Attention or Exploitation? | Sojourners

Attention or Exploitation?

The Clampetts. A coal miner's daughter. Children eating dirt. Dueling banjos. These are images of Appalachia you won't find in the new documentary Stranger With a Camera.

Many of these stereotypical images were cultivated during the early 1960s, when a huge wave of government and social service agencies shone a spotlight on Appalachia's level of poverty and unjust economic systems, along with an influx of filmmakers and journalists wanting to bring greater attention to the struggle. There also were those looking for a hot story. Says Stranger's director, Elizabeth Barret, "The same [economic] system that brought prosperity to some, impoverished others. Some filmmakers wanted to show the contrast to bring about social change. Others mined the images the way companies mined the coal."

No matter what the motivation, photos of hollers and barefoot children were plastered on televisions, front pages, and newsreels across the country. For many non-Appalachian viewers, these images remain the single impression of a region's people and culture.

In 1967, the tension between this media attention and what some saw as media exploitation erupted in a confrontation in eastern Kentucky between landowner Hobart Ison and Canadian filmmaker Hugh O'Connor. O'Connor and his crew were in the region filming the last sequence of a film about the struggle for justice in depressed areas of the United States. As they were leaving, they stopped to film Mason Eldridge, a coal miner sitting with his family on their porch after a day in the mines - in a house owned by Ison. Ison learned of O'Connor's presence, drove to Eldridge's home, and shot O'Connor dead.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2000
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