Portraits and Dreams
Photographs and Stories by Children of the Appalachians, 1976–1982
2009–2018 updated and expanded edition
by Wendy Ewald
What is it about Wendy Ewald’s Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories by Children of the Appalachians that immediately connects with the reader? Perhaps it is the fact that we are introduced to a cast of Appalachian children who balance the fine line between youth and adulthood, whose lives and concerns so wildly differ from our own, and yet, whose intimate stories and pictures so eloquently express certain fantasies and fears so clearly that we cannot help but relate to them. As Dewayne Cole, one of Ewald’s former students, shares, life is “the same old thing, day after day. You don’t hardly notice things until they’re gone”. Something, I’m sure, that resonates with every grown-up who wonders the exact moment that they left childhood behind.
What immediately becomes clear is that Ewald’s arrival in Letcher County, Kentucky, in 1975, changed these children’s lives. For not only did the 25-year-old American photographer hand her students a ten-dollar camera – funded through tenacious sales of baked goods and old pop bottles – she empowered them by placing the camera in their amateur hands. The resulting pictures voice their perception of the earth and its shifting boundaries, the mountains, the woods, the mines – the land of their youth – in their own way. There is an inescapable sense that this way of life is somehow slipping away from them, and they are unsure what to make of it, but the camera becomes a means of expression, helping them to understand their dreams or nightmares, distinguishing them from reality and immortalising them, too.
But the book is also more than a narrative of children’s dreams, a nostalgic look at what life used to be like. It is a social commentary that provides a blunt perspective of rural life in the mountains. The children matter-of-factly paint a picture of a changing landscape, sharing tales of burning woods and bulldozed mountains, as well as families whose lives are hardened from life in strip and shaft mines, and the black lung that comes with it. Now, 45 years after its initial publication, the updated edition of Portraits and Dreams is a story of the past colliding with the present, reuniting Ewald with her former class and revealing the outcomes of their lives with brand-new photographs and stories. It’s a compelling story of life and loss – one that Ewald’s students should maybe consider revisiting in another few decades.
Review by Kirtey Verma