Documentary photographer Roger May left his Appalachian home as a teenager. When he returned as an adult, he struggled to connect his memory of the region with its reality.
A self-described wanderer, May, 39, discovered that his camera helped him close that divide and relearn this part of the country that had so shaped him.
"Sometimes truly being able to see requires us to leave for awhile and come back with a hunger for home," May said in an interview. "As an Appalachian, I'm familiar with stories of image takers rather than image makers. I don't want to be another taker in a long line of takers from Appalachia."
May's personal, visual journey to his roots, Testify: A Visual Love Letter to Appalachia, was published in April with the help of a Kickstarter campaign held last year.
May's book focuses on the everyday beauty to be found in this oft-overlooked region. He took long drives in his truck, stopping when a scene particularly struck him.
One such image arrived unexpectedly in Pike County, Kentucky. May had been searching for a place to photograph an active mountaintop removal site. As he pulled into a driveway to turn around and try a different route, two men talking farther up the drive motioned for May to pull in. They talked for a bit about May's project, then the older man, James Abshire, began telling May stories about his life in Appalachia.
"We talked through my open window for what seemed like an hour, before I asked if he'd mind if I parked my truck, got out, and visited a bit," he said. "I ended up spending three hours with him and making some pictures."
May was especially interested in the interplay between how we remember events and how they actually happened. He works through this theme in both the content of his photographs — capturing lush landscapes and perceived stereotypes as well as nascent generations and established Appalachians — and style — shooting in black and white and color film.
The resulting visual rhythm — the shift between old and new, color and the absence of it — seamlessly threads the past with the present.
Oh his website, May notes that the word "testify" carries both religious and legal meanings:
In the churches of home, it's common for a portion of time during a church service to be devoted to allowing members to share publicly what God has done in their lives; to give their testimony. In legal terms, one's testimony is a statement accepted, sworn under oath, believed to be true and acceptable. [Roger May Photography]
May's images, then, are his testimony, to a place marked by its raw resilience and pride, its timelessness in the face of change.
"It can be hard to do, but in this case, I feel like it really works," May said. "There are echoes of the past, and quiet statements from the present."