Mason Adams Published

A Tennessee Photographer’s ‘Guttural’ Photos Of Appalachia

A woman leans on a bed as a small child sits next to her. The child looks toward the camera, while the woman looks off frame and lifts a hand to her head.
Mayron Michelle Hollis with one of her children.
Stacy Krantiz/ProPublica

This conversation originally aired in the May 19, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Tennessee photographer Stacy Kranitz is attracting attention for her visceral photos of life in Appalachia and the South.

Photography has had an important but troubled history in Appalachia. Many of the stereotypes now associated with the region came from photographers who visited the area in the 1960s to cover Lyndon Johnson’s so-called “war on poverty.” Those stark, black-and-white images became emblematic of a style of photography known as “poverty porn.” That style of photography, and the stereotypes that accompany it, accounts for a lot of why people in Appalachia are still suspicious of photographers. 

Kranitz not only acknowledges that history — she leans into it. Sometimes her photos are hard to look at, but they’re always compelling. That’s the case with a project published earlier this year. ProPublica’s story, “The Year After a Denied Abortion,” follows a young family in Tennessee.

Inside Appalachia Host Mason Adams reached out to Kranitz to talk about the gripping photos that accompany the story, and how she thinks about photography in Appalachia.

The transcript below was lightly edited for clarity.

Adams: We’re talking today because of a photo essay in ProPublica, titled “The Year after a Denied Abortion.” The piece is less about the abortion that didn’t happen than about the year in the life of a mother and child and family, and the various challenges they encounter. So, the story centers around Mayron Michelle Hollis, who is the mother in question. At the beginning of the story, she is having her fifth child. She’s already been working through recovery.

How did you connect with Mayron, and how did you get such access to her life?

Kranitz: I received a call from my visuals editor at ProPublica [in] December 2022. She asked me if I would be available to follow a woman who is in the late stages of a life threatening pregnancy that she has been forced to carry to term. The reporter, Kavitha Surana, this is her beat, this is her focus, is abortion across America. She had been working really hard to find a story to tell from a very intimate first-person perspective. We didn’t have full permission from Mayron yet. We had set up a time to go and meet her to discuss what we would like to do and to see if it was something that she was interested in participating in. And then, she gave birth the next day.

She had a very intense birth. She almost died during the birth of her child. Her child, Elayna, was born three months ahead of time and was in the NICU. Kavitha and I went to meet her in the hospital. We had originally planned to meet her that day. We asked her if she was OK to meet with us. She said yes. She was very adamant that she wanted to tell her story. She wanted other people to understand what she was going through how she made the decisions that she made. It’s a complicated story in that, originally, her and her husband Chris, they wanted to have the baby. But they had to really think through the risks, which was that she was very likely to die, and then that would leave her other child without a mother. And that child was not even one yet.

A woman works with insulation. Next to her, on one side, is a ladder, and the other side is a window. She is wearing jeans and has her hair pulled up in a messy bun.
Mayron Michelle Hollis at work.

Photo Credit: Stacy Krantiz/ProPublica

Adams: The story basically follows their life for the next year after their daughter, Elayna, is born prematurely. We see them go through excruciating experiences. It all feels very real, and also very hard. She’s extraordinarily vulnerable. We see her at some of her lowest moments. How were you able to capture a year in this person’s life in such a close way?

Kranitz: I did have to be constantly available. I worked with Kavitha, the reporter, and my editor Andrea Wise. Me and Kavitha were in constant contact with Mayron. If she was going to a doctor’s appointment, we definitely wanted to be there for that. If she was going to run errands, we wanted a chance to be there to do that, to document that. Her work as well. And so she got in the habit of letting me know the kinds of things that were happening in her life each week. 

Adams: How did you deal with this, not as a photographer but as a person? How were you able to compartmentalize the trauma going on in this person’s life in such a way that you could carry on your own life at the same time?

Kranitz: One of the ways that I am able to do this — and this is a choice — is that I am a huge believer in there not being a dividing line between my personal life and my professional life. So that part didn’t feel all that different. I think it made me uniquely suited to do this work, to pick up at any moment and rush to Clarksville, which is a little over two hours from where I live. I have to say, I have worked on a lot of really, really challenging stories. This one really took me down. It was incredibly intense, and I’m really grateful to my editor and Kavitha for providing a lot of emotional support throughout the year.

Adams: As a journalist, it’s tricky, because our stories may end but life goes on. Chris and Mayron’s story ends in a challenging moment, with Elayna’s first birthday. Chris is trying to put together a celebration and Mayron is in jail at the time. Can you give us an update on how the family is doing?

Kranitz: Unfortunately, things are difficult right now. I spoke with Mayron last a few days ago, and they are going through a lot of the same struggles. The story really affected a lot of people, and they went to Mayron’s GoFundMe page and they donated money at a time when a lot of their utilities were being shut off. They were going through another eviction warning. They owed their babysitter $1,000. The babysitter was kind enough to let them continue to bring the children there. But to be able to pay your childcare provider is such an important thing to be in control of.

A woman holds a small child as a man stands behind her. The photograph is dark, as if there wasn't much light in the room.
Mayron Michelle Hollis with her family.

Photo Credit: Stacy Kranitz/ProPublica

Adams: What’s some wisdom you’ve taken away from this experience?

Kranitz: Spending time with Mayron is a masterclass in resilience. Every time I left after spending a few days or a week with her, I felt like I had a deeper appreciation and understanding for how to survive in the face of extreme difficulty. I spent hours listening to her on the phone with [the] food stamps office, social security, all these different resources that were supposed to be there for her but weren’t. I think a lot of people do not realize how inaccessible government assistance can be. And I really, really felt like that education will stay with me forever.

Adams: The photos in this story are emotionally raw and intense. But in a lot of ways they align with the work you’ve been doing for the last 15 years almost in Appalachia and elsewhere. Did you set out as a young photographer to do this kind of work? Or did you just kind of fall into it through your experiences?

Kranitz: I had always been a magazine photographer right, out of studying photography as an undergraduate. I was doing a lot of work around subculture, around music and land, and different kinds of sort of more, you could say “superficial” stories. I was also shooting a lot of portraits of C-list celebrities. I worked for Guitar World and Revolver magazines; I shot a lot of metal bands, which was a true pleasure.

But I had a bit of a crisis of faith in 2008, which is around the time the media industry collapsed. It gave me an excuse to separate from this industry that I felt like only allowed me to make work for a couple of days. And so in 2009, I started several projects, and one of them was located in the Appalachian region of the United States. I began to really think a lot about intimacy, and how I could use the camera to get as close to people as possible. And so it was around 2009 that I began to make this kind of, I guess you could say more guttural work, living very closely with subjects, spending very long periods of time [with them].

Adams: I wanted to ask you about photography’s complicated relationship with Appalachia, going back to “Stranger with a Camera,” the documentary, and even before. Gatekeepers have criticized your work for being exploitative, because it is raw and “guttural,” I think was the word used for it. What’s that journey been like for you? I’m curious as to your thoughts about photography and Appalachia, and how to authentically cover that area.

Kranitz: I came to make work in Appalachia, because I was feeling frustrated with the concept of journalism, this fantasy of objectivity. I felt like in order to talk about that, it would be best to do that in a place that had been harmed by photography, [and] in particular photojournalism. Once I was there, and I realized this was a place with a significant history of problematic photographic representation, it really piqued my interest because I was looking for a place that was struggling with its visual representation. So that’s actually how I came to take pictures in the region.

I’m really interested in the idea of stereotypes. They’re useful for us as humans, right? They help us understand and process what is good, what is bad, what is right, what is wrong. So I began to look at all these different stereotypes that existed in the region. Snake handling churches. I went to a Klan rally, not unique to Appalachia, but certainly a part of rural American, southern life. Then I looked to undo those stereotypes, to look for images that kind of were its opposite. And of course, I found a lot of things.

Out by me, there’s this really incredible, rural queer commune — actually, there’s several — and so I went there and took pictures as well. So I was kind of looking to play with the stereotypes. In some ways, I leaned into them, in order to start a conversation. What I guess I’m looking to do is to make work that asks us, or asks the viewer, to reflect on their own relationship to images of poverty. I think we talk a lot about poverty porn, but we don’t talk a lot about how the threshold for what is poverty porn — and what is not — is going to be different for every single individual.

So when we talk about things like this, it’s really important to understand where we ourselves are coming from in determining [whether] something is problematic or not. Where does that come from? For that person, it definitely has to do with their own personal history with poverty, and that’s a really important thing to factor in to think about. So I really am trying to make work in this region that does in many ways deconstruct that problem. 

Adams: Do you have a sense of where your line is, of where that threshold is crossed? Or is it more like the Supreme Court justices definition of obscenity; you know it when you see it?

Kranitz: No. I think one of the things that has been most valuable for me is that I have learned in making my work that that line is constantly shifting. I tried to make work in this place that has been very harmed by photography, and I would never deny that truth that allows us to talk about that discomfort, those problems, the shame that we feel around images of poverty, their inability to actually solve poverty. Appalachia is best served by a variety of photographic voices, all these different pieces of a puzzle that fit together to tell a story about this place. And they really all need to be in conversation with each other.