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Irasburg photographer John Miller on approaching neighbors with curiosity, humility

A black and white image of a man in glasses
John Miller, Courtesy
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John Miller is a documentary photographer. He grew up in Coventry village and now he lives in Irasburg. Since the 1970s, he's been taking pictures that chronicle the lives of people in the Northeast Kingdom.

John Miller is a documentary photographer. He grew up in Coventry Village and now he lives in Irasburg. Since the 1970s, he's been taking pictures that chronicle the lives of people in the Northeast Kingdom. They are beautiful, unsentimental pictures. And it's pretty much impossible to take beautiful, unsentimental pictures of people without a good measure of humility and curiosity. In other words, you have to enter into the world of someone else on their own terms, which is why I wanted to talk with him for this series. Admittedly, asking people, "What class are you?" is a vague and also offensive question. But I find that it leads to really interesting conversation about this awful cultural turmoil we're experiencing right now. Which is something John had a lot to say about.

This story is the second installment of a five-part series called "What class are you?" Follow the series here.

Here's John Miller.

John: "'Class’ to me is the worst possible word you could use. I would use the word ‘rage.’ Rage. It is something that we have all experienced, particularly magnified in the last four or five or six years. I have never experienced rage as I have seen, heard. It could be on television, or through social media. Driving down the road in the last few years, the paved roads are covered with black tire marks, ripping all through the roads. The visual evidence of rage is phenomenal out there right now. It’s frightening. There's a frustration that is so deep. People going down the street, squealing. And in a small community, a small back street. But sometimes when they go by and you see, they see a person outside, they step on the pedal and make even more noise. And you bring up the word ‘class.’ It's not necessarily haves and have-nots, because we're talking about $50,000 pickups squealing by, so there's something underlying right now and I feel it and it’s very intense."

"You have to get out of your protective shell. And when you do these things, you become stronger, and life becomes just, I think you just become more positive, because you become more human. You must be willing to enter into the lives of others and be willing to listen."
John Miller

Erica: "You said initially that class isn't the right question. Does the word 'class'… is it a springboard to something better, or more clear?"

John: "Again, the word class for me is a word that’s demeaning, very demeaning. Because I would like to think that I'm no better than anybody. I grew up in Coventry. I went to the grade school in Coventry and mainly the students with whom I was in school were French Canadian and they were all on small farms in the outlying parts of the town. And I — in a way I was very spoiled — because I lived right in the village, and I got up at 7:30 in the morning and ate breakfast and then walked up the street to the school, whereas the kids who came in from outside of town had done two hours of chores probably before I even gotten out of bed. And as young kids, I think we played and we had fun with one another. But they were farm kids and we were village kids. And we didn't in any way look down on them. They were really great at what they did. And the farmers were very skilled at what they did. And I know my parents very much respected these people because my parents had certain skills, but they didn't begin to have the skills as local people did."

Erica: "So you grew up in in Coventry with an inherent respect and interest in the Quebecois families who were farming in the area. When we jump to now, has there been more cultural division in recent years in Vermont that you notice?"

John: "Yes, there have been changes in numerous ways. For instance, we used to have more clubs than we do now. The congregations of churches. I mean, I never remember ever going to any church anywhere, anytime where politics were ever discussed, ever. You talked about the community.

"We respond to superficial things instead of deep things. When we used to have conversations with people, you dealt with all the stuff. It's like a close, intimate relationship. But when you're superficial, like you see something outside of somebody's house and respond, ‘Well I'm not going to deal with them,’ right? We want to say, ‘OK, that person represents something that we don't like,' as in ‘bad,' right? But what if you find that that person actually does immense amounts of volunteer work in a community and you are classifying that person based upon that some form of identity statement out there hanging off their front door? And even a worse scenario, the only way you interact is through some social media where you hit a button on your cell phone. You're not even talking physically. You don't even hear the person's voice. You don't feel the person’s warmth if you're in their proximity…none of that stuff.

More from Vermont Public: Kytreana Patrick on growing up working class in the NEK and taking what 'mental vacations' you can get

"We're always going to have differences, but differences used to be something that could be resolved. Now differences are things which seem to be amplified to a point that it's unresolvable, which is not so. So I think one of the ways with which to work toward more harmonious ways that communities and people can interact is to find one's shared interests with others, right? That there is going to be all kinds of diverse perspectives on things, but find things with which you and your neighbor have a mutual interest. And I'm sure there's something and it could be profoundly so. And don't be fearful about what the result might be. You have to get out of your protective shell. And when you do these things, you become stronger, and life becomes just, I think you just become more positive, because you become more human. You must be willing to enter into the lives of others and be willing to listen."

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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