In an essay titled, A Profession of Literary Faith, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges writes, “My postulate is that all literature, in the end, is autobiographical.” To apply the statement to any work of art, fiction or not, is illuminating and contextualizing. The story, regardless of the subject, is first found inside the storyteller.
The biography of Rich-Joseph Facun would include, among other things, that he is of Filipino and Indigenous Mexican descent. In Black Diamonds, his most recent body of work, his photographs appear to be centered on the land, the people and the culture of his hometown in Appalachia. Given the nature of his biography, the story necessarily changes. Not only is this a documentary of an often marginalized and misunderstood region of America, but now Black Diamonds is also a reflection on how the artist from a vastly different heritage reflects on a culture not immediately his own.
In the following interview for LensCulture, Justin Herfst speaks with Rich-Joseph Facun about his experience making the work, his relationship with Appalachia, and how the meeting point between identities can be explored through the camera.
Justin Herfst: What is the significance of the title of the book?
Rich-Joseph Facun: The ‘Little Cities of Black Diamonds’ refer to the coal mining boomtowns of the Appalachia region of southeast Ohio—an enduring term used by locals and historians to reference the micro-region where I live. Black Diamonds is derived from this term.
The title is also intended to be a poetic reference to the people of this region. They are diamonds in the rough. A community of folks, full of potential, utilizing their immediate resources to shape and define their lives.
JH: From what I understand, you come from Filipino and Indigenous Mexican descent. How did you come to live in Ohio?
RJF: My dad was a sailor in the US Navy and was stationed in Long Beach, California after immigrating to the US. This is where he and my mother met. Eventually they ended up in Pensacola, Florida with my older sister, which is where I was born. Soon after we moved to Virginia, Mississippi, and then back to Virginia where they settled.
Once I finished high school I moved around a lot on my own. Eventually, I returned to Virginia where I enrolled in a photography class. During an extracurricular workshop I had the honor of being taught by the legendary Bill Eppridge, amid others. At the end of the week-long course, he and other instructors encouraged me to pursue photojournalism as a career. I wasn’t sure what that really meant. But it felt right, so I applied to several universities. I ended up attending school at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.
Decades later after moving about every two to three years—including a stint living in Abu Dhabi, my wife and I decided we wanted to plant some roots. We wanted to find a place to call home for us and our children. We had a checklist of what was important for us to have for our family in terms of lifestyle and community. Eventually, we found our way to Ohio where I attended university. I left my career as a photojournalist and began working in communications and marketing for the university. We eventually bought some land and a small cabin in the former coal mining town of Millfield which is where we live now.
JH: What led you to begin the work in Black Diamonds?
RJF: I had been living in Ohio for two years and had purposely stopped making photographs during that time. After 15 years as a fulltime photojournalist, I needed a break, I needed to take some time to reflect. Time to rest. I was also starting to homestead, enjoying the predictable nature of a 9-5 job, spending quality time with my family, and skating with a new crew of folks I had met in Ohio. These were all things I didn’t get to enjoy as much when I was working in media. It was therapeutic to not think about photography. To not have to make images. To not have to focus on building my career. To not have to be on call around the clock. Leaving photojournalism felt like one of the best choices I had made in my life.
That said, as time passed, I began feeling disconnected and unaccountable to my community. In the past, being a fulltime photojournalist essentially gave me a free pass to knock on the door of any topic that interested me. With press credentials I could meet people and photograph them simply because I worked for the media. I could know my neighbors, my community. I missed this sense of connectivity. I also started ‘seeing’ images again. I would drive through some of the rural towns I photographed in Black Diamonds and catch myself framing scenes, composing images in my mind. I eventually forced myself to get back on the saddle and become acquainted with my new home. I wanted to engage with my community again. I did so through the use of my camera; it was a natural and organic progression.
JH: Tell me more about this progression. How did the project evolve from its first iteration to book form?
RJP: Initially, the work was simply a way to feel connected and accountable to my community. However, unlike news photography, I didn’t begin the project with a preconceived narrative or intent to illustrate a social, economic, or political issue. I was not objective in my approach. I was making images from a subjective frame of mind, responding to my emotions. I allowed the work to unfold at its own pace, void of definition or empirical intent. This all started in January of 2018.
I also chose to redefine my work as a photographer. I wanted to grow my craft and challenge myself to attempt an aesthetic that I had not done formally in my past. Unlike my work as a photojournalist, I was not looking for the decisive moment. I turned away from using moody Rembrandt lighting—something I often did as a photojournalist, almost to a fault.
As the work grew, I realized that what I was making had taken on a life of its own. Yet, I was uncertain if others would see the same value and quality in the photographs that I was seeing. Eventually, I shared the images with my wife Jasmine and a few close and trusted friends. Thankfully, they were encouraging, their words were my saving grace. My wife and these close friends became my editors and sounding board throughout the project. Eventually, I started sharing some of the photographs on Instagram. The series began receiving attention and was published by the Washington Post and FeatureShoot. Soon after, I realized that I had enough content that potentially could amount to or justify pursuing a book project.
JH: Black Diamonds marks a shift in your previous work, taking a more personal direction. How did your approach to your subject matter change over the course of working on the project?
RJP: Initially, the work was looking at the Appalachian culture, heritage, historical sites, communities, and individuals of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds region within the context of a post-industrial era. As our social and political climate changed in the US during the making and editing of the work, I changed too.
In the past, I had a great reluctance to broach the fact that I was a person of color—I didn’t want it to influence the way my work was perceived or received. I wanted my images to stand on their own merit. However, as violence against the BIPOC community rose and the BLM movement grew momentum, coupled with the isolation of COVID, allowing time for reflection, I reconsidered the suggestion two of my editors made—to introduce, publicly, that Black Diamonds was made through the eyes of a person of color. They gave me convincing reasoning and points that felt valid.
At this point, for me, my work took on another layer of depth and meaning. It was offering a look at this micro-region of Appalachia through the eyes of a person of color. I often asked myself, “Am I safe here? How will Appalachia receive me?” On another level, I felt a need to make sense and find clarity on the blame being placed on Appalachian folks for Trump being elected into the presidential office. I wondered, was Appalachia truly a racist haven as often stereotyped by outsiders? However, to be clear, the work is not intended to define all of Appalachia. It is simply one person’s experience. Around late 2019 or early 2020 I signed a book deal with Fall Line Press. Through the final editing and sequencing of the Black Diamonds I kept the aforementioned close to my heart and at the forefront of my mind.
JH: When it came to selecting images for the book, what were you looking for in a photograph?
RJF: Being that the work was coming out of a region in Appalachia, I did my best not to saturate the content with opioid and poverty porn. A lot of photography has come out of this area regarding those topics, I wanted to add a different element to the conversation as opposed to what has already been told. That said, I also attempted to select images that were honest. It was equally important to me that some of the photographs offered visuals that were unexpected and not contrived.
JH: How did the community respond to you and your camera?
RJF: Throughout the entirety of the process the majority of folks were supportive. In fact, of the many places I’ve worked domestically and abroad, here in Appalachia, I found some of the kindest people. Even those who declined having their portrait made were pleasant and giving of their time. Local members of regional historical organizations were enthusiastic about the project. When I approached them in search of archival images of the region they were extremely accommodating and went above and beyond to lend assistance. More than once I was offered the opportunity to be taken on personal tours of each village/town.
As the book was coming into fruition, I often received messages via social media, email and texts thanking me for the work I was doing in the region. I cherished every word of encouragement that I have received from this community. From my perspective, their approval then and now is the highest degree of compliments I can hope to receive.
That said, about one month into the project, I did experience a small degree of conflict. A few days after making a portrait of a woman and her daughter I found out through a colleague that a Facebook post describing me and the vehicle I was driving had gone viral on a local level. The woman stated that a Mexican man approached her and tried to take her picture. She said that she declined. The post went on to paint me as a child predator.
Initially, I intended to ignore the drama. However, as it began to gain momentum and go viral, I decided that I needed to respond. My motivation was to first let people in the community know that they were safe and that I was not a predator. Secondly, I felt like my well-being could be at risk. Her description of me and the truck I was driving coupled with the fact that I’m (to some degree) an anomaly here made me an easy target. Thankfully, I received an outpouring of support. Ironically, because of the incident, more than one person invited me to come out and photograph them and their family.
JH: What did you learn about yourself in terms of your relationship to this community while making Black Diamonds?
RJF: Black Diamonds allowed me to meet some of my community, my neighbors, even if for a brief moment. During that time and even today, I feel accepted and welcome, even though I was and am an outsider.
I also learned that for too many years I have not afforded myself the luxury of claiming my own heritage as an Indigenous Mexican and Filipino. As a person of color, I always refrained from speaking my truth, my experience, I often turned the other cheek. Black Diamonds liberated my identity on a personal, esoteric level. I came to realize that my images were offering something unique simply for the fact that I am of the BIPOC community. This is a notion that I originally rejected. It took many long conversations with a close friend of mine, who is a photographer and white male, before I was convinced.
JH: The communities you photograph appear to be in their own way marginalized and forgotten. What did you learn as you worked?
RJF: I learned about the rich history of coal in the region, although it has mostly left the area, the heritage still runs deep. I found a community of resilient and resourceful folk. Many, the salt of the earth. I discovered that there were more similarities between the Appalachians and myself as opposed to differences. I came to call this place my home.
JH: Where did you find commonalities you didn’t expect?
RJF: Let me clarify. It wasn’t so much that I discovered similarities as opposed to confirming them. Prior to my career as a photographer, I was a blue-collar worker. I lived a working-class lifestyle—one that did not allow for amenities that those from a privileged standard of living are accustomed to having. Because of this life experience, I’ve always felt an affinity for the working class. I’ve gone without, like many of my neighbors here in Appalachia. Some of the commonalities I confirmed were abstract and others were general realities that many of us face. I’ve walked both sides of the tracks. I’ve worked two-three jobs, earning just enough to get by until the next paycheck. I’ve received government assistance for food and medical care.
But there was also a time in my life when I was making a very comfortable salary, I spent days off at the country club with my wife and kids, frequented five-star hotels, and took European vacations with the family. I left that lifestyle, it wasn’t for me.
Today, in Appalachia, I have found a balance of the two. This community is comprised of a diverse socioeconomic class of people, from working class to upper middle class. The commonalities are simple. We all simply want to live free, care for our families, educate our youth, and prosper. The one specific commonality I discovered was the communal support, kindness, hospitality and nonjudgmental character of folks that I met here in Appalachia. It mirrored the relationships I try to build with strangers, neighbors, and those I interact with on a daily basis. I was raised this way—in this part of Appalachia it feels like they were too.
JH: How was your relationship to the work and to yourself impacted when you decided to be public about your own heritage? And did this decision influence the final production?
RJF: I don’t think the relationship to my work necessarily changed once I expressed publicly that it was from the eyes of a person of color. For me, I always knew where I stood with myself and who I am; the work has always held the same value for me. However, my relationship with myself was impacted in that I was open to accepting and recognizing that my work did offer a unique and uncommon perspective because of who I am.
Does that add value to the series? I would think so. At the very least, it adds another layer of complexity to the book. I should mention, there is another underlying thread woven into the work, but I have opted not to voice it. I’ve tried to leave room for interpretation. As I said before, ambiguity can propel independent thought. That’s a good thing, I think.
That being said, I now feel compelled to assist BIPOC folk to find avenues to publish their work in book form. There is a toxic imbalance in the industry; the percentage of work produced or published by white males far outweighs that of any other demographic. Society needs to have a greater accessibility to visual documentation and expression from all members of humanity. Balance is key.
On another note, I’m still concerned about the work being valued for its merit as opposed to my being a person of color. As I contemplated my voice, I ended up tweaking the final sequence and added two or three additional photos that subtly spoke to diversity and inclusion. There was already an underlying degree of the aforementioned in the previous edit, but I felt the need to strengthen it from a whisper to a gentle note. Therefore, the decision to speak publicly did influence the final sequencing.
JH: In what ways do you think photography is uniquely positioned to open up the conversations you are having around heritage and marginalization?
RJF: I feel that photography has the power to inform, educate, and inspire action. In the past, when working as a photojournalist, I’ve experienced the immediate response that has come from self-generated, long-form projects. The subjects I worked with on these stories were often uplifted in one way or another whether it was monetarily, emotionally, or both. Not to mention, those within the community who were moved by the work inherently changed.
Historically, photography has been uniquely positioned to open up the conversations about an infinite number of subjects including conversations around heritage and marginalization. In contemporary society, the power of visual communication has multiplied exponentially. The tools used to disseminate information have expanded from print to digital; it is a matter of utilizing these tools effectively and appropriately. We are in an age of boundless modes of delivery.
With Black Diamonds, creating a book format of the work was, in my opinion, the appropriate format in presenting and delivering this conversation. Placing it within a book format forces the viewer to put down the phone, to step away from their computer, and to be still. To find a space to sit, turn each page, read and reflect at a pace much slower than we have come accustomed to in today’s society.
JH: Is there anything in particular you would like the audience to know about your work that has not been covered here yet?
RJF: I would emphasize that in no way, shape, or form is this body of work intended to be a visual representation of the be-all-and-end-all to life in Appalachia. That was not my intent. Nor is it my intent to present the work in the context of an objective journalist working with a set of theoretical ethics. In its most rudimentary form, it is work crafted by one person, with one subjective point of view within a micro-region of Appalachia.
What I saw, experienced, and documented was my personal perspective driven by curiosity and the unknown. My intent was never to define Appalachia. I simply wanted to share my story and experience, with minimal explanation, in an effort to allow others to interpret the work, experience it on a personal level, and come away with something new to think about. I hope when folks view the work, they see it within the context of the aforementioned. Ambiguity can propel independent thought.