Viewfinder: Roger May, Looking Back

In 1989, teenager Roger May moved with his mother and brother from West Virginia to North Carolina. Twenty-five years later, May still lives in North Carolina but aches for the Mountain State. A self-taught photographer, his photos are a testament to his love of the land and lineage to which he yearns to return.


All images by Roger May

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles called “Viewfinder” featuring the work and perspectives of photographers who focus on rural places and themes.

Technically, Roger May’s full time job is in IT in Raleigh, North Carolina, but talk to him for more than a few minutes, and it becomes clear that he has another calling. May spends much of his free time in his home state of West Virginia, photographing Appalachia. In 2013, he launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund his first full-length photography book, Testify, due to come out next month.

May’s first camera was a Kodak 110 that his mother sent away for after collecting enough cereal box tops. After that, May says he was the default family photographer, but the first time photography “really registered” with him was when he stumbled upon the Vietnam Experience Time Life series on a family friend’s bookshelf when he was 12 years old.

“I would get just an armful of these books off his bookshelf and sit on the floor and just kind of go through these books page by page and I would get just kind of lost in the pictures,” May says. “They just showed so much emotion and there was such a response from me to these pictures that it kind of registered with me, you know pictures can really do something. There is sort of a call and response to powerful imagery.”

May’s family moved from the West Virginia’s Tug River Valley to North Carolina in 1989, when May was about to begin high school.  The move was the decision of his single mother, who wanted better employment opportunities for herself and her two sons.

“She sort of found what she was looking for,” May says, “but I guess and I sort of in one way or another have to tried to get back to West Virginia ever since then.”

May finished high school and one year of college in North Carolina before getting married and joining the army, where he spent seven years stationed in California and Alaska.

“When I got out of the army in January of 2001, although I wanted to go back home to West Virginia, I just kinda knew that it would be a struggle to find work,” he says. “I decided to come back to North Carolina, where the economy was still moving along at a fairly good pace, and found a job here, and now I’ve in my job here for 13 years.”

But 13 years later, May still feels the pull towards Appalachia.

“I still have this grand vision of going back to West Virginia and settling there. My wife is also from West Virginia and her folks live a couple of counties over from where I grew up. We both have a deep love for Appalachia and West Virginia, and our goal is to eventually go back there and set up shop.”

“That’s in Mingo County, off Route 52. I was on my way to the Twisted Gun Golf Course, which is a golf course on top of a reclaimed mountain top removal site. I’d heard a lot about it and I just wanted to see for myself what it looked like. I saw this picture going over this bridge and once I crossed the bridge I stopped and got out of my car, and it was a coal processing plant where they clean the coal and load it onto rail cars to haul out. And I didn’t think much about it at the time other than that it would make a nice picture… But it’s symbolic in that it shows the natural resource that central Appalachia is know for, and it’s aesthetically pleasing to me, but it also speaks to these natural resources being loaded up to be taken away. What’s being restored? What’s being put back in its place in lieu of that coal? Historically WV has a lot more going out in terms of money and resources than it does coming in.”

About 10 years ago, May got his first digital SLR camera and began taking as many photos as he could. He took his camera on trips back home to see his family in West Virginia and documented his visits.  He focused on the familiar — photos of his family, landscapes around the area he grew up, things he drove by in his truck.

“For me, I was just trying to photograph what was familiar and through the process of making those pictures was trying to figure out what was familiar to me — what made a particular place or road or holler familiar to me.  I think the process of making those pictures was even more compelling and moving and lasting for me than the actual pictures themselves. There was sort of a cathartic process of going back to a place I left when I was eight and recreate that experience.”

Over six years, the photos became a body of work that communicate a deep love and longing for Appalachia.

“My wife said one time that when she looked at my pictures, she felt like West Virginia was written in my DNA,” he says.

]”That’s my dad. That’s actually a lunchbox. It was his dad, my grand-dad, Cecil May’s lunchbox. He carried in the mines. He worked underground for 41 years. He died when I was 16. He was a good man. Life-long union miner. He died of black lung. That day I asked my dad if he had any of paw paw’s stuff and he said “Ive got his dinner bucket in the shed.” I had always viewed this photograph as two points of connection– my dad and his dad’s dinner bucket. But I later realized I’m the grandson and I’m the one making this picture so there’s a generational connection in the photograph. “

May started his book, Testify, when he got the flu last year on a visit to West Virginia. Frustrated that he couldn’t make photographs, he decided to head back to North Carolina with his two children. His daughter wanted to listen to Rage Against the Machine during the drive, and when the song “Testify” came on, it got May thinking about the word and its meaning.

“I’m most familiar with testifying, you know with my granddad being a preacher and growing up in church, this time of service when one would stand up publicly and pronounce what God had done in their lives. And so, this really sort of intimate but yet public statement, this profession that even for people who don’t speak publicly would still be called to stand and say something that’s happened in their lives.”

As May recuperated, he began to review the thousands of photos he’d taken over the past several years.  He selected images that resonated with him, then printed the photographs and pasted them in a blank journal.

“I really liked the idea of turning a page and seeing your work and seeing a physical, tangible product of what I had done over the course of years and years.”

This was the seed of Testify, May’s first full length photography book, published by Horse & Buggy press of Durham, North Carolina, and set to release early this year.  May funded the project through Kickstarter, collecting over $11,000 from 204 contributors over the course of one month.

“I drove my wife crazy,” May says, describing watching his fundraising campaign unfold. “I’d hear my phone ding and roll over and grab the phone from my night stand. Another contributor, another contributor. For 30 days, I was just a wreck, but it was exhilarating”

May hopes to get his book in the hands of contributors this February.

“I want it to be something that can be talked about and shared and put on somebody’s nightstand or coffee table or wherever,” he says. “When the reader or viewer sits down with it, I want them to know there are six or seven years of work involved in that, but there’s a lifetime of love for Appalachia and a passion about that place.”