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Shawn Poynter joined the Center for Rural Strategies in 2003 after spending several years working as a photographer at newspapers across the country. Originally hired as an administrative assistant, Poynter has worn many hats during his tenure with the organization, including content creation for the Daily Yonder and other projects, documenting rural news and events, and the creation of the Rural Archive, a collection of photographs representing rural America. He currently serves at the assistant editor for the Daily Yonder. But not for long. This Friday, Poynter is stepping away to return to a full-time career in photography.
Throughout his 15 years with Rural Strategies, Poynter has also pursued a freelance career in photography, making pictures for national publications such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Vox, and Propublica (to name a few), as well as commercial photography and portraiture. In 2015, he opened Poynter Photo Co’s photography studio in North Knoxville. As a full-time photographer, he plans to continue and broaden this work, as well as pursue personal creative projects.
He sat down with Dale Mackey (who is a Daily Yonder contributor and, coincidentally, his wife) to talk about what’s next.
Dale: So, let’s get to know Shawn. Where did you grow up?
Shawn: I grew up in Cave City, Kentucky, which is in Western Kentucky. Right near Mammoth Cave National Park, which is the longest cave in the world, turns out. It’s a town of probably 1,200, real tiny. It’s sort of between Louisville and Nashville, Tennessee, and it was just, you know, small town Kentucky. Growing up, I thought it was boring. Looking back we had plenty of high-jinx and mischief, you know, make-your-own-fun kind of town.
Dale: Tell me, if you would, a little bit about the difference between how Cave City was when you were growing up and how it is now?
Shawn: The biggest difference is that now I’m not there, so I think it’s probably way worse. No, you know, I’m not really sure. It’s a big tourist town, so in the summertime it’s overrun with people. And there are a lot a go-kart tracks and miniature golf courses. I guess, if anything, a lot of those places have disappeared over the course of the last 30 years.
Dale: I think I was asking you a leading question, because it feels to me as an outsider that didn’t grow up there, as a town that was once quite vibrant as a tourist town, it’s gotten a little quieter.
Shawn: I think that’s probably true. I think that’s probably true of a lot of towns that were built around attractions and tourism.
Dale: And how do you feel that informs your life now, coming from a small town?
Shawn: I think that the importance of community and having neighbors that you know, and can trust, and respect – that’s a big deal. Growing up there, people helped each other easily. Most of the folks on my little road were neighbors for a decade or more, and they all knew each other. It was kind of an idyllic upbringing. All of your neighbors kind of helped raise you. I was kind of a feral kid. I’d ride a bike to my neighbor’s house a few doors down and they would feed me, and vice versa. People would come to my house and we would just take them in.
Dale: So, what did you study at Western Kentucky University in 1994? What did you think you were going to be?
Shawn: I started out as a biology major, looking to be a podiatrist. I wanted to make a lot of money, and I figured there are no 1 a.m. corn emergencies, so I’d have regular hours. But, you know what? It turns out I’m pretty bad at chemistry, and physics, and math, so that really cut out some options for me.
Dale: So how did you find photojournalism?
Shawn: I think a friend of mine took a photojournalism class, and then he was like, “Oh, you’ve got to try it. It’s great.” Because he just loved it. So I took a class the next semester, and within two weeks I was major-changed. I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is great! You can make a living doing this?” And at the time you could.
Dale: At the time.
Shawn: Yeah, that was ’96 probably. So back then you could just go to school, and then get out of college and get a job at a paper and work your life away.
Dale: Which you did.
Shawn: Which I did. I ended up hating it because I hate shooting spot news, and car wrecks, and house fires, and you know…
Dale: And so then where did you go from there, when you realized that working for newspapers wasn’t your thing?
Shawn: I had friend who was from East Kentucky, and I was visiting her and thought I’d give living there a try. That’s when I moved to Whitesburg, the base of the Center for Rural Strategies.
Dale: Tell me about what time was like.
Shawn: It was pretty exciting. I was freelancing for the AP and for the Lexington Herald Leader in Kentucky. It was a lot of spot news stuff, and whatever I could pick up, local business stuff, and tourism stories, and features. And then I met the Rural Strategies crew and one of the employees was having a baby, and so I started filling in three days week, and that eventually turned into a full-time spot.
Dale: Did living in Eastern Kentucky feel different than Western Kentucky?
Shawn: I guess it felt pretty natural. You know, East Kentucky’s kind of unique. If you aren’t from there, it’s hard to feel like you’re really part of the community sometimes. Just because there’s so much history there. People would ask you, “Who’s your grandmother? Who’s your family?” And I’d tell them, “I’m from West Kentucky.” And it was like I’m from a different country, sort of. But people are people wherever you go, really, so that part wasn’t too difficult really. And having a camera, and a reason to be in a place, is universal. People want to tell their own stories if you ask them, and that’s fairly true everywhere, I think.
Dale: So, what have you been doing at Rural Strategies for the past 15 years?
Shawn: A lot of it’s been support work with people, projects. And I started the real Rural Archive, which is an image archive of small town pictures. They’re mostly by me, but I’ve also conscripted other people to come and donate pictures to us. That’s the contribution I’m the most proud of.
Now, with the Yonder, I am the assistant editor, and I do the website work, which is, to me, interesting. It’s a lot of digital publishing and social media marketing, that kind of stuff.
Dale: Working with the Daily Yonder, you’ve taken a lot of pictures of rural America. Do you think differently about shooting when you’re in a rural place versus a bigger city?
Shawn: I guess I do. I think it’s more the environment and how that affects you. A lot of things are easier in most small towns, it’s easier to talk to people, I think. One thing that I heard from a colleague was, “It’s much easier to park in rural America.” That’s kind of a brilliant insight I’d never really considered. You can just be driving and if you find a picture you want to take, you just pop the car over and you’re parked. But if you’re in a city, it’s circling a block and trying to get a space. So just logistically it’s easier in most small towns. But yeah, again, people are people, and mostly what I shoot is people, so that part feels pretty similar to me.
Dale: So, looking forward. Tell us what’s in store for you as you strike out on your own.
Shawn: It’s kind of cool because the Daily Yonder’s headquarters is a space right above my photo studio, so I’ll be literally 10 feet from Tim Marema, the editor of the Daily Yonder, and Whitney Coe, my co-worker. So it feels like I’m not going too far, and I do hope to still do work with Rural Strategies in the future. I’m really interested in doing more rural stuff on my own, that hopefully they’ll be interested in it. So I hope there are more collaborations ahead.
I would also really like to do work that is people-based. I want to do more formal portraiture of people, maybe even on large format film.
Dale: Yeah, why portraits?
Shawn: I like people. I like talking to them. That’s where the story is, right? I mean really all stories are people stories, so just get to the source. If you’re shooting landscapes, if you’re shooting people working, if you’re shooting buildings, it’s all kind of about people in some way. Or you can tie it back to people because that’s our experience. And so our whole life is framed through people we know, and have met, and the ones we hear about, and read about, and see on TV. So, as a journalist, people drive my work. Everybody’s so interesting. You can get good stories from anyone. You can pick a random person off the street and they have interesting stories, and they have something to say.
Dale: I’m going to shift gears a little talk about your process. When you go on an assignment, are you trying to capture more than a moment? Personally, I look at so many of your photos and they communicate a lot more than just documenting your subject. It’s not just a moment; it feels like you’re really telling a story. Are you trying to do that in the moment when you take a picture? Or are you just taking a picture?
Shawn: A lot of the time I’ll take a picture and, to me, it means a little bit more because I have my own biases. We all do. So maybe it means one thing to me, but you’ll see it and have a different conclusion. That’s fine.
But, yes, I do that. I think everyone does that. I think writers do it, painters do it, photographers do it. You kind of try to get at something bigger with a small picture. You can’t capture everything, but you can capture a feeling, or a mood, or hint at something. So, that’s the goal. But it’s actually rare when it happens.
Dale: During these last few days at Rural Strategies, what’s on your mind?
Shawn: I’m indescribably grateful to have been surrounded by people who are so smart, and so dedicated, and just so interesting. Everybody I work with is fascinating and competent and funny. It’s crazy to work somewhere for so long and have the kind of co-workers I’ve had. To work beside people for 15 years that you just love, that’s like … that never happens. I’m the most fortunate person ever. It’s really bittersweet. I’m excited and terrified, and sad, and happy.