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photo by shelby lee adamsSunday, 11.14.04: True Meaning of Pictures

Thursday night we watched The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia. Adams is a photographer from the impoverished hills of Kentucky. He's spent his adulthood taking portraits of families who live in the remote "hollers." By our healthy middle-class standards, these are not pretty people. While you see some traditional beauty and the beauty of well-worn skin and muscles, you also see retardation, lack of dental work, and very humble living conditions.

Adams has made friends with his subjects, is enthralled by their lines and textures and by the way their images compose. He gets photo releases from them for any picture he wants to publish and showers them with Polaroids for their own personal collections.

But the documentary also features his critics. They say he is reinforcing the worst possible stereotypes of the Appalachian hillbilly. The casual gallery viewer will see only Al Capp's "Dogpatch" -- cartoon characters. If the subjects signed photo releases, it must be because they are too unsophisticated to understand the powerful negative message their images convey.

For a training course on Learning Organizations, I used to teach a little unit on "observing" vs. "concluding." I would pass out Gary Larsen "Far Side" cartoons and ask participants to tell me what they saw (observation). Inevitably, they would explain the joke to me (conclusions -- the observation passed through all kinds of personal and cultural filters).

Adams was trying to be an observer, even though he readily admitted his photos were deeply subjective, since the composition was always his decision and his design -- portraiture, not candid snaps. On the other hand, his critics jumped to conclusions about the "story" Adams was telling.

What his critics were saying: these pictures are not politically correct.

We want to be able to appreciate people who are different from ourselves, but we want to be presented with cleaned up versions. "Others" need to be presented either as innocents or as "really just like us." If we are confronted with their imperfections or with how their values really are different from ours, we turn away. One form of turning away is to quickly apply the stereotypes -- plug the images into a comfortable old category so we don't have to think anymore. Or we quickly pass judgment about why they are undeserving of our respect.

I worry that, for the moment, this is our big Red State/Blue State challenge.




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