In 1975, photographers Ted Wathen, Bill Burke, and Bob Hower set off in different directions to make documentary pictures in every one of Kentucky’s 120 counties. Funded by the Kentucky Arts Commission and National Endowment for the Arts, it took the team three years to complete the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project. Since then, Wathen has been a commercial photographer in southern Indiana, just across the border from Louisville, Kentucky. He’s looking to get back to his documentary roots by shooting a follow-up project in the state.
Daily Yonder: What inspires you to get out and shoot/produce work?
Ted Wathen: I seem to be working in two directions right now. Sometimes the directions cross. I’ve been photographing landscapes for over 40 years, and I’ve been doing documentary photography for the same time period, with a 36 year gap. After my work on the President’s Commission on Coal concluded in 1979, I needed to concentrate on making a living, so I started doing commercial work . . . corporate and advertising photography. To artistically sustain myself during the time I was doing commercial work, I concentrated on land and waterscapes, and this I still do. Last year we restarted the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project, and with that, I resumed doing documentary photography. What a thrill! With the resumption of the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project I am mixing landscapes and documentary work . . . the landscapes are documents of how and where we live.
DY: What do you like about working in rural areas?
TW: I am drawn to areas with sparse population. Show me a map with a vast expanse of land and one dirt road crossing it, and I will take that road. The shortest distance between two points is not the route to take. Interstate culture is homogenous. If you want to get a feel of the country, you need to get off the interstates and start exploring. That’s where the visual fun is.
DY: Why is photography important right now?
TW: We are inundated with photography. Part of me wants to start a campaign to “Save the digits!” Photography has gotten so easy and so accessible that it’s in danger of becoming superfluous. “Selfie” is one of the words I hate the most, indicative of photography that has no meaning other than the individual’s sense of the imagined importance of that moment. To me, the importance of photography is in trying to make images that rise above the banal . . . images that are transcendent, that will hopefully survive the sea of meaningless digits.
DY: What was it like documenting every county in Kentucky?
TW: We were pretty naïve. We went out, and our role model was the Farm Security Administration’s work. That and [photographer] Robert Frank probably were the big role models we had. The idea was, you were to go into a county and try and find out what made the county tick. What did people do for a living? What were the economic drivers in the county, and photograph them, if you could.
A lot of it had to do with just driving around and seeing things, and knocking on doors. One of the things we learned very early on was that you don’t snipe. You know that film “Stranger With a Camera” [2000, directed by Appalshop’s Elizabeth Barret]?
That whole incident of the guy getting shot was very recent. We heard that story all the time. I’m really grateful that that film got made, because it dealt with the whole mythology created, related to that incident. The mythology was that these outsiders came down and they were filming this guy’s property. They didn’t ask anybody, and they were just making us look bad. The owner comes back saw him. They told him to stop, and they pointed the camera at him, and he shot him. That was the mythology, and that was the story I always heard.
Everybody felt that the camera man had it coming. That’s not really what happened, so that’s why I’m glad they made the movie. We were told that story all the time. “They got what’s coming to them,” and so we learned very quickly on that you don’t snipe. You always ask before you photograph. Unfortunately, the Canadian filmmakers asked, they just asked the wrong person.
DY: What were the logistics of the Kentucky project?
TW: When we invented the Kentucky Documentary Projects, there were 120 counties in Kentucky. We divided up so each photographer had 40 counties, and each photographer had a section of each of the geographic regions. I had a third of the Appalachian regions, and my partners had the other 2/3, and I had a third of the Bluegrass, and so on and so forth. That way, nobody had hegemony over any one area.
When we first started the project, the first thing I did is I took a drive, and I drove through all my counties. The idea was that I wasn’t really looking to take pictures, although I did take a few. It was to just drive and get a feel for what I was looking at. It scared me because I’d had this idea, but now I was faced with the reality.
The reality then was, really, the areas that looked the hardest [were in] Appalachia, because it was an area that I was totally unfamiliar with. People were living in situations that I hadn’t seen before. The housing was different, and it was just … It scared me, as it scared a lot of flatlanders that would go there.
What that did, and it did it to all of us, the three photographers, it made us work harder in eastern Kentucky than we did in the other areas. It made us spend more time, because it took more time to get comfortable. It took me a while to realize what was going on, and it wasn’t just that the housing was different, or the way people earned a living was different, or that peopled looked a little different, maybe dressed different.
It was that it was claustrophobic. You were always in a valley. You could never see the horizon. That’s what I finally figured, it was claustrophobic. Once I got used to the claustrophobic sense, it got a lot better.
DY: How is it different working in a rural community than working in an urban area? Do you look for different things, or do you feel a different way? How does that work for you?
TW: In a way, I think it’s almost easier [to work in a rural area], because I think people in cities are maybe more suspicious. In rural areas, I find if I tell my story, whatever the story is, being why I’m there, what I’m doing, the acceptance is generally quicker and easier and less qualified.
Here’s a Whitesburg story from this last month. Forty years ago, I could walk up to a factory and knock on the door, go in the door, and tell people I was with the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project, and we’re making a book and a documentary on Kentucky, and we’d like to take pictures. Usually, that worked. Now, you can’t do that. Now, you’ve got to go through the legal department. You spend a week of kicking around, before they say no.
I had a blank day [in Whitesburg]. I had something that I had scheduled, nothing was scheduled, and people kept telling me what a great [tattoo] artist John was. I walk over, and I walked down to his studio. The guy greets me and I say, “I’m looking for John.” He said, “I’m John, but I’m not the John you’re looking for.” Then, I meet the John I’m looking for, and he’s doing a tattoo on this lady’s arm.
I tell him what I’m doing now and I say, “I’d like to photograph what you’re doing.” He said, “Sure, go ahead. No problem.” I think, if I’d done that in Louisville, there would be a lot more questioning.