Interview: Wheeling-based artist Rebecca Kiger

Rebecca Kiger is exhibiting in A Knowing Intimacy: Photography by West Virginia Women, curated by Elaine McMillion Sheldon, opening March 8, at West Virginia University Downtown Campus Library. The opening reception will begin at 6:30pm with a screening of Sheldon’s Oscar-nominated short documentary, Heroin(e), followed by a panel discussion with Kiger, Sheldon, and exhibiting photographers Meg Ward and Lisa Elmaleh in Room 104 of the Library, sponsored by Daisy Moon Bakery of Morgantown. Kiger also has work in the current exhibit, Looking at Appalachia, on the main floor of the library. She shares with Boss Babes about how she came to photography, working in WV, feminism and collaboration in her work and more. Photographs copyright Rebecca Kiger.

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BB: Where are you from? How did you get into creative work and what is your impetus for creating?

R: I was born in Illinois.  My parents took jobs there after graduating from Marshall University.  My parents are from West Virginia (Wheeling and Parkersburg).  I primarily grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia, though I graduated from Huntington High.  Then I went to Shepherd College for two years before fleeing the state for more liberal pastures (Massachusetts).

My first year in college I thought I might want to be an artist, though I’m not a painter, graphic designer, etc..  Before giving up on that dream, I took a B&W photography course.  The minute the teacher walked in the door of our first class, I knew I was in the right place.  Nonetheless, I wasn’t completely photography or art focused.  I was very interested in sociology, philosophy and education.  So, I took course work in all of those areas, as well.  Shepherd didn’t have a program that allowed for such exploratory interest, so I applied to a school with more flexibility and finished my first degree at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

My impetus for creating comes from a longing to understand the world and then share a view of that others may not have considered.  I also seek beauty and redemption in ‘dark’ places.  There is a history of trauma in my family around speaking, especially speaking to truth, so I think I turned to photography as a form of having a voice in the world.

BB: Tell me about your work in A Knowing Intimacy and why it’s important to you. What do you hope people get out of your work?

R: Elaine asked me to share images from this story that I worked on at the beginning of 2017.  I produced it for 100 Days in Appalachia and the Ohio Valley Resource, and an audio portion of it aired on public broadcasting.  Like many documentarians in West Virginia, I have been trying to find a way to communicate about the opioid crisis.  I have been doing what I can to educate myself on the topic and wanted to use the skills I have to contribute to the dialogue. There is a history of alcoholism and death (suicide) in my family and life, so the topic interests me on a very personal level.

For this project, I spent time with a 50 year old woman, a recovering addict, someone who had been using since she was 13 years old.  I wanted to illustrate her life in order to humanize her situation.  For example, when I first started photographing her, she used a bike with no brakes to get around, even to go work at 4am in the morning in the snow. I wanted to examine how the services she received through the Affordable Care Act, which at the time was in danger of being repealed, were an integral part to her recovery.  I also wanted to show relationships in her life that are affected by her sobriety, like those with her son and daughter. I’m glad I can share these images in a gallery format so they can have new life and a chance to reach a different audience.

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BB: What's your favorite thing about being an artist in WV?

R: Many of my artist friends that are living and working in WV do so because they care about the place and want to have an impact through their work.  The artists here are also legit, down to earth people - like Bob Villamagna, who is currently WV Artist of the Year. He was once a steel worker and came from a family of steel workers.  Elaine comes from a family of coalminers.  My people were farmers, preachers, and factory workers, though my parents entered into professional fields through their education.  Now, everyone in my family is a professional, and I’m a struggling artist, and not a very good one at that.

BB: Does collaboration play a role in your work - whether with your community, artists or others?  How so and how does this impact your work?

R: Collaboration does play a role in my work, even my commercial endeavors, in which I’m lucky to work with writers and designers on most projects.

This past year I was able to collaborate on four different documentary films, including two with Elaine. 

On one project called ‘Her Appalachia’, which is a companion piece to the film ‘Hillbilly’ by Sally Rubin and Ashely York, I worked with Sam Cole, a writer from Berea College.  We interviewed and photographed women about the role media archetypes play in their lives.  The project hasn’t yet been published.

While I was responsible for finding, pitching, collecting audio and shooting photos for the story that the photos come from in this show (A Knowing Intimacy), Glynis Board, who is a producer at WVPB helped on the post-production end.

I’ve also collaborated with David Smith, who is a professor here (at WVU) in the Reed College of Media.

Collaborating is not without difficulties, but I really enjoy it.  My work can be extremely lonely.  Having different minds and perspectives brings energy to the work. 

BB: Artist Wanda Ewing, who curated and titled the original Les Femmes Folles (author Sally Deskins’ organization) exhibit, examined the perspective of femininity and race in her work, and spoke positively of feminism, saying “yes, it is still relevant” to have exhibits and forums for women in art; does feminism play a role in your work?

R: I’m a feminist, so it informs my work and life outside of work, like how I raise my daughter.  I feel very lucky to have found women friends and mentors in the photo industry, friends like Nancy Andrews, Annie O’Neill, Lynn Johnson and Judy Walgren. This past year has made it ever so clear that it is relevant to have exhibits and forums for women in art.  #MeToo

BB: Ewing’s advice to aspiring artists was “you’ve got to develop the skill of when to listen and when not to;” and “Leave. Gain perspective.”  What is your favorite advice you have received or given?

R: Discernment, which is the message given to Ewing, well, that’s a lifelong skill.  I hope to continue to cultivate it in my own life.  It’s critical in documentary photography. I’m working on a project right now where I have to worry for my life and safety.  Lynn Johnson said to me recently, “You have to have great intuition on when to leave, not just the scene, but possibly the project entirely."

The best advice I have been given is that you have to be passionate about a subject in order to work on a story/project for any length of time and with any depth.  Otherwise, the work is not sustainable. What leads my work is a desire for reconciliation, understanding, and connection.  

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A Knowing Intimacy: A photography exhibit by West Virginia women, curated by Elaine McMillion Sheldon, WVU Downtown Campus Library, 1549 University Ave, Room 1020, March 8-April 13, 2018.
March 8: Heroin(e) Film screening, 6:30pm, followed by panel discussion & reception, Room 104
Sponsored by
DaisyMoon Bakery

More information: exhibits.lib.wvu.edu, or email Sally Deskins, sbdeskins@mail.wvu.edu.

Sally Deskins is an artist, writer and curator. She currently serves as Exhibits & Programs Coordinator with West Virginia University Libraries. She also blogs at femmesfollsnebraska.tumblr.com. Wanna be interviewed? Email her at sallydeskins@yahoo.com.