Nationally-acclaimed photographer and founder of the “Humans of Central Appalachia” Facebook project Malcolm Wilson will be spending his anniversary in Harlan County Tuesday night. It’s been one year since Wilson and his wife, Jennifer, moved back to the hills of eastern Kentucky.
Wilson has traveled throughout the world as an award-winning photographer, and he’s been a successful businessman in Bristol, Tennessee, but with the launch of his wildly popular “Humans of Central Appalachia” Facebook documentary project, he has returned to his roots, relocating with Jennifer to Blackey, Kentucky and setting up his “Humans of Central Appalachia” headquarters in a rustic cabin, immersed in the people and their stories that most inspire him.
Harlan Countians are invited to share Wilson’s “coming-back-home” anniversary Tuesday night, as he will be the featured speaker at the Harlan County Arts Council’s March meeting, starting at 6 pm in the conference room of the Harlan County Cooperative Extension Agency.
“We’re very excited and honored to have Malcolm as a guest speaker,” said Harlan County Arts Council President Jennifer McDaniels. “And were happy that he’s home! We believe this night will be an evening of arts appreciation for the fine work Malcolm has produced over the past 40 years, but we are also excited because we feel it’s going to be an evening of motivation and encouragement for Appalachians.”
Inspired by the “Humans of New York” social media creative project, Wilson launched the “Humans Of Central Appalachia” Facebook page in June 2015 as a documentary initiative aimed at presenting honest stories from Appalachia in an effort “to quell stereotypes perpetuated about the region and by mainstream shock culture photographers.” Wilson’s unfiltered images of Appalachian people have deeply resonated with others, and is apparent by the wildly growing popularity of the Facebook page. “Humans of Central Appalachia” currently has followers from 45 countries, six continents and reflects 38 different languages. The Facebook page is also rapidly approaching 31,000 likes. Wilson credits the popularity of his project to three reasons.
“It has captured the interest of three groups of people,” Wilson said. “With the people who live here, with the people who used to live here but had to move away for different reasons, and with people who are just Appalachian curious.”
Wilson, who is originally from Cumberland, is not only a seasoned photographer, he is also a successful web designer, marketing consultant, educator and businessman. Wilson’s photography has been exhibited nationally. His work is included in the permanent collections at the University of Kentucky’s Appalachian Center, Southeast Community College’s Appalachian Archives and The Kennedy Center Gallery and Archives. In 1994, Wilson’s documentary photo project “Women of Coal: A Changing Image” won the prestigious Kentucky Humanities Council’s Humanities Project Of The Year. He is also the very first photographer allowed to exhibit in the Kennedy Center.
While Wilson has impressive accolades and has interviewed presidents, he said it’s the images and stories he captures of his fellow Appalachians that has most inspired him. Their stories are simple, but powerful — life changing even.
“These stories touch me,” Wilson said. “These stories come straight from people’s mouths, and they are conveyed as pure and unedited as possible. I’ve noticed how people are willing participants to share. When I strike up a conversation with them, their life experiences just start to flow, and I feel honored that I’m a part of the preservation and promotion of their stories from the heart.”
Wilson can often be seen at regional festivals, car shows, special events or just simply wandering the streets of some isolated eastern Kentucky community interviewing random strangers. What comes from these ordinary encounters are extraordinary stories that are striking a chord with people from across the globe.
“I’ve interviewed a laid off coal miner who had to pull himself up by his boot straps to learn a new trade and start all over again,” Wilson said. “I’ve interviewed a woman who had to put her son who was on drugs in jail. She said that was the best thing she ever did as a mother, and the son agreed, too. These are raw and real stories, but they inspire.”
Wilson will be talking more Tuesday night about his “Humans of Central Appalachia” project. He will also be telling people how they can better share their stories and use their art to positively promote Appalachia.
For more information about Wilson’s presentation at Tuesday’s Harlan County Arts Council’s meeting, contact McDaniels at 606-573-4223.