Artist Behind CNN Photos: What She Thinks

Original lead photo from CNN post on every day life in Appalachia.
Original lead photo from CNN post on every day life in Appalachia.

Over the weekend, CNN posted controversial photos from Appalachia. The collection opened with KKK members surrounding a burning cross. It went on to show snake handlers, religious fundamentalists, and shirtless men who looked strung out.

Those of us from Appalachia know that these images are the exception and sensational, but CNN sure didn’t play them that way. The news channel said that the photographer was capturing ”the everyday lives of the people of Appalachia.”

Appalachian locals posted comments in the hundreds, most of them outraged:

“I am from the Appalachians and this is not everyday life. This is akin to racist stereotypes of African Americans before the civil rights movement. Repulsive.”

“I’ve lived in the South for four decades and have seen exactly zero robed Klansmen and pretty much the same number of snake handlers.”

“These pictures appear to be the result of an immature photographer from LA out to reinforce her smug stereotypes about the South. CNN why are you promoting this?”

Reading the comments and reviewing the photos, I also wondered what was this photographer thinking. Was she really trying to propagate stereotypes about mountain people? Didn’t she know how damaging this kind of photography can be?

Rather than speculate, I decided to ask her for a telephone interview. Her name is Stacy Kranitz, and she promptly replied to my email. The first thing she told me was that she felt burned by CNN.

“I admit that my experience with CNN was very upsetting and I am weary of the media right now,” she said, “Even though I have great respect for alternative media sources I’m not sure how confident I feel about a phone conversation. Maybe we can begin the conversation via email.”

So I emailed Stacy a couple of questions at a time, and she replied, providing me with the full story behind her hotly disputed photos. I’ve boiled our emails into a simple interview that shows what this unconventional artist was really thinking. Stacy’s excerpts are unaltered, but I did edit my questions to give you, the reader, better context.

Also, while we were exchanging emails, CNN updated the photos, adding additional shots in an attempt to better represent Appalachian culture. Stacy and I talked about this too.

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TR: Stacy, CNN originally published a portion of your shots from the Appalachians. That subset of your work lit a fire among people from the region. What do you think about the outrage? 

SC: I think people are rightfully angry. I am disgusted to see the words ”the everyday lives of appalachian people” next to images of the KKK. That is a real insult to the region as is the reductive edit of my work and I understand why people are so offended by it.

I do not see what I have photographed as a look at “the everyday lives of appalachian people” as CNN has claimed, Nor is that written anywhere in the CNN interview questions I answered or on my website.

For this project I sought out the stereotypes and photographed them so that I could then offer a counter to them. That is what the project is about. It is meant to be a dialogue about stereotypes: the mythology they create, their value and their role in society and how they factor into the representation of place. It seemed the furthest from possible that CNN knowing my interest in both seeking out and demystifying stereotypes would make an edit of only the stereotypes. What they did is the opposite of what I am trying to do.

TR: That context makes all the difference. Why didn’t CNN share your other photos and your true intent?

SC: I can only guess. It is likely that they were interested in traffic numbers to their website. I feel stupid and ashamed for trusting CNN to honor my intentions with the work. To take me seriously as a photographer who cares deeply about what she photographs and how those images are representative of the people in them. I thought that by answering their questions in a thoughtful and engaged manner they would do what a respected journalistic media conglomerate should do and accurately report the project as I had presented to them. I can’t figure out if I am naive or if they are cruel.

TR: What would you like people to take away from your Appalachian photos?

SC: I would like the images to be the starting point for a conversation about the region; what stereotypes still exist and what images would and could demystify them.  I want the images to call into question what is the “mean” of a place with a complicated history that is still trying to shed difficult stereotypes. The photographs are a rumination on what it means to be an outsider and how that outsider attempts to know something, Can they know something? What is unavailable to communicate in the photographic image and what is not?  All of my projects operate within the documentary tradition while at the same time commenting on that tradition, it’s failures and its possibilities.

TR: Have you said anything to CNN about the photos? What did you tell them or what would you like to tell them?

SC: I have written to my editors and shared much of what I shared with you. I asked for an explanation. I would like them to remove the words “everyday life of appalachia” and redo the edit so that it no longer reflected only the stereotypes of the region.

This is the point where CNN posted additional photos. I emailed  Stacy a follow-up question.

TR: CNN has added more photos that represent a wider range of Appalachian experiences, but they didn’t remove the words “everyday lives.” Are you satisfied?

SC: Whaen I contacted them, the photo editors at CNN showed genuine concern for my desire to have the project presented in a way that was true to my intentions. While so much of the damage has already been done with so many people seeing the original sequence of images I appreciated that the editors where immediately responsive to my desires to change the edit to be more accurate to the project.

They did not want to change the text “everyday lives of appalachian people” because they feel that in the context of the article they are not saying that my images reflect the everyday lives of appalachian people but that the images were taken of people in their everyday lives. In the end I agreed that the text was accurate to the interview I gave and with the new edit I feel that the project is shown in a much less antagonistic way. At the end of the day I took these pictures and I have to reconcile with the fact that not everyone is going to take the time to understand what I am doing. Some people are going to be angry that a picture of a Klan rally exists in the edit at all even if it is there to reference an obvious stereotype instead of perpetuate it. I am not making a travel brochure of the area.

While CNN has made the changes i requested I still think it is valuable to continue the discussion about appalachia, representations and stereotypes.

*

What do you think? Do you look at the photos differently after reading this? What do you think of Stacy’s work and CNN’s handling of the situation?

12 Comments

  • Blueridger

    The KKK usualy doesnt come to mind in the Appalachians. Ive lived my whole life in NW North Carolina and they just dont exist organized here.

  • Heather Day Gilbert

    Found this article very interesting. Sure, bad stuff goes on in WV, but bad stuff goes on in LA or NYC, too. Glad to see that Stacy was trying to provide a contrast. There are probably pockets of KKK activity anywhere in the US, but I’ve grown up in Appalachia and have never seen or heard of it in this generation.

    That’s the thing about being a reporter–you can’t always construe your story the way you want it (or even title it like you want).

    The fact that CNN left in the “everyday lives” in face of overwhelming opposition from the people who actually LIVE THERE shows how out of touch CNN is with “everyday lives” of people all over the USA. I think CNN is the stereotyping culprit here–which is exactly what they’re making Appalachians out to be.

  • Linda Bragg

    Considering that 40% of the people voting on the Democratic Ballot in WV primary voted for a felon, these sterotypes are still alive in Appalachia. People consider West Virginians hillbillies and hicks and the primary did nothing to change that. It really makes me ashamed to be a West Virginian and no wonder people think so little of us.

  • Christine Sparks

    I didn’t care for the photos, but she did try to fix it. I am so sick of people thinking of WV first when an article like this comes out. Appalachia runs from Georgia to the southern tier of New York. I would like to see someone drive from one end to the other and take EVERYDAY pictures. And really show the real lives, everyday struggles and the beautiful country that is in this area. The people who pick out who and where to show in movies or interviews need their heads smacked. Not all people from this area (Appalachia) are like that. West Virginians are not toothless, back woods hikes. I love Wild, wonderful and beautiful WV.

  • William Isom

    This isn’t the Appalachia I know, but we can’t blame CNN or the Dianne Sawyer-types, they’re just doing what they’ve always done in regards to the region.
    It’s easier for corporate interests to exploit the labor and resources of Appalachia if the people are first dehumanized. This type of thing has been going on for a long time, so we can’t expect CNN or any other commercial entity to carry whats healthy for us into the mainstream. It’s their media, not ours.

  • Jonathan

    well, personally when I think of WV my first thought is Mountain Top Removal abuse. followed by hill folk at least historically and uh I guess the trees . Not really sure why people were upset with the photographer though, other than ignorance of editorial choices not usually being in the photographer’s hands. As i have said before though most media is garbage and goes for viewer ratings or website hits, especially following the 24hour news network game. Heck CNN let go a lot of its photojournalists in favor of cheaper viewer submitted content. Fox, CNN, MSNBC, there are only a few decent shows on those and they are usually the ones with the older generation of journalists as hosts.

  • Danny Adams

    Fortunately New York City has no strung out people, religious fundamentalists, and prejudice to take pictures of. Right?

  • Sandra Diaz

    I want to thank the Revivalist for taking this on and for Stacy Kranitz for doing this interview and reaching out to CNN.

    Appalachian Voices has a blog post about why CNN’s actions do greater harm to the many efforts to make Appalachia a better place; in our case, by ending mountaintop removal coal mining. Promoting stereotypes makes mountaintop removal coal mining seem like something that happening to other people, not to the entirety of America.

    We encourage you to read the post. We also would love to repost this post to our Front Porch Blog.

    http://appvoices.org/2012/05/09/snake-handlers-strippers-and-the-kkk-cnns-portrait-of-everyday-life-in-appalachia/?

  • Laurie Stone

    I will admit – yes – when I saw the photographs on CNN I was boiling mad. However, after taking the time to read the attached information and visit Stacy Kranitz’s site – it was clear that so much of the story wasn’t shown. It’s unbelievable that CNN – and frankly – probably a jr. editor fresh out of school holding an English degree – who has never left the beautiful asphalt and concrete of New York City, was probably responsible for the irresponsible decision of portraying the negative side of Appalachia.
    I am sure if Stacy spent time camping and meeting the folks of the area, she was invited in for more than one home-cooked meal by the locals. I hope she was able to see the mystical fog rising up over endless mountain peaks that grace the region. So many of us are trying to change the image of Appalachia not only to the outside world, but also encouraging the view the people of Appalachia hold of themselves. I only hope that CNN will give equal time to projects like Elaine McMillion’s documentary “Hollow” thus encouraging the positive changes that are taking place. (www.hollowthefilm.com ). Appalachia needs hope not hype. The editors of the Revivalist deserve a great deal of thanks for publishing all sides of the story!

  • marklynn

    Laurie, happy to do it. Thanks to you for the thoughtful comment!

  • click here

    If you could email me with any hints on how you made your blog site look this cool, I would be appreciative!

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