Roger May finds home through a camera lens

Home: a word so common no one stops to think what it means. To some, it may have been a smell, a town, a state or a house where family lived for decades.  To Roger May, home meant southern West Virginia, the place where he grew up.

May’s new exhibit in the Birke Art Gallery, “How to Get Home Again,” features a set of 24 photos that display his perspective on his childhood home.

“This work is a reflection on being from West Virginia,” May said. “It’s about wrestling with memories and photographing a place that’s disappearing.”

According to May, his home was disappearing because of mountaintop removal for coal mining. The home he once knew was changing, so he began to document the environment to reveal the differences.

“What I really want is for people to understand that Appalachia is far more complex than what’s shown in the media,” May said.

May has been a photographer for 15 years and has worked to capture his point of view of West Virginia. However, he said he also wanted to display other perspectives when photographing a new area.

“I always approach a place I’m not familiar with keeping in mind that I don’t know the place like someone who lives there,” May said. “I try to listen more than I talk and not have preconceived ideas because that’s not what I’m trying to do.”

May said he attempted to immerse himself in many of the locations where he worked, hoping it would set him apart from other photographers.

“I feel like people go in knowing what they want to photograph, and they just take those images and leave,” May said. “I try to learn first, then take photos based on what I think fits best.”

Despite his objective view of other locations, while recording changes in southern West Virginia, the photographer was free to tell the story he wanted about his home. Roger said he believes Appalachia is a combination of the people who lived there and the landscapes it was well known for.

“My identity is woven into the landscape,” May said. “I’m hoping others will see these portraits and landscapes and identify with them, so it will give them a sense of pride.”

Not only did Roger document West Virginia through photos, but also through written pieces which helped tell his story.

“Somewhere along the line I started to write about the visual representation of Appalachia,” May said. “There was a sort of natural progression from just visuals to writing about it. It’s one thing to photograph a place, and another thing entirely to write about it.”

“Roger May: How to Get Home Again,” will be displayed in the Birke Gallery until Feb. 23, with a closing reception on Feb. 22 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. with a panel discussion at 7 p.m.

Michaela Crittenden can be contacted at [email protected].