LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Photographer Michele Coleman contrasted a rugged Appalachian hillside with the refined skills of a cello-playing teenager, offering a fresh perspective of a region accustomed to being portrayed through gritty images of squalor.
Her photo took top prize in a contest sponsored by the University of Kentucky's Appalachian Center. It shows a high school senior from Marietta, Ohio, with her arms draped around the classical music instrument while perched on the hillside.
"You could see a talented young individual," said Coleman, a professional photographer from Parkersburg, W.Va.
The West Virginia native said she tires of seeing old photos reinforcing stereotypes of Appalachia, and hopes she did her part to show there's a much different side to the 205,000-square-mile region.
"If you Google 'Appalachia,' you see these horrid images ... portraying this region as backwoods, hillbillies," she said by phone. "And we're not. We're full of creative, intelligent, artistic people and we just happen to live in this rugged area of valleys and mountains."
Zak Pence said he wanted to chip away at those stereotypes with the new photo contest dubbed "Re-Imaging Appalachia." Contestants were urged to offer non-stereotypical representations of Appalachian life.
"I really wanted to push Appalachian people to see themselves in a more realistic way," said Pence, a West Virginia native who is communications director for the UK Appalachian Center in Lexington.
"We blame the media for producing all of these horrible images of Appalachia," he said. "Some of the responsibility for changing these stereotypes rests with the region's people. So this was a little push to do that."
Dee Davis, head of the Whitesburg, Ky.,-based advocacy group Center for Rural Strategies, said Appalachians have grown sensitive to images portraying the region's poverty.
He said efforts like the photo contest "give us a chance to reimagine who we are and where we're going." But he added: "Is one image going to change 40 years of photojournalism and reactions to it and the debate about stereotypes? Probably not."
The contest drew nearly 150 photos from people in 11 states. Some entries showed landscape vistas, while others depicted universities, urban scenes and industrial sites.
The Appalachian region, as defined in legislation authorizing the Appalachian Regional Commission, includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states — Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
One of the contest judges, author and Appalachian scholar Jean Haskell, predicted the photos will elicit surprise when they go on display. Haskell, who now lives in Portsmouth, Va., said the winning photo touches on two Appalachian hallmarks — a mountain setting and music — but was presented in a "fresh way" with the young woman posing with a cello.
Coleman's photo won in a tie-breaking vote, earning her $500. The photo was taken just outside of Parkersburg in early March and shows Valerie George, who will be attending Vanderbilt University in the fall, Coleman said.
The runner-up photo, by Toril Lavender from Huntington, W.Va., showed children performing with a ballerina on her tip-toes in a presentation of "The Nutcracker Ballet" by the Huntington Dance Theatre. The second-place prize was $150.
The Appalachian Center will display 30 of the photos on June 15-16, Pence said. There's been talk of possibly developing a calendar featuring some of the photos, but nothing has been decided, he said.
In promoting the contest, organizers had told photographers it was their chance to help change perceptions of the region often portrayed through images of barefoot children living in shacks.
"That stuff does not represent the full spectrum of humanity that lives in that region," Pence said.
In 1965, one in three Appalachians lived in poverty, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission's website. In 2008, the region's poverty rate was 18 percent, it said.
Davis said the contest gave Appalachians a chance at self-expression in portraying the region in a different light.
"The thing you have to guard against is not to clean it up in such a way that you don't ever show things that are wrong or need fixing," Davis said.
Davis said he liked the photo showing several girls performing in the ballet, but added: "It's not like if you were to drive down the back roads of Pike County you would see legions of little girls in tu-tus."