Finding Heaven in the Holler

I discovered Shelby Lee Adams’ work in the gift shop of an art museum. His photography book, “Salt and Truth”, was featured on a shelf full of classic art volumes. I spent 2 hours on the floor of the gift shop looking through his photographs. His roots were my roots and his photographs took me back to my childhood visits to the hollers of Paintsville, Kentucky.  My dad grew up there, I didn’t. My grandfather worked in the coal mines. My dad joined the marines to escape all of this but going back always reminded him that the mountains never leave you even when you leave them. Shelby’s photographs are not scenes from a film but pictures of life in the most real place you will probably never know…unless it’s in your blood.

Your first photograph and its significance?

I think my grandmother’s blindness was the source of my visual arts pursuits. She was going blind when I was just 8 years old and by the time I was 12, she was totally blind. I loved my grandma. Her experience affected me deeply and I’m certain this eventually lead to my becoming a photographer. Grandma had an optic nerve disorder where her eyesight slowly dimmed into total blindness; nothing could stop this. At that time, I drew in sketchbooks and painted with watercolors. My mother encouraged my artwork from an even earlier age. We stayed with my grandparents often; they lived on a farm in Eastern Kentucky with cows, pigs, horses, chickens, and fields of corn and potatoes. Later, my grandma became the first person I photographed.

We would walk together, strolling around the farm, gathering hen eggs and feeding the chickens, watering the cows, and doing other farm chores. When something caught my attention, I would stop and sit then start sketching and drawing. Grandma was very patient with all of this. When back home, she would lie down on her bed to rest and ask to see my drawings. I would get a lamp and hold it over my sketchbook so the light was bright. She so enjoyed my artwork.  I thought if I just learned to draw better, become a skilled artist, then maybe that would save my grandma’s eye sight. My mother continued to buy me art books and art supplies and I remember copying Michelangelo’s angels. Everyone enjoyed seeing those drawings, but grandma still went totally blind.

As a child, I focused on making art as a way to heal loved ones or to touch others and share compassion. That stayed with me. When I attended art school at age 19, I discovered photography. Returning home, my first photo essay was about my grandma and her life on the farm. I’ve always believed that photography serves a purpose beyond just recording or documenting. 

Shelby Lee Adams and his Grandma

Shelby Lee Adams and his Grandma

You are connected to your subjects. Does that make photographing them more difficult?

My native region became my photographic pathway to explore what and where we all came from and how we are all related. Throughout my teenage years, the media and news from the mid 1960’s through the 1970’s  exploited our culture’s needs, searching for stories from then President LBJ’s “War on Poverty.” Locals grew  tired of the poverty labels put on all of us by the media’s demands, illustrating our government’s new programs.  I traveled with my parents, who worked out of state. When we returned home, sketching and drawing was how I got to know people while learning to express myself … photography came later. I always visit and ask permission before exhibiting my friends’ pictures. My photography is personal and indifferent to media coverage. I had to leave the area to work but I always returned to make new photos. I give out pictures to everyone previously photographed and I send copies of my  books back to the families. This has always been my way of sharing and staying connected.

From year to year I still return and photograph many of the same families, each time finding someone new and often growing closer to old friends. The difficulty comes when I hear stories of family and community disputes, corruptions, abuse and manipulations. The holler people often get taken advantage of because they have few defenses. I think of my approach to portraiture as an ongoing conversation that captures the inner mood and feelings of a given moment. And sometimes, that is a very intimate and fragile time.

I ask people to tell me their stories and experiences and at the end of their narratives (both positive and negative), we make photographs. Sharing and understanding parts of another’s life influences and makes an imprint on the outcome of the photographs. Part of their situations and experiences are hopefully expressed and transferred subliminally and unconsciously to the viewer. That to me is powerful and purposeful. Often, the factual story cannot be told or published, because this can embarrass or even cause harm to the person living in the community. Together, my subjects and I must feel satisfied with the photographs and words shared in my books or articles, before publication.

The viewer can experience another’s circumstances and vulnerability more responsively by choosing to look and connect with the photos.  Pictures reveal not only others to us, but how they are regarded and treated. For me, portrait photography is a study of our behaviors and actions bonded together. How we live our lives determines and affects how our neighbors live… to some extent.

Back home, the wealthy (and we have plenty), isolate themselves and the poor multiply and separate in the hollers while our government regulates support. In trusting relationships, photographing any specific group over time, will mirror back how one looks, how the world and one’s own people see and regard each other without the subjective need of a written narrative.

In our region, the media often blamed poverty. We are as we are, often overly clannish or economically segregated from each other. We go to town but we sometimes don’t see each other because  shame hides and distorts our sense of  common ground.

Mountain and holler people tell me they love their privacy and isolation, it is mostly self-imposed and represents a freedom that most of us do not know. Today, if you need and receive government assistance in any form, you have others viewing you critically. For example: A local mountain mother describes her court appearance when a social worker required her family be taken to court because of alleged child neglect: “When we went in front of the judge, the judge acted like we wanton’ there, like we wanton’ even in the courtroom. Wouldn’t look at us. The social worker told us, the judge will’ do what we want.” That is the problem. Many locals have grown to resent seeing those in poverty. Some have become conditioned to ignoring the poor, abandoning their empathy and compassion for others. Many foreign governments often forbid images of their poor to be taken or seen. Sometimes, I wonder which is best?

I take all types of photographs. More frequently, I’m asked to photograph celebratory events or rituals…  a new baby, wedding pictures, funerals, a father with his new car, a prize hunting dog, or children with their puppies and cats. In spite of what others may think, life in the mountains can be very joyous because there is a lot of diversity.


Scotty with Banjo

Your photographs capture the climate of Appalachia so well. It is almost like its own country. How did you establish trust with the families?

People proudly say to me, “You come back, others don’t.” My return trips help develop confidence and recognition from the people I know. Many in the hollers do not receive a lot of visitors. It is the groundedness, in these salt-of-the-earth people, that I love so much. They have so little yet they make do, survive, and sustain themselves for generations. They are such  generous people. They are honest and open with me because I don’t betray their beliefs or embarrass them in my pictures and publications. This is an earned trust developed from years of returning, and that returning keeps opening new doors for me. The isolation of the mountains makes it appear as another time and place, but our region is an integrated part of America.

What do you want people to see in your photographs? What do you try to capture?

So much has been published and written about our area’s neediness. I see beyond that. I try to photograph the enduring spirit and souls of these people in a respectable manner. The people have their own voice too:

“There is no poverty to us; we’re rich in what we have and do. OK, so we don’t have a lot of money, we don’t have big fine cars and fine homes. We have tradition; we’re rich in culture. I can take someone from NYC and bring him or her here and they would starve to death, because they don’t know here. They don’t know how to survive, how to preserve food, garden, canning, how to get by from the land. That’s what we do. It’s not just a culture past; it’s a way of life now. It’s our way of life. I wouldn’t trade this, my way of life for anything that anybody in NYC or anywhere has.”

—Hobart White, Eagles Nest, KY

Have you ever stopped mid-photograph because you were overcome with emotion? I’ve definitely cried while looking at some of your photos.

My work is about visiting and getting to know families, so the photographs are often an afterthought or conclusion to an important visit. Timing in photography is important. I can’t photograph someone if I don’t have their interest and cooperation and at least a basic understanding of what is going on in their lives. So a story and event is shared first and then we photograph. The mood of the moment [during a visit] can affect how I place the lights, compose the frame, or ask my subject to sit or stand. I’ve had times when I needed to leave and come back in a couple days to make the photographs. Sometimes, you need to get a more objective perspective on how to visually portray another or their situation. You can photograph someone for years and still not understand or capture the essence of that person. I’ve also had times when a subject says, “I’ve waited years for you to take my picture.” You photograph them the first time and it’s a quintessential moment, never to be repeated again. Some folks have only one photograph to give.

What was the most difficult photo that you’ve ever taken?

I have chosen not to make photographs when I felt there was no dignity to portray, sometimes life can overpower one’s self-respect. So, I prefer to wait and make photos with some when they are sturdy. My manner and style of working is as a formalist, meaning I only photograph with my subject’s full corporation. A photojournalist works differently, capturing a moment or event as it’s happening. I work with my subject’s full knowledge, a camera, lights, and my subject’s involvement. I call my work “collaborative” because we work together to make the photographs.

Why do you feel such a connection with the people of Appalachia?

It’s my roots. My work is autobiographical in part, made in a complicated, diversified, and often misunderstood culture. I’m always searching for a deeper understanding of my people, my family, my community, and our place in the larger world.

What have you learned from your subjects?

That mountain and holler people are open and far more accepting of others than many give them credit. They are far more tolerant and receptive to another’s differences than mainstream America might think. As a teacher, I’ve taken my college students from New England and European exchange students to the heads of the hollers. Mountain people are curious about others and very friendly. They are not the stereotypes we often read about. If you are blood kin or just welcoming, you are often taken in and received, no matter what your background or look.

In Eastern Kentucky, we are mostly white mixed with many races: starting with native Cherokee Indian then Irish, Scottish, English, Dutch, and Italian. Later, we discovered that we were mixed with the Melungeons who were most likely African/European mixed-race unions.

When are we going to see that our mountain and holler people (those that society shuns), patiently and respectfully care for impaired individuals and families with dysfunctions?They have unconditional love for their fellow human beings. They hardly ever institutionalize regardless of disability. When will we recognize their devotion?  Doesn’t matter if someone is blind, handicapped, peculiar, comatose, deformed, mental, or disabled in whatever way. Mountain people accept others with grace and kindness and they uplift the burdened in prayer to God. They sacrifice themselves nobly for all.

What is the most beautiful thing that you’ve ever seen?

Joy and happiness expressed in another’s face that may have next to nothing.

If you could create a short film based on your photographs, what song would be playing during the intro?



__Self-portrait copy

Shelby was born in Hazard, Kentucky. He has had four books published of his photography, all completed in his native region. His last published book is “Salt and Truth”. He is a National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Fellow.

Shelby Lee Adams
Copyright ©Shelby Lee Adams, 2017

The Lens Inside

“I don’t take photographs outside.” This, the most revealing answer of my interview with French photographer and inmate, Ralph. His black and white photos are raw, beautiful, and oddly the most pure depictions that I’ve ever seen. Free from pretense, judgement, and opportunistic voyeurism.

*Why did you initially start taking photographs inside of prison?

Ralph: First, for distraction then as challenge and over time it has become witness.

*Why black and white?

Ralph: Because there is no color.

*Who or what is your most interesting subjects?

Ralph: I love the “dirty faces”. I love the faces that tell a story. Faces sweaty and suffering, that’s my favorite subject.

*Have you taken any photographs outside of prison?

Ralph: I never take pictures outside.

*Is photography a distraction or a reminder of where you are?

Ralph: I’ve frequented the prison for more than 25 years. This is a very big part of my life. It’s like a family photo album.

*What moves, enrages, and inspires you?

Ralph: Love. Hate. Injustice. What inspires me most are the emotions in the faces and the expressions in the eyes.

*Do you believe God exists? If so, do you see him in the faces of the people that you photograph?

Ralph: I do not know if I believe in God. But, I believe in man. I believe in redemption.


Instagram: maninjailback

Facebook: Man in Jail










Zib Zeptumn/My Fantasy Robot Legion

I was born into the era of synthesizers and video games. Portable arcades and Casio Mozarts. Gary Numan wrote future samples. New Order infused synth with leftover emotion from Joy Division. Then grunge pushed electronica underground and I’m not sure it has emerged from the bomb shelter yet… at least not in America. But, in places like Germany, it continues to have a mass following. My theory is that European music just tends to be more precise and intellectually driven. It is not void of emotion but definitely more mathmatical. Zib Zeptumn/My Fantasy Robot Legion is everything and nothing electronica. It is a solid echo. The reverb from a snapped sound barrier.

*How do you create meaning in a song without lyrics?

The songs have meaning because they will themselves into existence. I just listen and put the dots where they’re supposed to go. The music comes from somewhere else.

I like to represent the emotions of the notes with different synth samples and sounds and yoga positions.

Isn’t that what everyone does?

* The late 70’s and early 80’s were the golden age of electronica. Everything before was very organic. How has the Internet and technology shaped the sound of synth?

Even though most early synths were capable of being molded into a vast prism of soundscapes, they were still limited by their design: heavy and very expensive.

Synths are more aurally malleable and readily available to everyone now, thanks to the leaps and bounds computers have have made here on earth so far.

Smartphones might not yet possess the high fidelity of older Moogs and ARPs, but they do offer accessibility and convenience. You can now compose on the train, or while simultaneously driving to work and eating breakfast, and definitely before you get to the studio.

When inspiration hits, or a distant alien being transmits the signal directly into your brain, you have the tools in front of you to capture it all.

* My first exposure to synth music was Gary Numan. Who do you credit with pioneering electronica?

I’d have to say German disco on the radio circa 1979, while living in Bavaria at a young age. Kraftwerk was also a major influence, of course.

* How do you create mood in a song?

It’s a combination of tempo and the selection of synths and drums.

I sample myself playing and then edit and sequence it into my iPhone or other device. When I record myself playing drums or sheets of stainless steel with a wire brush or squeaky cabinet hinges, I am already experiencing the mood.

It’s the same thing whether I’m playing bass, guitar or synth. I don’t usually set out to create a certain mood. If the song sounds really sexy then I was feeling really sexy when I channeled it from space.

* Why do you think electronica has continued to explode in places like Germany but has gone somewhat underground in America?

In my opinion, Germans, like other Europeans and Scandinavians, appreciate innovation and close involvement with technological creativity.

*Where do you get ideas for songs?

There is a deep core of memories inside us all, made of everything we have experienced in this life and possibly other lives before and after this one. I feel that these songs come from the dreams of these memories.

* The song Dragon feels like Tokyo to me. Was that intentional?

That’s an interesting perspective.

This song was my interpretation of a musical illustration of a dragon, starting from his nostrils, teeth and horns, then working all the way along his scaled, armored back, and following down to a long, spiky tail. My very good friend is a dragon and I did my best to write this song for him.

* Have video games influenced your music?

No, I don’t really think so.

Although I do adore video games and I grew up with them, I do not think they directly influenced my taste in music.

I mean, Double Dragon, Super Mario Brothers and Zelda had very moving, brilliant compositions, so… Actually, sure, why not?

It’s certainly possible that every song I’ve ever heard has also influenced this album.

The real musical influences for me were: James Brown, George Clinton, Aphex Twin, Pixies, Mozart, Squarepusher, The Ramones, David Bowie, and so many others.

* What emotion is impossible to convey with a synthesizer?

I’m sure there are plenty. Here are some:

1. Buyers remorse
2. Jealousy
3. Embarrassment
4. Horny (is this an emotion?)
5. Reluctant
6. Hungry
7. Social diarrhea (this has to be one)

* Define your music with a film.

One film? A film I’m making up in my head right now, or one I’ve already seen which has a great soundtrack that isn’t like my music?

For the latter, I’d say La Planète Sauvage 1973, Soundtrack by Alain Goraguer

Contact, record label, and lurking info:

My Fantasy Robot Legion by Zib Zeptumn is also available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Spotify, and just about everywhere else.

Instagram & Twitter: @zibzeptumn

Kirsten Opstad/Stay Strangers

Kirsten Opstad drives us down the coast of California with lyrics and melodies that makes us wish for a permanent sunset and hands that don’t remember letting go or holding on.

* What is your earliest memory of music?

When I was really little, my dad used to play the upright piano in our living room to let everyone in the house know that we were all running late for church. “Let’s stand and sing together,” he’d say then play a hymn as if he were broadcasting live what was happening at church without us. Remembering the sound of that piano unlocks a ton of memories from my early childhood. That and the sound of electronic doorbell chimes, which count as music in book.

* When did you buy your first album and record your first song? How did one influence the other?

There was a five year gap between when I bought my first album (Smashmouth’s Astro Lounge – I was 13) and when I recorded my first song (an untitled, almost-wordless musical ramble – I was 18). It took me a while to consider myself capable of songwriting. I was scared of sharing the songs I wrote because I wrote truthfully and at the time, the truth was really dark. I’m frankly glad that I didn’t start recording until later. I could barely sing and play at the same time. I made home recordings for my girlfriend in college, then I started putting songs up on Youtube. But the fear of being too dark or too real stayed with me – when I revisit those recordings, they strike me as kind of polite, as if I’m avoiding something. The music I loved at the time – Rilo Kiley, Regina Spektor, Tegan & Sara – all had an emotional authenticity that I really connected with and probably mimicked.

* Do you see music in everything or is it parallel to life?

To me, that doesn’t seem like an either/or question. Music is in everything – just close your eyes and listen. But it’s also parallel to life. Because music is our most abstracted form of expression, it seems to exist on a different frequency. This is why so many people with different perspectives, emotions and experiences can intensely relate to the same song.

* Your music sounds very clean and light. Did your style develop over time or was it there from the first song?

It’s funny that you should call it light, I usually warn people that it’s pretty heavy. As far as style I want to say that it’s been there the whole time, but I don’t know. This is the first album that has really captured me accurately. The recording process on Stay Strangers was very innocent – we kind of just fell into it – it took me by surprise and helped me access some of my best performances.

* Without the ability to deeply connect with a listener, music floats on the surface. It’s the difference between listening to an album 20 years from now and forgetting about it in six months. Your music is a mix of childlike laughter and inevitable heartbreak. How has life shaped your music?

What a phenomenal line: childlike laughter and inevitable heartbreak. Recently, my music feels like a direct reflection of my life. All the songs on Stay Strangers are about real experiences. What’s great about songwriting is the insane amount of license you get to switch roles. You can write a honest, sad break up song from the perspective of the person whose heart you just broke. You can put yourself in other people’s shoes and pretend to know how their brains work. I use songwriting to understand my life. I think the laughter and heartbreak you hear is just me. Heartbreak is inevitable; isn’t it funny that we should hope for impossible things?

* What moment in your life, became the hardest song to write? The easiest song to write?

For me, writing about happy moments is incredibly difficult. I struggle with trying to write about falling in love without sounding like an idiot – partially because I think that the act of falling in love is kind of an act of willful ignorance. I am obsessed with Stephin Merrit’s songwriting, specifically on 69 Love Songs, because of the way he simultaneously celebrates and ridicules the cult of love. Angry songs are easier, because all the things I think but don’t say are just waiting in a bank in my brain, patiently organizing themselves into clever, rhyming pairs. Sad moments in my life, moments of heartbreak and loss, are for me both the easiest and hardest to write. They’re easy because the poetry is in the experience and it’s therapeutic for me to think through a feeling until the right image or phrase presents itself. They’re hard because in order to think through that feeling, you have to revisit it again and again. It’s messed up because it perpetuates the tortured artist myth, but I do think that it’s both creatively and emotionally productive to sit in those dark moments and go back to them.

* What do you want to write about but haven’t?

I’d like to write a song for my two year old niece, but I’m very intimidated by her.

* How long did it take to record “Stay Strangers” and what is your favorite song from the album?

It took about two years to make. The actual recording process, if you compressed the sessions into consecutive days, was probably only a few weeks but the songs really evolved in that time. Almost all the songs were written before we started recording. It’s hard to chose a favorite song because they’re all so dear to me. Each song has an iceberg-size backstory that makes me feel ten things at once. I think that my favorite song on the album is Money Now. It was the first song we recorded and it’s the most cathartic song on the album for me. I’m proud of the songwriting on that one, especially the words.

* I can hear/see California through your music. Were you born and raised in CA? If so, what childhood memories became songs or at least, music?

You caught me. Born in Torrance, raised in Orange County then in Claremont, the city of trees and PHDs. I left California for almost a decade while I lived in Boston and when I returned I found that a lot had changed. The song Frame explores the idea of memory being eroded by age. Visiting family in Long Beach and Garden Grove after being away for so long, it shook me up. I remember Long Beach looking different. I remember my grandma’s house being different. I remember those people differently.

* Music has the ability to take us away from or back to ourselves. Where does your music go?

It does both. I love that it can do both. That means I can keep doing it forever without staying lost. I use music to try to understand other people better and to be closer to myself. I sing things I would never say. Even when I’m singing about someone else, I am the most myself when I am performing my songs.

Twitter: @kirstenopstad

Instagram: @kirstenopstad