Atlas 5 Robin Bowman : Cuba

back & forth
In the past, Appalachia was an isolated area, populated mostly by the descendants of immigrants from the British Isles. Even today the Appalachian people retain their own music, stories and traditions. Religion still plays an important role in their lives, and family ties are still important political and social survival tools.

The Appalachian countryside is mountainous and hard to farm, though a major public-works effort during the 1970's and 1980's resulted in a network of roads that made transportation easier. Rich in minerals, especially coal and oil, Appalachia has been plundered by big landowners and outside holding companies. Traditional deep mining had already taken a large human toll, from accidents and black lung disease, before stricter regulations were put into place. Strip mining, a more recent phenomenon, took a major environmental toll as well, although environmentalists have been able to press for some clean-up regulations in recent years.

Appalachia is a region that sprawls across numerous state lines. I chose to focus on the central coal-producing centers of eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, southern West Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. Appalachia is such a complex subject that I approached it with difficulty. I had worked in the region for four years after college as a volunteer and came away from the area with a great love of the land, the people and their fortitude. But I also knew that, though many of the people now live more comfortable lives, it's still an area where poverty is well-known, and one that plays host to many environmental as well as social problems.

I struggled with these issues continually during my shoot. I didn't want to generalize, yet the nature of journalism, unfortunately, is that it tends to do just that. Since Appalachia has long been stereotyped in the mainstream media, I also had to deal with constant suspicion on the part of my subjects towards anyone with a camera. Yet I was always greeted warmly, because it's the nature of these people to be hospitable towards strangers; this I appreciated greatly.

I haven't finished with documenting Appalachia, and I hope to return there soon to pick up this story where I left off.

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