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June 23, 2009 5:37 PM   Subscribe

"The 2000 census found that nearly 23 percent of families living in Letcher County, KY, fell below the poverty line. The median household income in most counties is at or below $25,000, with individuals making on average $12,000 a year." The White Family by Carl Kiilsgaard

You can find more of the White family (without commentary) on the photographer's own website.
posted by saturnine (45 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
This seems to stand in stark contrast to the pro-leisure folks described further down the front page. Sobering work, and thanks for posting it.
posted by jquinby at 5:49 PM on June 23, 2009


That photo of the guy in the hat with the cigarette in the twilight on a dirt crossroads was just about one the best photos i've seen in a long time.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 5:51 PM on June 23, 2009


Awwww
posted by acro at 5:55 PM on June 23, 2009


Stonestock Relentless: "2That photo of the guy in the hat with the cigarette in the twilight on a dirt crossroads was just about one the best photos i've seen in a long time."

Really? Why?
posted by iamkimiam at 5:56 PM on June 23, 2009


Photos 7 and 8 especially made my heart break.

Also, is there some Berklee College of Photography Website Design that teaches these people to make shitty interfaces?
posted by basicchannel at 5:57 PM on June 23, 2009 [9 favorites]


I loved these but it did seem a bit abbreviated.

The ones on the photog's site are even better IMHO but unfortunately seem like they could use commentary more than the ones in the essay.

Fantastic work.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 5:58 PM on June 23, 2009


It's sort of like the white Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue.
posted by The Straightener at 5:58 PM on June 23, 2009


There's families like the Whites all over the country- it's a damn hard life.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:04 PM on June 23, 2009


Now that I've seen the photos on the photographer's site I have to wonder why the Burn Magazine folks didn't put some of the other images in the essay. Is this supposed to be a story about a family's life in Eastern Kentucky or is this a simple tale of rural life equating to nothing more than poverty, substance abuse, paranoia, domestic violence, and racism? Every picture in the Burn Magazine piece seems to confirm negative ideas a lot of us might hold about Appalachia without the nuance that comes from seeing the whole set on Kiilsgaard's site.
posted by basicchannel at 6:10 PM on June 23, 2009 [8 favorites]


(Almost every picture... dont, like, lynch me or something).
posted by basicchannel at 6:11 PM on June 23, 2009


How do you lose all sense of decorum and let a photographer out to exploit you snap a photo while you snort an oxy in front of your kid? I know impoverished families in Maine who would have had the sense to tell that dude to fuck off long before it got to that. Not that it's remotely excusable, but how does someone with a soul get to "oh, hey! Get this!"
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:17 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


How do you lose all sense of decorum and let a photographer out to exploit you snap a photo while you snort an oxy in front of your kid?

Hence the reference to Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue (example image), which sparked a virulent debate about art versus exploitation, reportage versus poverty pornography.
posted by The Straightener at 6:23 PM on June 23, 2009


Not that it's remotely excusable, but how does someone with a soul get to "oh, hey! Get this!"

Maybe they don't think there's anything wrong with it? I mean they smoke in front of their kids too. I'm sure they drink beer in front of them.
posted by delmoi at 6:33 PM on June 23, 2009


How do you lose all sense of decorum and let a photographer out to exploit you snap a photo while you snort an oxy in front of your kid?

When I read the book Unequal Childhoods, I was struck by the extent to which the families in the study engaged in behavior that I would have expected them to hide from the observers. For the poorer families, it was spankings, kids being ignored, and so on. For the upper-middle-class families, I was struck by how open they were about their ambitions for their kids and the extent to which they pushed them into their many activities, or in some cases how open they were about basically dismissing one kid in favor of putting their resources into the supporting the one with more "potential."
posted by not that girl at 6:40 PM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


How do you lose all sense of decorum and let a photographer out to exploit you snap a photo while you snort an oxy in front of your kid?

there's a lot of people i saw growing up in poor areas of arkansas who treated their kids, especially the kids under 4 or so, like they were pets instead of people who watched everything and would one day act out the lessons they learned from the things they saw. it's not right or any less awful, but to him it might be like snorting a line in front of his dog.

besides the fact that addicts have a reduced capacity for understanding how truly fucked up they've become. there's a sort of sameness that comes with addiction and their habit is just another part of their day.
posted by nadawi at 6:44 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, I looked at the photographer's website first and was pleased that the pictures didn't seem selected so strongly to present a kind of voyeuristic "OMG look at these dregs of humanity" view as these kinds of photo-essays often seem to.

And then I looked at the essay page. Sigh.
posted by not that girl at 6:45 PM on June 23, 2009


You're dead on, basicchannel. They really picked the cream of the crop to reinforce a stereotype, whereas a much more nuanced and heartfelt presentation could have been made with different photos included. I'm not saying the domestic abuse and Hank Jr. flag should have been left out to sway us in a different fashion, just that more should have been included.
posted by Roman Graves at 6:46 PM on June 23, 2009


Just a note that some of those photos are NSFW.
posted by armage at 6:49 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


William Gedney covered this same ground (previous MEFI post here) over 40 years ago. The same poverty, same sense of familial kinship.
posted by Chrischris at 6:58 PM on June 23, 2009


These photos remind me very much of Larry Clark's Tulsa.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:04 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Good lord. That just breaks my heart, all of it.
posted by PuppyCat at 7:15 PM on June 23, 2009


Reminds me rural Washington state and Oregon. Poverty isn't limited to Appalachia.
posted by bardic at 7:28 PM on June 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


There ain't much to country livin'
Sweat, piss, jizz, and blood

posted by dilettante at 7:33 PM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


It saddens me that so many people leap to the conclusion that a photographer must be out to exploit his subjects when the subjects are poor or addicts or mentally ill etc...

True documentary photojournalists don't devote years cultivating trust and capturing the essence of social issues for their own benefit. No one gets rich shooting societal ills. It's a calling and a passion like teaching or being a member of the clergy. They want to help. They want to enlighten the voting public. They want to do some good by exposing the bad. They are all genuinely intrigued by humanity.

This family and many others like it exist in America. Look at the pictures and think about the implications of that.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 7:33 PM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Very compelling photos, and so separate from the narrative that the US wants to tell about itself. And, yes, although there seems to be some special attachment to photographing Appalachia, you can find this story all over. I'm not sure whether there's more of a detachment that can happen with photos of a place like Appalachia or not -- a lot of Americans will never even drive through Appalachia, let alone spend time there -- but just go anywhere in any state, and you won't have to look too hard (unless you're trying to avoid looking) to see similar scenes of squalor and despair.
posted by blucevalo at 7:59 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


OMG POOR RURAL WHITE PEOPLE ARE ALL FUCKED UP
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:00 PM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, is there some Berklee College of Photography Website Design that teaches these people to make shitty interfaces?

Seriously. It's a set of images with captions. Why reject HTML in favor of a slow, crappy Flash player that scrunches the text?
posted by Ratio at 8:06 PM on June 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


Folks in Letcher County have been photographed for a long time, and a documentarian was once murdered there. Appalshop, in nearby Whitesburg, is devoted to helping Appalachian people tell their own stories.
posted by liketitanic at 8:13 PM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


What I mean to suggest is that sometimes people do embarrassing things in front of cameras because the documentarian wants them to. As the (Appalachian native) filmmaker on the PBS doc I linked above says, "Can filmmakers show poverty without shaming the people we portray? I came to see that there was a complex relationship between social action and social embarrassment. As a filmmaker, I live every day with the implications of what happened [to Hugh O'Connor in Letcher County]."

This is a much more complicated story than a beautiful set of images.
posted by liketitanic at 8:15 PM on June 23, 2009 [3 favorites]



True documentary photojournalists don't devote years cultivating trust and capturing the essence of social issues for their own benefit. No one gets rich shooting societal ills. It's a calling and a passion like teaching or being a member of the clergy. They want to help. They want to enlighten the voting public. They want to do some good by exposing the bad. They are all genuinely intrigued by humanity.


True documentary photojournalists are people, too, and sometimes their intentions aren't noble, and sometimes they're manipulative, and sometimes they're fucked up. They might be intrigued by humanity, but that doesn't make their intrigue apolitical. Having been trained as a documentarian--and having written as an academic about the politics of documenting Appalachia in particular-- I speak from experience.
posted by liketitanic at 8:17 PM on June 23, 2009 [5 favorites]


I shudder when I see young girls in these pictures. They just seem so vulnerable and... unguided?
posted by davey_darling at 8:18 PM on June 23, 2009


I'm not sure whether there's more of a detachment that can happen with photos of a place like Appalachia or not -- a lot of Americans will never even drive through Appalachia, let alone spend time there -- but just go anywhere in any state, and you won't have to look too hard (unless you're trying to avoid looking) to see similar scenes of squalor and despair

And it's been like that forever -- the Appalachians are pretty shitty places to try to produce wealth, other than coal of course. If you look at topography of Letcher, you can easily see why.

I read somewhere that California's investment in dams and water districts was many times more valuable to the state than all the gold dug out of the ground, and I read in the paper that Fresno County had a pretty good year, farmwise, $5B in farm produce.

These people are living in an economic deadzone essentially. Sam Kinison's "YOU'RE LIVING IN A F-ING DESERT!" applies here. My forebears found the ability to pull out of W Virginia 100+ years ago and pioneer central Washington when there was still land there for the taking. They weren't the first, but they found work for the timber companies and land to farm and do OK.
posted by @troy at 8:29 PM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


These photos remind me very much of Larry Clark's Tulsa.

Really? I don't see the resemblance.

To me, it seems like the photographer is (consciously?) aiming for Walker Evans by way of Shelby Lee Adams and Nick Waplington.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:34 PM on June 23, 2009


The 2009 HUD Median Income numbers are out. In my former life at Habitat, these were an important part of what we did. Check 'em out, you might be surprised.
posted by TomMelee at 8:42 PM on June 23, 2009


I kind of wonder what the point of the photo essay was. There was no narrative (or non-linear narrative). We don't even know the context of where they live - is the White family living on some hilltop somewhere in the wilds of Kentucky, or can they easily make it to Safeway to get a jug of milk? Can they get out of Appalachia, or do they like living the way they do? How old were they when they got married? How many kids? How many people live in the trailer? Where did Bugsy get his glasses? Do they have cable? What kinds of odd jobs does White do? How old was he when he left school? Did he graduate from high school? Where are the grandparents?

I liked the images, but I made an awful lot of assumptions about the circumstances of the family.

The photo essay was about as insightful as the character Cletus from the Simpsons.

Of course, the essay is a student project, so I suppose it should be viewed that way.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:18 PM on June 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


The photoessay reminded me of PBS' Country Boys that ran a couple of years ago following two east Kentucky adolescents growing up in the extreme poverty and limited options of the region. The entirety of the series is available for viewing (at least for U.S. viewers, I don't know if it will play elsewhere) through the link. It's painful and trying to watch - as strong as their desire to escape their own situations, it's also fairly clear that both kids are almost resigned to remaining close to home, even to the point of sabotaging any chance of escape.

One of the greatest difficulties I have in relating to the conditions depicted in photos like these or in series like Country Boys is in appreciating that rural poverty includes "worthless" or "undesirable" land or structures. It's my own bias talking, I know - I'm originally from a suburb where land is one of the most prized commodities imaginable, and vintage of structure has appreciable cachet - but it's still striking to me to see a family in abject poverty with tracts of land.
posted by Graygorey at 10:40 PM on June 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


Reminds me rural Washington state and Oregon. Poverty isn't limited to Appalachia.

And it's not limited to the South, either. Drive 60 miles (or less) from the center of any American city and you'll find poor, rural white trash. So to speak.
posted by zardoz at 12:17 AM on June 24, 2009


Oh, fuck all y'all.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:02 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


It doesn't even have to be rural. When I was growing up in the 1970s in Santa Ana, California you could have driven down the street I lived on and shot photos not too dissimilar from Mr. Kiilsgaard's.
posted by deborah at 1:36 AM on June 24, 2009


I really liked those photographs, at least on the photographer's website -- I didn't like how the "essay" cherrypicked what were meant to be the most shocking images, leaving out the nuance of the full series.

I think what I liked, in large part, was how the photographer captured both the specific details of this one family, but also showed a very general picture of rural poverty in the US. Those photographs could have been taken very, very close to where I am sitting now, in the Northwest, for example, and similar photographs of those same people after they move to town could be taken just several doors down from me. There's something very peculiar about being poor in a rich country, and in a country where there is a constant repetition of "there's opportunity for anyone who tries hard enough."

My own family had a fork in the road after the second world war, where some of them climbed off the dirt farm and into the middle class, and others stayed where they were. They aren't bad people; they are just living lives that continually veer out of control and look just like the images in these photographs.

So for me, there's always the thought of "hmm, how different would my life have been?" if I had been born in the other branch of the family and grown up in that environment.
posted by Forktine at 6:47 AM on June 24, 2009


It was shocking to me to learn as an adult that my grandfather grew up in extreme poverty; he never owned a pair of shoes until he was grown, shot rabbits to help feed his family. He was the oldest and the first to leave the farm, and later helped socialize his siblings, like my great aunt who had never used a tooth brush (!) before he showed her how to when she was a teen. All six of them eventually left the farm; my grandfather was 4F but made money on the railroad, his brothers went to war but all survived, the sisters married up, and by the time I knew them they were all living fairly middle-class lives.

It's not hard to imagine how things would be if they hadn't gotten off that farm.
posted by emjaybee at 7:47 AM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


One thing you don't get when you look at the essay is the love the family has for one another, but you do see it when you view the other photos on the photographer's website. In the essay, you're only seeing part of the family's reality. They are doing the best they can with what they've got.
posted by cass at 8:35 AM on June 24, 2009


My father was born in a place very near Lutcher. He and his brothers got out of there by joining the military. It is near impossible to pull yourself up from a rut like that by your own bootstraps.
posted by bukvich at 8:59 AM on June 24, 2009


> The 2009 HUD Median Income numbers are out. In my former life at Habitat,
> these were an important part of what we did. Check 'em out, you might be surprised.
> posted by TomMelee at 11:42 PM on June 23 [+] [!]

Odd. On machine A (XP SP3, IE7 and Firefox 3) if you view that HUD page's source you see the setup for the drop-down list of states--the opening select tag, then the list of state name options, then the closing select tag. On machine B (also XP SP3, also IE7 and Firefox 3) the same page source just has the opening select tag and then the closing one with nothing in between. Ditto the income areas list. As a result, on machine B the dropdown lists are empty and the page is broken no matter how many times you refresh. It's not just artists who can't resist tricksy display stunts that actually make it hard or impossible for users to see what the content providers are trying to show. (Though artists do seem have a special gift for it.)

P.S. There is an html version of Kiilsgaard's site (though you'd never know it unless you try loading the flash site with flash disabled.)

And it's exactly, just exactly what an art site should be: no tricksy nonsense, just lots of thumbnails linking directly to images.
posted by jfuller at 10:40 AM on June 24, 2009


I was born within 40 miles of there, and grew up surrounded by that culture. It's an entirely different world, and today at work the socioeconomic segregation and ignorance that is so strong here has been particularly eating at me. Maybe it was from looking at this last night.

I expected this thread to leave me rabid, but so far the unimaginative overprivileged have been quiet.
posted by dilettante at 1:37 PM on June 24, 2009


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