“I am only interested in making work where all of my preconceptions are challenged,” says Kentucky-born photographer Stacy Kranitz. Her project As It Was Give(n) to Me – a 12-year documentation of the Appalachian region in the US – is no exception to this. “I went into this project looking to become undone by it, looking to have all of my notions of right and wrong, good and bad, dismantled and re-established.”
Kranitz first found herself in Appalachia while working on another project, From the Study On Post Pubescent Manhood – an examination of violence as catharsis in a place within the region. She ended up staying on, growing fascinated by the tension that exists between the perceptions we hold of a place and the reality. “I had heard about the region’s relationship to poverty and I was curious about what it looked like and how it felt, so I began to drive through the region,” says Kranitz, who spent long periods living out of her car and fully immersing herself in the environment and the lives of the people she met along the way.
Appalachia, which spans 206,000 square miles and stretches from southern New York to northern Mississippi, has a fraught history with photography. After being ravaged by the coal industry in the 19th century that plundered the region’s valuable resources and left its inhabitants impoverished and landless, the US government declared a War on Poverty in 1964 and Appalachia essentially became a poster child for American poverty. As a result, photographers and reporters descended on the area to shine a light on the deprivation. However well-intentioned, this one-dimensional portrayal of Appalachia as a poor and backward place only reinforced the harmful myths and stereotypes imposed on the region which have continued to haunt its people ever since.
For Kranitz, acknowledging the limitations of photography and the flaws of the documentary tradition are integral to her work. Moving away from such binary representations, she seeks a more nuanced reality that neither dramatises poverty, nor glosses over it. “The misconception I am most keen to challenge is the idea that in order to right the harm of photography we should only show positive representations of Appalachia,” she explains. “Instead of ignoring extreme poverty, I want to give it space to breathe and room to exist and unfold in complex and nuanced ways.”
Kranitz also believes that it takes a lot more than just living somewhere to fully understand a place. Halfway into the project, she relocated to Appalachia and although she has been living in east Tennessee for five years, Kranitz still considers herself an outsider. “I do not pretend that just because I live here now, that this makes me an insider. I still very much see myself as an outsider and believe that the kind of work that operates best in the region mixes perspectives from insiders and outsiders,” she says.
In many ways, Kranitz’s documentary style is undeniably more immersive than observational. She often develops deep bonds with the people she photographs, parties with them, takes drugs with them – and even lets them photograph her, flipping the inherent power dynamic in photography and blurring the lines between her personal and professional life. It is this foundation of mutual trust and respect that radiates throughout all of her Appalachian work, whether she is photographing in people’s homes or deep within mist-enveloped mountain ranges. Raw and strikingly intimate, Kranitz’s images venture beneath the surface of what we think we know about Appalachia, challenging our assumptions while offering a sober reminder of the limits of photographic representation.
As It Was Give(n) to Me is out now on Twin Palms.