two unsettling and penetrating portraits. Tell me about the series, how it started, and where you see it going.
Roger May: ’Til I No More Can is the tentative name for this series and it’s a title I simply extrapolated from lyrics from one of my favorite bands, Phosphorescent. I’ll often listen to the same song over and over (and over and over), especially when I’m on the road. This particular line resonated with me. Recently, I’d been asked how long I planned to continue to go home to make pictures and I was kind of thrown by the question. I tried not to make it obvious to the person asking, but my initial thought was something like, “How much longer are you going to breathe air?” or “How much longer are you going to be using your hands?” I just couldn’t wrap my head around not making pictures here any longer, so until I can’t do it anymore or ’Til I No More Can, seemed the obvious answer.
I’m also trying to work a bit differently than I did with Testify. I had no idea what Testify was going to be until I one day felt that it was finished, completed as a project. I liked the way that worked. The idea of making work for six or seven years then looking back over it and piecing things together seemed natural and what was right. Having now completed the book, it’s hard to not think about how other series or projects might live down the road and how they might take shape. Of course, it’s good to be thinking ahead, but it can also take the creativity and vision out of the working process. With Testify, the name came at the end. With this particular series, although it’s a working title, it came sort of early and it came with images that reminded me that I’ll be making this sort of work, quiet pictures of home, for as long as I can imagine.
I’d love to incorporate more writing into this series. I can see this being more biographical than Testify, but at this point I’m still exploring. I’m OK with that.
CD: The Looking at Appalachia project is a look at poverty fifty years on from President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” How did this come together? Is this a natural outgrowth from your “Walk your Camera Blog’? How would you like to expand the project and grow it?
Roger May: The Looking at Appalachia project came about first as a sort of grandiose and somewhat selfish idea that I wanted for myself. I wanted to get in my truck and travel to all thirteen states, meeting folks, sleeping on couches, eating at mom and pop restaurants, and making quiet pictures of the region. It was clear that I couldn’t simply take off from my responsibilities as a husband, father, and work for several months to make this happen and the more I thought about it, the more boring it sounded to potential viewers. It’s an incredibly broad and diverse region and a project like this deserves more voices and vision than just mine. And what better way to celebrate a place and mark such an important point in time than by having a range of photographers from all sorts of backgrounds make the pictures they want to make in the region as they want you to see it?
It’s important to remember that this project marking the fiftieth anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty, but in the end, it’s a project. I don’t expect that it’ll singlehandedly change decades and decades of visual stereotypes, nor do I even want the weight of trying to attempt such a daunting task. What I do want is images made that celebrate life, community, home, family, etc. in all the areas of Appalachia and I’m particularly interested in the areas one typically does not associate with Appalachia. I mean, I was born and raised in Appalachia and it wasn’t until a few years ago that I discovered northeastern Mississippi is defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission as Appalachia. That’s fascinating to me.
I suppose in part the project grew from the level of attention I’ve been paying to Appalachia and its visual representation over the last several years. I’ve intended to use the blog as a collection point for Appalachian photography as well as my own space for writing and sharing work from Appalachia. Several years ago, I started a series on the blog called Looking at Appalachia with the goal of featuring photographers who’ve worked extensively in the region and giving them a platform to share about their experiences making work there. It’s been an incredibly well received feature on the blog and I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation and seeing work from other photographers.
Ultimately, I’d like to see submitted work from the Looking at Appalachia project exhibited throughout the region, perhaps at colleges and universities as well as private galleries. What’s key though, is for people in rural areas to be able to see the work too, so I’d like to explore options like popup shows in smaller communities. Of course, a printed version of curated images would be nice too. I think a book would be well received. Several weeks ago, I enlisted the help of some folks I admire a great deal to help with selecting images and to help me navigate how the project can succeed in reaching the widest possible audience and to think about how it might live beyond pixels someday. What resulted was an advisory board and an editorial board. I’m incredibly thankful for everyone’s willingness to help make this project a success.
CD: Testify, Your Visual Love letter to Appalchia was a self-funded project. You raised money for final production of the book via Kickstarter. Tell me how the idea for the project came together and when did you know it was time to stop this phase?
Roger May: As I’m writing this, there are stacks and stacks of books on my dining room table waiting to be mailed out to Kickstarter supporters. Last April, I started a Kickstarter and it’s hard to believe that I’m now starting the process of delivering books. Like many things, the process has been filled with highs and lows. Funding the project wasn’t something I felt I could do myself, so I thought Kickstarter was the best choice on the table at the time. Due to the support and generosity of more than 200 people, I was able to exceed the goal I’d set.
As I mentioned before, I didn’t start the Testify work with an end in mind. In fact, it started as a completely different body of work altogether. I wanted to do a project about mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia and Kentucky. After wallowing around for a year or more, I was really unhappy with my pictures. There were several other photographers out there making pictures that had far more of an impact than mine, drawing far more attention to the issue than I could. So I just continued to make pictures of home. I made tens of thousands of pictures over the course of six or seven years, not really knowing how they might live beyond my hard drives. Around late December 2012, I went to West Virginia to work and visit with family. As soon as I got there (probably before actually), I came down with the flu and spent the next few days being absolutely miserable with a high fever, hallucinating, and frustrated that I wasn’t out making pictures. I remember being really upset that I’d driven 300 miles to lie in the bed sick. I made one picture on that trip. I got up at about 3 a.m.,took a walk outside, and made a self-portrait. I wanted to remember what I felt like, how frustrated I was. It occurred to me a few days later that maybe that’s just what I needed. Maybe I needed to not be moving all the time, to not be driving and looking and doing. Maybe I just needed to be home, to be still. So, I came back to North Carolina with one picture and decided to look through my archive of images I’d made over the last several years. I made a number of passes through thousands and thousands of pictures and continued to cull the numbers down. From there, I made a bunch of 5x7 work prints and began physically laying them out in different sequences. When I found ones I liked, I taped them into a blank journal I had on my bookshelf and that’s how the first mockup of Testify was done. When I approached Dave Wofford of Horse & Buggy Press, I loaned him the dummy as something to work from. It’s been really fun to compare the two over the last couple of days.
CD: Walk us through the editing, design, production and collaboration of Testify. What did you learn and what would you do differently the next time?
Roger May: I first met Dave Wofford a few years ago after taking in a few films at Durham’s Full Frame Film Festival. Dave’s studio is between where I usually park and the festival venue, so I stopped in one day and we chatted for a bit. He let me know that if I ever got to the point of doing a book, he’d be interested in working with me. I kind of filed that away in my back pocket until I reached a point with Testify that I felt ready to reach out to him again. We set up a meeting to talk about design ideas, production, and eventually cost. There were so many things I hadn’t considered: paper type, fonts, colors, cover material, binding, printing types, dimensions, edition size, and so on. One of the resources that was absolutely invaluable to me was the book ‘Publish Your Photography Book’ by Darius Himes and Mary Virginia Swanson. I think this is a must-have for anyone considering making a book.
Dave is very detail oriented, which is priceless on a project like this. One of the great things about working with him is that he’s a one-man shop, which means he can be singularly focused on my project and give it the care and attention to detail it needs. Of course, one of the downsides to working with a one-man shop is that other things, just life in general things and other projects, compete for your time and attention sometimes. All in all, there is no way I could’ve done this book any justice without Dave. His experience, drive, and encouragement in the slow spots, really made all the difference and it was truly rewarding to work with someone with his experience who has navigated all the nooks and crannies of a project like this. You really learn to trust someone when you hand over work you’ve done over the course of nearly a decade and ask them to translate what’s in your head to their vision. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve created together.
What would I do differently? I’d probably work to try to raise more money in order to make more copies. We only made an edition of 300. I haven’t given much thought to a second edition, but now I’m much more aware of the costs associated with a project like this. I’d also like to think I’d be a little more patient the next time around.
CD: What advice would you give a young photographer about to embark on a career in documentary photography?
Roger May: Photograph not just with your eyes, but with your heart. Put your heart into what you’re doing. Do it for no other reason than because you can’t NOT do it. Just make work and keep making work. Put your head down and do it, but do it with your heart. Be sure that if your work involves other folks, that you can look them in the eye and be proud of what you’ve done and know they’re OK with what you’ve done. If you’re going to spend time listening to folks, be sure to listen to the folks you’re photographing and not the folks who are constantly talking about making pictures, but not actually making them.