The True Meaning of Pictures

I finally got my hands on Shelby Lee Adams: The True Meaning of Pictures, thanks to a very kind coworker with a zip (or something like that) membership. I watched it twice, I found it so thought-provoking. This is a movie that I think everyone should watch. But, as I’ve discovered, it’s a hard one to lay your hands on. None of the video rental stores in my town had it. If I didn’t have a friend with a zip membership, I would have had to buy it from amazon. So because it’s so hard to get and because it was so good, I’m going to attempt a real review of sorts here.

The central questions in the documentary seem to be: Does the work of Shelby Lee Adams perpetuate stereotypes of Appalachian people or challenge them? Are the subjects being exploited? To pursue answers to these questions, the film uses footage of photo shoots and interviews with Adams himself, academics, other photographers, and the people he’s spent 30 years photographing.

There are three main parts to the film. In the first part, we meet the Napier family, a family who lives very remotely and whose way of life is very similar to that of 100 years ago; the second part moves onto the religion of serpent handlers and preacher Wayne Riddle; and the third part introduces us to the Childers family, a family with three adult children who are developmentally challenged, and three other adult children who continued to live in the family home with their spouses.

Towards the end of the first part on the Napiers, Adams says, “People say I photograph the worst. I don’t photograph the worst. And with the Napiers… I don’t photograph them anymore.” When Adams started photographing the Napiers, there were 16 children in the family; since then, 12 of them have died.

The photography critics and academics in the film all seem very concerned with how the photographs are presented or labelled, whether they’re presented as documentary or fine art. They say some of his work would be acceptable in a fine art context but as documentary it’s far too troublesome. In particular, they were concerned that Adams bought the pig that the Napiers slaughtered in “The Hog Killing” and built the entire scene around his personal vision. The Napiers were far too poor to buy a pig.

The critics said that the picture essentially looks like a document but because Adams constructed the scene it isn’t. Personally I don’t see any problem with that; I thought the myth of the photo as document was debunked a long time ago. Even images that the critics might accept as “documentary” are not objective records — I thought that was common knowledge. Besides, the Napiers got to eat a pig they couldn’t afford on their own.

I have to say, the critics come off looking rather like assholes. Most of what A.D. Coleman had to say sounded reasonable right up until he said that ultimately, these are people he would not want to meet in a dark alley at night. He also said that Adams’s subjects are not educated enough, visually, to read what was really happening in the photos they helped create. His implication that Adams is exploiting his subjects reminded me of Pieter Hugo’s comment that there’s always an element of condescension in the view that people are being exploited.

Another critic, a sociologist I think, ends his part of the film saying, “This is deploying so many stereotypes that simply reaffirm that the poverty of the Appalachian is that person’s own fault; after all it’s got to do with centuries of violence, inbreeding, moon-shining, laziness and bad genes and bad socialization. I don’t have to worry about it. They’re doing it to themselves.”

By the end of the movie, two things are clear to me; even more so on the second viewing. One, Adams truly loves the people he photographs. He celebrates and mourns and feasts with them. The photos are a collaboration. And, two, what others see in the photos is more the result of what’s behind their eyes than what’s in front of them.

The best example of this is a woman who reports that she was once poor, but she’s pulled herself up, she’s gone to school and she’s not poor anymore. She says she’s just grateful that nobody took a picture of her when she was poor and showed it all over America. She goes on to say that Adams photographed her sister, in this picture. She says Adams disgraced her family with that picture, and she wonders why he couldn’t just take a pretty picture?

When I look at that picture? I see a beautiful image of a beautiful girl in beautiful light. For me, it’s pretty much the least troubling picture in the movie. But when the older sister looks at it, she sees a dirty, underfed girl with uncombed hair standing in the broken-down doorway of a house that must surely be a mess inside. I can only believe that for that woman, her background is something to be ashamed of, so all of what she sees in that picture is shameful. But I believe that Adams doesn’t see anything shameful. I believe he sees, and shows – as much as he’s able – dignity and mutual respect.

The first time I watched the film, I found Adams’s work troubling. I didn’t know what to make of it. Who were these people? What caused their scars? What are they saying (their accents were definitely a barrier for me)? But the second time around, I understood more of what they were saying, and instead of noticing their differences from me, I noticed their similarities. We’re all just living: having babies and eating and laughing and grieving and all the rest of it.

This seems the essence of Adams’s last word in the film: “I’m not trying to objectively stand back and say look at this. I’m subjectively engaging and involved. I’m pushing you, the viewer, and challenging you. That’s why I’m in there with the camera six inches away from Selena’s face. I think you need to he confronted with that. By getting in there with the camera, by creating some distortions, I’m hoping to make everyone think. What is our job here as a human being? Stop making judgments and experience life. I’m experiencing this environment. I’m trying to share with you, in an intimate way, that experience.” For me, he’s succeeded.

* * *

Just as I was finishing this post, and trying to find verification that I’d gotten Adams’s last quote right, I found this article, which is a far better discussion. And this one, which draws very different conclusions from mine.


Last weekend I brought prints to the Drop In Centre. But none of the people I’d photographed were there, so I brought them again today. I showed Terry’s pictures to him. His first response was, “There’s a hard-looking man.”

“Really?” I asked. “I don’t think so.”

“Yeah,” he said. “He looks like maybe he’s depressed about something.”

He flipped through them, commenting on each one. When he got to the one with his hand to his forehead, he said, “There’s a man with a migraine.”

I always worry when I show my prints to the people in them. I suspect for many of them it’s been a very long time since they’ve seen a photo of themselves, and it’s always a little shocking to be confronted with yourself as others see you. So far, everyone’s been happy with them, once they get over any shock, and they’ve been very pleased to be given copies. Today, Terry asked if they were for sale, and I said no, thinking he meant to other people. But I soon realized he was actually asking if he could buy the prints. “These are for you!” I said, and he was surprised and happy. I’m so flattered he would have paid money for them.

* * *

My workplace is having a photo contest as a fundraiser for United Way. I’m considering entering some, since the Drop In Centre receives funding from the United Way. So I asked John, who I photographed back in July, if he would mind if I submitted a photo of him. He replied that it was fine and he was flattered that I would even want to. These conversations are helping me feel more confident with my project. I’m ready to keep moving forward.


Most Saturday afternoons, I go to the Drop In Centre and help serve dinner. I always bring my camera with my 50 mm lens, but until last Saturday I never actually took it out. The one time I’ve taken pictures there was a special trip, not one of my volunteer days.

Anyways, last Saturday when I showed up, a man I hadn’t seen in quite a while called out to me from the smoking area. So I sat down and started chatting. There were only four of us there, so I felt comfortable bringing my camera out of my bag and they felt comfortable with my shooting them. Here are a few of the results:


terry bw



We even got a bit silly:

mike playing2

A photographer’s life

Recently I picked up Annie Leibovitz’s A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005 from the library. I flipped quickly through the images, slightly disappointed, and set it aside to go through more slowly. Unfortunately, my new addiction to Buffy the Vampire Slayer on dvd intervened at this point, and I only picked up the heavy book again the other day. Luckily, I soon figured out that reading it at the table would save me from the surefire carpal tunnel syndrome of trying to read it on the couch.

Anyways, the other day I read the text first and then looked at all the images, and I definitely got a lot more out of them. They say pictures are worth a thousand words, but over and over again we see that words and pictures can enhance each other. That there are things pictures can’t say as well as words, and things words can’t show as well as pictures. I think I’d like to spend more time exploring ways to put words and pictures together.

A few bits that stood out for me from the text:

“There are truly intelligent photographers who work in the studio, but it’s not for me. Richard Avedon’s genius was that he was a great communicator. He pulled things out of his subjects. But I observe. Avedon knew how to talk to people. What to talk to them about. As soon as you engage someone, their face changes. They become animated. They forget about being photographed. Their minds become occupied and they look more interesting. But I’m so busy looking, I can’t talk. I never developed that gift.”

“It wasn’t a single moment. It was a flow of images, which is more like life, so we designed the book using four images across two pages quite frequently to keep this effect.”

“It seemed like a return to the kind of work I had been doing in the beginning, but I wasn’t able to go back to reportage in a completely pure way. I knew too much by then. Too much about how a picture can be set up, how you can manipulate a picture, when it should be taken.

“I’m not a journalist. A journalist doesn’t take sides, and I don’t want to go through life like that. I have a more powerful voice as a photographer if I express a point of view.”

The text makes many of these images more harrowing – for me at least. This woman lost her partner and her father within six weeks of each other.

“That summer, I moved the material for this book to Rhinebeck and set up a workshop in the barn. Rosanne Cash had given me an advance copy of her new CD, Black Cadillac, which she wrote after both her parents and her stepmother died. I would go into the barn every morning and put it on very loud and cry for ten minutes or so and then start working, editing the pictures. I cried for a month. I didn’t realize until later how far the work on the book had taken me through the grieving process. It’s the closest thing to who I am that I’ve ever done.”