On my first few viewings, I didn’t really care for this book. It seemed like a sort of lesser attempt at Alec Soth’s Niagara, swapping Appalachia for the once-romantic getaway spot. It would remain that, if not for the Epilogue, “If I left Appalachia,” a revealing essay by Allison Stone, or Facun’s own brief statement “Unspoken Psalm,” that appear at the end of the book, and that I only read in preparation for this review.
I wouldn’t mention it, but it seems to be a big deal given that many reviews make a point to mention it (see, for example, LensCulture and CNN), as does the Charcoal announcement and Facun’s text, and Facun is a person of color, of mixed Filipino and Indigenous Mexican decent. I’m not entirely sure what bearing this has on the work for me. If he didn’t tell me, I wouldn’t know: the pictures don’t tell me. My leftist Texan-based conception of the racial mix in southeastern Ohio and broader Appalachia features a majority of Caucasians with a smaller number of African Americans and perhaps a few Latinex folks, and that’s pretty much what Facun shows. In some ways, I’m reminded of the Ozark mountains, in northwestern Arkansas where Mom lives. And this brings to mind her friend Muhammad and his family.
Muhammad immigrated from Israel in the 1980s, brought to Maine by an uncle. How he wound up in Arkansas is something of a mystery, but he first landed in Green Forest and now owns 40 acres near the White River, property that features a former fishing camp now turned homestead for him and his young wife and daughters. Muhammad is an interesting guy. His close friends are mostly white folks that populate the mountains there. One of them took him to a Klan rally. Muhammad briefly flew a rebel flag over his property… in 2020. His family back in Nazareth will eventually be forced off their land and into one of the bits of internment camp known as the West Bank: they’re Arab and Muslim, after all. How did Muhammad find his way to a Klan rally in Arkansas? As Stone writes, “Those who have the least give the most,”** and I’d extend that: those who are considered the least are the most considerate, or something like that. The Klansmen were the first people to smile at Muhammad, to invite him over for a beer, to wave at him on the road. They may rally to end immigration, to revive segregation, but they’re still the first to reach out to newcomers, to welcome the stranger.
I’m reminded of the friend group I had back in High School. We were the misfits, the bullied, the ignored. We were the first to welcome the new kids, to invite them out to try and get into some trouble on a Thursday night. If we lost that instinct as adults, so much the worse for us.
I’m reminded also of something I noticed recently. As a white man in the United States, I have the privilege to not care one tot about skin color. I look at a picture of Facun and see his gauged out earlobes and neck tattoos and see someone I’d probably happily-enough hang out with. I’d probably never guess he was mixed Filipino and Native Mexican, and if I somehow learned I’d think it was cool, if I thought anything about it at all. I thought everyone had this capacity, but it’s not so and nobody cares more about skin color than someone with some skin color. My darling wife and her cousins have a running argument/joke about who is lighter. One night long ago, while watching college basketball with some friends, upon seeing a very dark-skinned African player on the television, an African American friend said, “Damn! That [unprintintable] Black! Turn off the lights you lose his ass.”
All that to say: any fear that Facun had for his safety or sense of belonging when he settled down near Athens, OH, was misplaced. If it took photographing for Black Diamonds to realize this, if it took meeting these people, going to these places, then I guess it was worth it for him. As a relatively recent arrival to the area, he likely won’t fit in completely for several years, a decade or two, but once the locals figured out he wasn’t there on vacation, or to just parachute in for some poverty porn, they more or less accepted him completely.
Now. For anyone in the big cities Appalachia is a foreign land where people have funny accents, eat too much fried food, love Jesus and their guns, and are still flying flags for the 45th president. There’s none of that in Black Diamonds. And maybe it took a photographer of mixed heritage to show the humanity and decency of the people there. Maybe. It’s our classism that relegates small-town America to the sidelines: the people and places have something to offer. And if we didn’t heap so much hatred on them, maybe they wouldn’t feel the need to launch fat, orange grenades into the political establishment. And if we need a book like Black Diamonds to remind us, so much the worse for us.
Black Diamonds is well printed and seems quite lush. The pictures and sort of formal stance do remind me of Niagara-period Soth to a degree that puts me off a bit: I love Soth’s work, revere it, will probably continue to buy every book he puts out, but don’t want to make it or see much more of it from other photographers. I’m ready for something else.
If you missed out on the Kickstarter and aren’t a Charcoal subscriber,*** Black Diamonds remains available direct from Fall Line Press, and Facun helpfully shares many of the photographs from the series on his website. Have a look and tell me what you think. It’s good and important work, to be sure, even if I feel like I’ve seen it before.
* Facun, Rich-Joseph. “Unspoken Psalm,” in Black Diamonds. Fall Line Press, Atlanta, 2021. Unpaginated.
** Stine, Alison. “If I left Appalachia,” in Black Diamonds. Fall Line Press, Atlanta, 2021. Unpaginated.
**If you’re not a Charcoal subscriber, do yourself a favor: for less than $60 per book, you’ll get 12 great newly published, signed photobooks that you probably wouldn’t buy on your own. I’m not in any way related to or compensated by Charcoal; I’m a mostly happy paid subscriber since its second month.