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Living Up The Creek

From “Portraying Appalachia,” a five-part symposium on representation and the region. 


I believe that finding one’s place in the world is every individual’s most challenging question. Where is that spot that best allows us to pursue our dreams and, at the same time, to address our responsibilities? Where is that place that makes us feel happy, at ease, challenged, productive, ourselves? It comes easy to some, but for many others finding that spot requires much groveling and hunting to get there. I have always fallen in with the groveling crowd.

Photography mimics life in this innate search for place. On an immediate level, deciding where to stand and point the camera is the most fundamental decision a photographer makes. What to include, what to leave out? The decision that determines the backstory for the final image. But before even that basic photographic choice, because of the medium’s dependence on an external reality, the photographer must decide where he is going to make his images. Where will he focus his attention? And what is he going to say?

Forty years ago, this photographer chose Appalachia.

Because I “ain’t from around here,” learning to maneuver through the intricacies and multiple layers of Appalachian culture involved a steep learning curve that I am regularly reminded of, even after living here in Madison County, North Carolina, for over forty years. It’s that depth of culture, and the power of the mountains themselves, that continues to spark my curiosity and keep me in place. True places, after all, are hard to find.

I have long considered myself a participant/observer. My desire to live in and fully experience the mountains and their people has matched my need to photograph them. Each of these ambitions has encouraged and enlightened the other. Working with neighbors in their tobacco barns and tomato fields, attending their funerals and weddings—participating in community functions not only serves to inform my photography, but more importantly these roles link me to this place in an engaged way that goes far beyond simple observation.

I sometimes ponder the schizophrenic nature of my life in the mountains, my need for both the primitive and the esoteric. Firewood, spring water, gardens, animals, farm maintenance; daily tasks that inform me of the sensual reality of nature and provide tangible evidence of work done. My other life—pictures on paper or computer screen, theories discussed in the classroom, words arranged in coherent ways—is less substantial in hand, but it feeds other, no less important needs—for self-expression, for intellectual stimulation, a love of images and story. At day's end, there is a cord of wood, a folder of finished jpegs—and the understanding that one could not exist without the other.   

2014 03 26 Appalachia Amberg 011Hauling Tobacco to the Barn, Hopewell, 1983. © Rob Amberg, 2014

2014 03 26 Appalachia Amberg 09In Dellie’s Living Room, Sodom, 1978. © Rob Amberg, 2014


It was images that first brought me to the mountains. Like many boys of my generation I was fascinated by the lives of people like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, especially as Walt Disney rendered them, heroic, brave, and romantic as they walked into those misty mountain sunsets.  So, in 1973, when I followed an uncle to Madison County, those stereotypes were what I brought with me, and what I looked for when I arrived. And those real world stereotypes, wizened mountaineers, old women in doorways and an intangible sort of mystical light, were easy to find in Madison County; they are part of our fabric. And I photographed many of them.

Over time, I began to realize how much about this place I was failing to see, or choosing not to acknowledge. While I was honed in on the romance of the place, the other side of the Appalachian stereotype—the clannishness, violence, poverty, and abuse—was also on full display. While land is one of the primary values in mountain culture, there was often a blatant disregard for the earth itself, evidenced by straight-piping into creeks, trash piles on the sides of roads, and serious erosion from clear cuts and overuse of chemicals. The county was nicknamed “Bloody Madison” for a notorious Civil War massacre of thirteen men and boys accused of being “Unionists.” But the moniker had been punctuated over the years by acts of random and personal violence. Two years before my arrival, a young, female VISTA worker had been brutally murdered in a remote section of the county, a crime that has never been solved.

I began to notice and understand other dynamics at play in Madison. There were hundreds of outsiders, retirees, young professionals, artists, Latino immigrants, and back-to-the-landers, moving into the county, buying land, and making commitments to place.  Concurrently, many of their local counterparts were moving away, wanting to be closer to the mainstream. As an observer, it became important for me to understand and document the county holistically, as an evolving community, inclusive of a diversity of people and ideas, rather than one fixed in time or imagination.

Photography is about memory. Its unrivaled capacity to capture detail offers the ability to recall the textures and feelings of the world around us at precise moments. For me, believability has become an ongoing concern, a need to know my subjectivity speaks to the truth and can be understood as such by viewers. That is not to say that photographs are not ambivalent, they are, and the photographer, when presenting an image of place, is always at the mercy of the viewer’s experience, prejudices, and interpretation. While it may be true that a picture never lies, it is equally true that a picture is worth a thousand words, words that often contradict each other in their meanings.

2014 03 26 Appalachia Amberg 014Ku Klux Klan Rally, Wolf Laurel, 1976. © Rob Amberg, 2014

2014 03 26 Appalachia Amberg 02At Ramsey’s Store, Sodom, 1977. © Rob Amberg, 2014


There was a week a couple of years ago when I was twice reminded of my “otherness,” by two mountaineers from radically different ends of the cultural, social, and economic spectrums. I had given a talk at a conference, showing my work, and discussing changes in my mountain community. After the presentation, I was speaking with a conference participant who accused me of committing two of the cardinal sins in Appalachian scholarship, those of fostering stereotypes and of being “so Florida” in my thinking about the region. The former because I include forbidden and stereotypical subjects in some photographs; the latter because I characterized the migration to Madison County of new people with fresh ideas and values as a good thing. He saw this as threatening to the native culture and economy.

I mulled about his criticism in the following days, indulging my sensitivity to suggestions of misrepresentation in my work. It was summer and a couple of days later I was walking with my dogs on the road below our house, one of the few remaining dirt roads in the county. I heard a truck coming up behind me and glanced back to see our community thug who had recently been released from jail. As he came alongside of me, slowing to keep pace with my gait, he looked over my clothing—shorts, t-shirt, white socks and sneakers—and said, quite derisively, “Are ye out fer yer little walk tonight, mister?” before driving off in a cloud of dust.

2014 03 26 Appalachia Amberg 013Convicted Murderers, Marshall, 1978. © Rob Amberg, 2014

2014 03 26 Appalachia Amberg 030I-26 at Buckner Gap, 2008. © Rob Amberg, 2014


A few years prior to the construction of I-26 in Madison County, an archaeological dig uncovered a fluted spear point, dated to 10,000 B.C. We regularly find arrowheads and pottery shards on our land when plowing our garden spots next to the creek. I like to keep those points and pots in mind when I wrestle with the questions: When do you really become part of a place? When do you stop being an “ain’t from around here,” a “fereigner,” or “so Florida”, and become the neighbor who “lives up the creek”? Does it take a certain amount of time? Does it take working the soil, burying animals and family in it, stewarding it for the time, however long or brief, you are on it? As an observer, at what point do I have the understanding and connection to a place to represent it honestly and openly in images? And, must one always adhere to the mores and values of that place? Isn’t it possible to introduce new ideas and customs without being scorned? Are we that narrow in our definition of place?

Hard questions all. I have no definitive answers to them. But I do think the definition of what it means to be “of a place” is changing, even in a relatively isolated spot such as this one in the mountains of North Carolina. People have migrated here forever, some staying longer than others. Everyone leaves a footprint on the landscape. I don’t know how one judges one footprint to be more native or true than another.

2014 03 26 Appalachia Amberg 025Cricket’s Birthday Party, Big Pine, 2012. © Rob Amberg, 2014

2014 03 26 Appalachia Amberg 021Rodeo, Marshall, 2012. © Rob Amberg, 2014 


I suspect our region is one of the most studied places on the planet. Writers, image-makers, ethnographers, statisticians, musicians, and many others have been documenting Appalachia for hundreds of years, every one of them with their own perspective. Art, by its very nature, should engage the personal and the universal. It will ask more questions than provide answers. It grovels and hunts, and some of what it finds will make us uneasy.

Of all the work produced from this region no one observer gets the place or the people completely right. No one represents the place in its totality. But like pieces of a puzzle, when taken together, those individual visions and stories offer a collective truth that begins to resemble the place where I live and work.

2014 03 26 Appalachia Amberg 028PawPaw, 2011. © Rob Amberg, 2014

 Return to “Portraying Appalachia,” a five-part symposium on representation and the region.