Show It Like You Know It
Malcolm J. Wilson's unfiltered look at the real Humans of Central Appalachia
Something about the way photographer Malcolm J. Wilson freezes the light on his subjects, or the way the dark rivulets of, say, the wrinkles in their skin, seem to carry on in fluid motion like shadowy creeks, makes them look as if they've been carved from marble a millennium ago. You might not know who they are. You probably don't. But you get the sense that they're important. That they matter. And that's the point.
Inspired by the wildly popular Humans of New York, Wilson started a Facebook page of his own, one that tells the unfiltered stories of the real people who live in the often misunderstood area he calls home: Humans of Central Appalachia.
In less than a month he's garnered around 8,000 followers and spends much of his time crisscrossing the region in search of subjects to keep up with the demand for his mix of honest, objective storytelling and documentary photography.
"I got humans over there," Wilson might say, with the deepest respect, referring to some potential subjects over in Hindman, Kentucky. "Then I think we're going to head over to Wiley's up on Pine Mountain. Lots of good humans up that way."
Born and raised in Cumberland, Kentucky, in Harlan County, Malcolm J. Wilson, 59, started fooling around with cameras in high school, but the practical part of his nature convinced him it was best to pursue a more stable career, so he put photos on the backburner and took an engineering scholarship to UK.
That didn't last long.
It was October, he remembers. It was a Thursday. He was sitting in a calculus class fixated on the fact that the professor had been wearing the same gross clothes every day for the better part of a week. It was too much. No, the pit-stained world of engineering was not for Malcolm. He got up. He walked out. He said thanks but no thanks for that scholarship. He was going to make pictures for a living.
He hustled around for a while, working where he could to put his first wife through nursing school. Then the two moved to Northern Kentucky where he enrolled at NKU as a fine arts major with minors in journalism and marketing.
When he graduated he took a job at the Kentucky edition of the Cincinnati Post and then later moved on to the Post itself as a full-time photojournalist.
He was on the bottom of the totem pole at the paper so he always got stuck with weekend duty. One time, around New Year's Eve, about four o'clock in the morning, he got a call from his city editor telling him there was a hostage situation in Newport. He grabbed his gear and got there before the cops had even showed up, so he talked the people in the house across the street from the incident into letting him use their upstairs bedroom as homebase.
Then the cops get there and set up a perimeter around the whole scene and he's trapped. For three days. Waiting for action. Sneaking shots here and there. Passing his film to some neighborhood kids that knew a secret passage into the house.
One night, in the dark, the videographer that was with him made a big mistake. He flipped his camera's display screen on.
"Well that lit us up like shooting gallery monkeys," Wilson remembers. "I had a bullet go right by my ear. SWOOOSH! A couple others hit the windows and the wall behind us. I grabbed [the videographer] and we got down on the floor…Then we ended up having to hide in the closet because the cops came over and we weren't supposed to be there. They searched everywhere. Everywhere but that closet."
The Post finally figured out a way to sneak in another photographer and get Malcolm out of there. About an hour after that a police sniper took the perpetrator out. He'd missed the climax by a nose.
Those papers are gone now. Only the Enquirer remains. And, since he was the last one hired, Wilson was the first one fired when the afternoon paper cutbacks started to happen.
He went on to manage one of the largest commercial photography studios in Cincinnati.
"Then my wife told me she didn't like me anymore and said 'bye'."
Not long after that he met Jennifer. Also from Harlan County. She lived in Bristol, Tennessee, so he followed her there, they married and started a marketing/advertising agency that he still runs today: Pix & PR.
Wilson has been doing documentary photography all his life, but always on the side. He's the first photographer to exhibit photographs in The Kennedy Center. His film work, some 250,000 black-and-white negatives, is housed in the Appalachian Archives at Southeast Community College in Harlan.
About three years ago, however, he felt like he had his business running smooth enough that he could take his documentary photography more seriously. He had a friend who started a Humans of Appalachia Facebook page. He liked the idea but this friend just wasn't doing anything with it. He kept on to her over the years. Let me help you. Let's have a meeting. What can we do? She finally made him a page administrator.
Well that didn't work out. This friend wasn't a fan of his approach. She didn't like him referencing coal or religion or politics. "All the things that matter," says Wilson. So she booted him as an admin after only two weeks.
That's when he decided to launch his own page. Humans of Central Appalachia. It's based on Humans of New York but different.
"It's not quirky little quotes," he says. "It's stories. Long stories. And at first I wasn't sure if people would read those stories. But I've struck a chord somehow."
It's true. People are sharing the page and its content like crazy. Why?
"I think people respond to the black-and-white imagery. More of the soul of the subject is revealed. Plus there's a contingent of people who had to leave here, so it's a good way to be in touch with home. But the largest group are people who still live around these parts. For them it just certifies and fortifies what they already know about Appalachian culture…
"Because the problem is the same problem that's existed since before I picked up a camera. It's the outsider concept of the culture. I think that's an issue and it's probably going to be an issue for a while. We're the only subculture in the country that it's ok to pick on. It's politically correct.
"I think we have an issue with our own identity, too. I think that we, as Appalachians, feed into what outsiders say we are. These events and things where we play into the stereotypes with bib overalls and straw hats and corncob pipes. I think a lot of us Appalachians don't know who we are. I think that's one of the strengths of Humans of Central Appalachia. It says we're THIS, as told by the people that really live here, not by the people on the outside looking in."
"We joke around," his wife Jennifer says. "I say, 'People are awfully hillbilly curious aren't they?' Meaning that people who aren't from here really want to know about this place. So I think it's important that we show it to them ourselves. Show it like we know it. Honestly. Forthright. Without filters."
In that spirit, all of the Humans of Central Appalachia interviews are recorded straight from the mouths of every subject. How did you grow up? he asks. Tell me your life's highlights? What are the joyous times? The sad times? What does the word "hillbilly" mean to you? How do you pronounce Appalachia? What does it mean to be Appalachian? What makes this place special?
As for the photographs, Wilson prefers digital these days. But when it comes to editing them, "If I couldn't do it in the darkroom, I don't do it on the computer."
The resulting combination creates what he calls "doors and mirrors". Ways to look in and see other people and ways to see yourself in the bits of commonality that exist between us all, even within the stark contrasts and contradictions of Kentucky's Appalachian region.
Those contrasts were evident recently when Wilson was collecting stories at the Boys & Girls Club in Harlan. One girl he spoke to was ebullient, on her way to early graduation and then MIT or Harvard. Then he spoke to two twin boys who, with a mom in jail, weren't quite as upbeat.
"Some make me laugh," says Wilson. "Some make me cry. But every time I do one they're a friend of mine from here on out."
With twice-a-day posts he's making a lot of friends. It's hard work, he admits, keeping up with that kind of schedule and covering that much ground, but it's a labor of love. After years on the commercial side of photography, "This is cleansing for me. It takes the stress away. It takes the pressure away."
Plus, being out there on the road, talking to real people in the places they call home, has given him a new hope for the region.
"There's a synergy developing here that I don't think has existed before. And I think that the synergy is developing, not because of SOAR and those kinds of things, I think it's a grassroots synergy. New life coming into old programs and new programs coming up to try and tell our story and try to fertilize this place again.
"And right now I just want to give back. Appalachia is very special to me. It's been good to me all my life and I wouldn't trade any other life on this earth for it."
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