Black Diamonds explores Appalachia’s “magic of the land”

Photojournalist Rich-Joseph Facun’s new book is devoted to the heritage and community of his adopted homeland of America’s Appalachian region

Originally from Virginia and of Indigenous Mexican and Filipino descent, Rich-Joseph Facun travelled all over the world during a 15-year career as a photojournalist, before moving to the Appalachian Foothills of southeast Ohio in 2015, when the industry he was in was “looking bleak”.

Although he’d been commissioned by titles including the Atlantic, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, work and staff positions were few and far between, says Facun, who decided to “redefine” his photographic work and move somewhere with more affordable land and a “healthier” pace of life.

The photographer says he felt “uncertain” during his first month in Appalachia. His family hadn’t yet relocated with him, and he remembers “a lot of lonely nights and some self doubt during the day as I drove around the county looking for a house and land to purchase”. Once his family did arrive, however, he says that quickly subsided and he began settling in.

“The move was liberating and a welcome change of lifestyle,” he says. “I stopped making images, focused on my family, homesteading, and exploring the local skate scene.”

After two years away from his career in photojournalism, Facun began to feel the urge to develop his craft as a photographer once more – and with much of his previous work focused on community, or stories that introduced him to locals, he decided to start doing the same in Appalachia.

“Curiosity drove me to photograph these communities as well as a sense of detachment I felt to my new home,” he explains. “That motivation eventually metamorphosed into larger existential questions regarding my sense of belonging in Appalachia as well as my safety.”

Major events such as Trump’s election and the Black Lives Matter movement – as well as increased violence against people of colour – meant that the US was politically divided, says Facun.

He believes the Appalachian region often had the finger of blame pointed at it when it came to Trump’s rise to power. “Along with this blame came the stereotypes that outsiders typically place on Appalachia,” says Facun, referring to its perception as largely white, rural and poor.

To try and move beyond these, Facun started shooting images while running errands – either en route to the grocery store, or picking up his children from school.

He says he began carrying his camera everywhere, making street portraits on the go. Often his subjects would also have stories of local history to share with Facun, and he says the process of photographing helped involve him more in the local community and find people from different backgrounds.

It also helped him establish his own place in the community, as he explains in an essay included in the book. “As a person of colour, I define my community based on personal experience, which diverges from the stereotypes of race, religion, gender and politics that can be attached to the area by outsiders. When violence across the nation is aimed at specific groups of people, my images ask implicitly: Am I accepted in this community? Am I safe here?”

Ultimately, he says the series has helped him relate to his adopted home in a deeper way. “Making images for Black Diamonds helped me understand the magic of the land, the value of local history and heritage, the way of life here, and the resilience of its people,” he tells CR.

“I had no expectations or conflicts about Appalachia. The act of being present in my new community and home has helped me confirm what I had believed all along. People are people, no matter where you go in the world. An honest smile, a kind hello, a sincere thank you, these idiosyncrasies bring out the best in everyone and in all cultures.”

Black Diamonds is published by Fall Line Press;