Rebecca Kiger - Documenting Appalachia


Rebecca Kiger – Documenting Appalachia

“At the heart of documentary photography is a process of observation, acceptance of people/places/situations, creativity, endurance, and hopefulness – values we can aspire to cultivate.” – Rebecca Kiger, a documentary and portrait photographer living in West Virginia.

Rebecca recently contributed still images for an upcoming Netflix film about the opioid crisis in West Virginia and is currently working on an ongoing personal project about rural medicine, motherhood, substance abuse and lost dreams.

For this week’s UpThink, Rebecca shares stories behind some of her favorite photographs taken in Appalachia …

I made this photograph in 2015 in a preschool classroom in Ridgewood, West Virginia while on assignment for the Benedum Foundation. There are many occasions when photographers find themselves in less than optimal lighting situations having to create a compelling image. In this case, I was shooting under fluorescent lights.

Frustrated by its flat yellow-green quality, I wandered outside of the school building for a new perspective. I experimented shooting through a colorfully painted window into the classroom. However, the light ratios between the outside and inside weren’t complimentary. By triggering a flash to go off in the classroom while I was outside, I was able to increase the quantity of light inside and illuminate the painting/glass from behind. The moment when the little girl peeked through the glass with immense wonder made the photograph complete.

Photographers are occasionally rewarded for their persistence. This was one of those occasions.

I made this in January 2017 en route to the Women’s March in Washington DC. I traveled to the march with my daughter and others from West Virginia. While I longed to make photographs of the event, I was not able to wander because of the size of the crowd. Furthermore, each time I put my camera to my face, I risked losing sight of my daughter. I made this photograph on the Metro, during an occasion when my daughter was seated and visible. I was able to focus on her and the interior composition of the train (which didn’t change much) and juxtapose it with changing scenes outside of the train in the station. It was a relief to solve the quandary of how to be a mother and a photographer simultaneously.

In 2014, I made this image at Jamboree in the Hills, an event famous for its revelry. In order to make consistent images (in the vein of Richard Avedon), I found a campground where I could set up a tent large enough to contain a studio with background, lights, and plenty of space to work. I photographed almost one hundred festival goers over the course of the weekend, including this mother and daughter, who were living there in an RV. Their family had settled in rural Ohio because of work in the oil and gas industry. What fascinates me about this image is the contrast between the two. Their growling miniature dog was the icing on the cake.

I shoot a lot in black and white, but I am thrilled when color works, becoming seamless with the content of a photo. Pictured in this image from 2014 are two people who share the experience of living with one leg. The man, an amputee athlete from Haiti, took time to visit this young girl in Warwood, a neighborhood in Wheeling, West Virginia. He used his love of soccer to bond with her, though in this particular moment, she hides in shyness on top of the slide in her backyard.

This photo was made in 2015 at the August Levy Learning Center, an organization in Wheeling, West Virginia aiming to propel children with autism to their highest potential. This was my second time working with them, and I visited the center for over a week making photographs. Photography with any depth in message takes time. I made this image in one of the small classroom settings during a mock school lesson. I slid behind the desk where the teacher directed this particular lesson. The young boy was having a difficult time and a staff member held him.

Crouching behind the desk let me capture her hand and the physicality of her job. I put myself in that particular position for another reason. As a photographer, one has to be conscious of every element included in the frame. That is the art of the craft. What does one choose to show and how?

I wanted to capture the student reactions during the lesson, but I also had to contend with the visual “noise” present on all surfaces of the classroom. So, I crouched down, hoping to eliminate items seen on the tabletops. I did want to include what was hanging on the walls, especially the string of “Love” paintings the children had made. It was a serendipitous moment when the teacher lifted the card “me,” which rendered the visual message to “Love…me.”

This final photograph was taken this summer in Princeton, West Virginia for the Benedum Foundation. I was in Mercer County documenting the small group of folks transforming Princeton’s small downtown through a focus on the arts. My first stop was the public library, where I found a “Makerspace” in session. So many children were present, there wasn’t a chair left to stand on, something I often need while shooting. I ended up photographing this particular child quite a bit because of her exuberant smile.

At the end of the class, I asked the mother of the girl if I could make a portrait of her daughter. After conversation, I discovered that, like my daughter, the little girl is half-Dominican. It’s not everyday I meet others in West Virginia with this story. The family walked me through an alley that showcased murals, which have been part of the downtown’s revitalization effort. I stopped at the blue painting of the blues musician. When the little girl and her brother ran by, they intersected perfectly with the composition of the scene.

Rebecca Kiger has overseen photography programs for youth in Massachusetts and in West Virginia. Recently, she taught photography at West Liberty University. Much of her commercial work for foundations and higher education comes through Landesberg Design, a firm in Pittsburgh.
Her upcoming work includes a portrait project with a writer from Berea College, which will serve as a companion piece to the documentary film ‘Hillbilly.’

You can follow more of Rebecca’s work on her website and Instagram.

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