The True Meaning of Pictures
by Mario Mattei
International Guild of Visual Peacemakers
If you photograph people, then The True Meaning of Pictures (Jennifer Baichwal, 2002) is a documentary that may challenge your own artistic intentions and assumptions. In this Sundance Film Festival selection, Baichwal examines Shelby Lee Adams' lifetime pursuit of documenting Appalachians' lives. It reveals how some critics and viewers may be (mis)interpreting your own documentary photography.
The debate surrounding Adams' images compels photographers everywhere to be mindful of what they're doing, why, and how images effect both viewers and subjects. The controversies may even fear-lock you from ever pressing a shutter-release again; alternatively, they might imbue you with renewed photographic consciousness and vitality.
Despite his critics, Shelby Lee Adams released his view camera shutter time and time again in his 30 year quest to document a few families deep in the "Holler"--valleys in the Appalachian mountains that stretch 10 to 15 miles. To reveal the complexity of the true meaning of his pictures, Baichwal includes interviews from Adams' strongest critics and an Appalachian woman who "made it out of the hollers." They claim his photos deploy harmful stereotypes about "hillbillies" as lazy, moonshine-drinking, in-breeders, who's poverty is their own fault. One critic maintained that Adams furthers the "otherness of Appalachian people."
But how do the subjects themselves feel about the images and about Adams? Should they be the authoritative voice on their own images? Or as one critic put it, the isolated Appalachians can't fully understand how these images are belittling them. He also admitted this statement was patronizing.
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