Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Confrontation turns ugly in Central Appalachia between outsiders, residents over photographs

Central Appalachia has been represented so poorly in the media that the motives of outsiders—especially those carrying cameras—are often placed under immediate suspicion. A pair of outsiders, a camera and a misunderstanding in McDowell County, West Virginia—one of the nation's poorest counties—recently led to a full-blown incident that could have easily turned violent but luckily ended with only bruised egos. (Photo by Alan Johnston: Road sign in McDowell County, West Virginia)

Photographer Marisha Camp and her brother Jesse, a former MTV VJ, were taking photos in McDowell County when an angry parent accused the pair of photographing her son without her permission. Though no photos were taken of the child, the idea that strangers might have photographed her son led to accusations, threats and a police escort out of town for the Camps. The story became national news but only for showcasing how backwards Central Appalachian residents can be.

"As is usual when Appalachia is the subject, the story was told primarily by and about one group—outsiders visiting the area," writes West Virginian Roger May for Photo District News. "That’s not to say the Camps’s accounts of what happened aren’t valid, but they’ve been given a platform not afforded many of the others involved. The locals have been portrayed as vigilantes, as mob- or gang-like . . .  Let’s be clear: the Camps weren’t detained for looking 'out-of-town.' They were detained, illegally this West Virginian and photographer believes, because parents thought they'd photographed their children without their permission."

The Camps, who have been traveling across country collecting film for a television show they are trying to pitch, said they briefly talked to three boys in McDowell County but did not take any photos, May writes. "Soon thereafter, Marisha Camp heard someone yelling across the road and noticed a van blocking in their vehicle. The van’s owner, Jennifer Adkins, was upset because she thought the Camps were photographing her children without her consent, and she demanded the pair hand their cameras over. The situation escalated quickly."

Marisha says Adkins immediately threatened her, alluded to having a gun and demanded they hand over their cameras, May writes. Marisha has Adkins on audio saying: "Have you all looked at yourselves in the mirror? You don’t look like upstanding citizens."

After 45 minutes of arguing with an angry mob and local police, West Virginia state police arrived on the scene, "escorted the Camps out of the area and lectured them about how they 'ought to be careful about not making ugly pictures about the people of West Virginia,' Marisha Camp says," May writes. "Later that day, she contacted the McDowell County sheriff’s department and was told by a deputy, 'You’re lucky you weren’t shot.'”

Adkins, who called 911 twice, said she chased down the Camps after her son mentioned people taking photographs, May writes. Adkins, who admits threatening the Camps, and said she mentioned a gun, despite not having one, told May: “I can understand them [the Camps] being scared, but we had no choice but to question their motives. I wouldn’t have ever given them permission to take pictures of my kids, let alone talk to them, but they never gave me the chance.”

“I mean, I said I had a gun, but I didn’t. I wanted them to know I meant business and that they weren’t leaving until the police showed up," Adkins told May. "I told [Marisha Camp] that she could leave by ambulance or by a police car, but she wasn’t going nowhere until I saw that she didn’t have pictures of my boys.” Adkins said residents "she didn’t even know began to gather around. She says the other residents, who must’ve felt they were looking out for their own, 'sort of took over.'"

While the Camps may have had no intention of making McDowell County look bad, enough people have that residents are wary, said filmmaker Kate Fowler, May writes."Many in West Virginia, Fowler says, recognize that outsiders who’ve photographed their communities without consent have participated in the 'dissemination of classist and bigoted rhetoric—the visual equivalent of hate speech.'"

“No person deserves to be threatened with violence or held against their will," Fowler told May. But, she says, "We [as photographers] must not presume that our intentions are clear nor deny the trauma we may invoke through our actions, tools or intentions.” (Read more)

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