By Lee Chottiner
Rebecca Kiger knows a little something about Appalachia. After all, she grew up here.
So it’s not surprising that the works of Kiger, a Wheeling resident and professional photographer, were selected for inclusion in a creative visual project called Looking at Appalachia. The project, started by a photographer from Raleigh, N.C., Roger May, invited professional and amateur shutterbugs to submit their best images of the 13-state region that capture the rich diversity of the mountains and their people.
An editorial board included all 10 of Kiger’s submissions in the project, which seeks to change the conversation about Appalachia 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty stereotyped the region as beaten down and hopeless.
For Kiger, the honors weren’t over. The New York Times selected one of her images, which is posted above, as part of its May 19 Lens blog story about the project. The photo depicts Kiger’s daughter, Olivia, and her friends playing with beach balls last year during her ninth birthday party at Grand Vue Park in Moundsville.
“It was a pool party, and we had a ton of beach balls for the kids,” Kiger recalled. “Towards the end of the evening, the kids ran into the field to play. I was thrilled to get this image. It's a surreal moment with the backdrop of the West Virginia hills. It marked an important day in Olivia's life.”
The Times also posted Kiger’s photo with its tweet of the blog. Additionally, May chose it to grace the homepage of the Looking at Appalachia website, where all the photos can be viewed by state.
Kiger, whose studio, Rebecca Kiger Fotografia, is located on Chapline Street in Wheeling, said she’s not afraid to tackle the ugly issues facing West Virginia in her work—heroin abuse, environmental degradation, poor health and chronic obesity to name a few.
But there are many ways to picture the state and region, she said, and one of them is to show healthy, happy kids really live here.
“I want to be honest. I don’t want the tough issues to be glossed over. At the same time, that image [of Olivia] is kind of fantastical, which takes it beyond the normal photograph,” she said. “When I thought about what to submit to this project I went through anything I’d done in Appalachia that I felt were my strongest images. All of them I think speak about the human condition, whether it’s joyous or shows the suffering we all experience.
“That photograph challenges a lot of stereotypes about Appalachia,” she continued. “The kids are healthy; they’re active; they’re beautiful. It’s not like a downtrodden moment.”
Two of Kiger’s photos submitted to Looking at Appalachia were included in the project’s touring print exhibition, which is currently on display in South Carolina. It also has stops scheduled for North Carolina, Virginia, Michigan, and Lewisburg, W.Va., where it will be shown at Carnegie Hall, 105 Church St., from May to June 2016. Other venues can be added by contacting May at email@example.com.
The entire project—print and digital—will be archived at Duke University.
Kiger studied photography and education at Hampshire College, Amherst Mass. In addition to her documentary work at Rebecca Kiger Fotografia, she also teaches photography at West Liberty University.
“Like all working documentary photographers today, I hope I can find the resources to do story telling in Appalachia,” she said. “If I’m going to live here that’s what I wish to be doing. It’s a challenge.”