Ann W. Olson

“If you watch Fox News you think one way, if you listen to National Public Radio you think another way, and that doesn’t need to be. You need a place where you can explore ideas, and not just be told what to think. I think Appalachians need to say, ‘where I live is a powerful place.’” 

Ann W. Olson, Photographer; Mauk Ridge, Elliott County, Kentucky:

“I’m a photographer, [but] only since the middle nineties. I started out by doing a national children’s book, so I started at the top and then I had to figure out how to be a photographer from that. I live in a rural area, so one is flexible sometimes. I’ve worked at the bookstore, I’ve worked on public relations for the public radio station, I’ve worked at the hospital, and I’ve taught French at the University.

I was born in Bronxville, New York, outside of New York City. I did a work camp when I was eighteen, with the Quakers in Wolfe County. I loved it in Kentucky, and then I came back after college to be in the War on Poverty. I was a VISTA volunteer, and I lived across the road from where I live now. I left for a few years, and then we came back. I was married then, and we bought a farm, and that’s where we live. 

[I joined the War on Poverty in] ’66, so it was in the beginning. It was pretty open-ended, and you could do a lot more community organizing then than you can now. The community I was with was applying to the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to start a Head Start Program, so I worked with them helping get that ready. Then, we all bundled into a car and we drove up and presented it to the OEO. It was hilarious because the people I was with weren’t used to seeing black people, so the Office of OEO had lots of black people. They were staring at them, and then a couple of people in my group were chewing tobacco. And the other people in the OEO were staring at them. 

But we got our grant, so whatever works, I say. [It was] culture clash, (Laughs) but that was the whole idea; that people didn’t feel isolated, and that they could speak up for what they needed. I was with a group called the Appalachian Volunteers, which had some publicity over the years for being very [much] activists.

We worked with the students at Morehead State University to go out on the weekends and help fix up a school or something like that. Some of the counties didn’t have their schools consolidated yet, so they had one-room schools or two-room schools. A lot of it was talking to people. You worked a lot for not much money, but they did pay your gas, and they paid your health insurance so who needs money? The main thing was to help people articulate what it is they wanted, and what they were concerned about, or what they cared about, where they wanted to put their energies; to make it as little top-down as you could.

(What can be done to stimulate the Appalachian economy?) More schooling is an option, a better option now, even though they could do a lot of work to have a higher bar for them for education, because these kids are smart. I think there’s been more economic development, also, but not enough. I’m not exactly in coal country, so I’m not talking coal. Coal country needed to have more diversity from the get-go, because what’s happening now is nothing to do with anybody, except they’ve run out of coal. 

Poverty is still a defining aspect of people’s lives, and without stronger education, it’s not going to change as much as it should. [We need] a stronger support of education, and I find that kids end up wasting a lot of time in school. They’re not pushed because they don’t see possibilities for themselves.

It would sure help if the mountains stayed in place, and they didn’t get shaved off, and people had opportunities to work closer to home, and not have to leave. I don’t have all the answers, but I think that the beauty of the place is so much an integral part of what it is, but people take it for granted. That’s been my experience anyway. 

There’s people who have gone on to do this work in other places, but I just had a gut love for Eastern Kentucky. I like that Appalachia is a subculture. We have ninety acres, and at some point it was mostly cleared. People cleared it with a horse or whatever, and it’s really awesome how hard people have worked. They’ve put food up, and all those things, and yet they were shunned. I like being out of the mainstream. Now with television people are more equal. 

But one thing I see is that between television and air conditioning, people don’t sit out on their porch, and visit like they used to in the summer. They’d sit out and you could stop by and talk, and that doesn’t happen like it used to. On the ridge where I live, I’m probably the only one who doesn’t have other family members nearby, so I’m just adopted by one of the families. That works out fine, and yet I find family very important. I think it’s an important aspect of life in Appalachia. I was a little distressed. I had some teenagers come help me recently, and I said, ‘Aren’t the dogwood trees beautiful this year?’ And one of them said, ‘Which ones are the dogwoods?’ I was stunned. I said, ‘Do you all realize that you live in one of the most beautiful places in the nation?’ Of course, they had no idea. They take it for granted, and so they now know what a dogwood tree is. 

I don’t want to live anywhere else except here, and yet I do have family in New England. I’m recently divorced, but my husband had family in California. My father remarried somebody in England, so he lived in England. Right now, my stepmother is the only one still living. So I have a unique [family dynamic], but this is my place. 

I had a training with Appalachian Volunteers for VISTA, and there were twenty-five in our group that were trained for three weeks. At the end of the three weeks, the group here got to choose five of the people they wanted to work with them. I was one of the ones they wanted, because a lot of people don’t get it, that poor people can decide what they think, what they want, and work on that. That was back in the Sixties. There was still a lot of, ‘well, these people are poor, so they must not know anything.’ That’s a very big assumption. So, in a way, I chose the region. I had done a work camp in high school here, so I knew I liked the region. I was thinking of doing something with literacy. I didn’t know anything about Community Action, until after my training. 

(Stereotypes) My son was nine months old when we moved down here, my daughter was born here. They’ve been out in the world. They have a flexible life, being very comfortable here and being comfortable other places. But when they went away to school, they got kidded for being barefoot. ‘Are you barefoot?’ and lots of stereotypes about Kentucky, and it made them very upset because they knew it wasn’t true, and number two, it wasn’t really true for them. 

My son, for example, went on to clerk at the Supreme Court. He uses his Kentucky experience now to being able to talk to all kinds of people of all ages, and being comfortable talking to people. He’s a trial lawyer. For a long time, he had to be one to tell people to quit stereotyping Kentucky, and I’m sure he still gets it sometime. And my daughter, also, but she’s moving back here [to] buy the farm from us. They want to live a little more off the grid, and live where they can explore the beauty and the water. She’s totally addicted to our waterfalls.

The truth about Appalachia is connected to a truth about America, which is that we are easily caught up in thinking like other people think. We don’t think for ourselves, so if we hear opinions, or somebody in church tells you to believe something, or someone in school doesn’t want you to think about something, you don’t use your brain. Thinking skills are just as valuable here, as they are out in other places. People are afraid to be a little different, afraid to think for themselves. As an artist, as a photographer, I know that if people don’t think somebody else approves your work, they’re scared to make an opinion themselves. They want approval. 

I’m very prone to thinking it’s the media [and there] is a little bit of mind control involved. If you watch Fox News you think one way, if you listen to National Public Radio you think another way, and that doesn’t need to be. You need a place where you can explore ideas, and not just be told what to think. I think Appalachians need to say, ‘where I live is a powerful place.’ There are those people who are doing that, but a lot of people want to do it the way it’s always been done, and that’s another part of the problem anywhere in society.

My photography, I think, happened because of where I live. I was fifty-five before I started, and I worked with George Ella Lyon, who is currently the Poet Laureate of Kentucky. She had a book that a New York editor wanted me to illustrate with nature photography. For a six thousand dollar advance, I got to go out in the woods, sweat, sweat, sweat [and] in four months, come up with thirty-five pictures for this book. I learned a lot. I learned how to use a tripod. I learned to use Velvia film. I would get a really good picture, then I’d have to make sure all the pictures were equally good, and I did it! I did it, and I loved it, because I love working by myself. I find that I have an eye, which is easier to have to start with, than to learn how to do it. That’s what’s gotten me over all the technical stuff that I might not still know. 

I have a couple of covers that I’m really proud of for Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry is a hoot. I really appreciate knowing him, because I met him when a bunch of writers and artists got together to speak up against mountaintop removal mining. The most recent one is on his collected Sabbath Day poems. It’s called ‘This Day.’ It’s a picture of a creek, but the designer wanted a brownish type photo. So it has a tree like an evergreen tree, not evergreen, but one of the ones that doesn’t lose its leaves, in the front. The California publisher wanted to put some kind of California picture on the front. I wrote them, and said, ‘the California pictures may work well for you all out there, but it’s not at all Wendell Berry.’ 

I'm in a video by Steve Middleton about death and dying in Appalachia, because this family that I’m sort of adopted by, has had three very unusual funerals and burials. They wanted me to film the burials. I have done that, because I know the people and I’m comfortable and it’s interesting to me. They seemed to appreciate it. The first [funeral] was the grandfather, and they put the casket into a cart they could pull the last two miles before the cemetery. They pulled the horse-drawn cart because he loved horses, and his grandson loved horses. The second one was the grandson of one of the sons of this man who died, and he lives up in Fleming County. He was a bulldozer operator, so they transferred his casket to his bulldozer and pulled it up this hill, because that’s what he loved. But I, it was very cold that day and snowing, and I only took the part where they transferred him across, because I just couldn’t get stuck up on the mountain. The third one had to do with horses again, because it was a friend of this grandson’s, who had been sort of like a father to him. He loved horses, so they did a similar thing pulling the hearse, but it wasn’t on a back road, it was on the main road.

I have a blog that I do weekly about Appalachia and photography. It’s called The Sideway Views, but if you Google Ann W. Olson you get all my stuff. 

[I would like people to remember] that I thought for myself, I believed in myself, and I believed that other people have interesting ideas. I don’t have to agree with them, but I can listen to them, and we can work together.”