This project, “Coal Hollow,” is about the people that the coal industry left behind. The point of entry into this unseen world is Beckley, West Virginia. A thin net of roads is cast southward over the deep furrows of the ancient, rolling Cumberland Mountains and coalesces along the bottomlands. The coal camps have idiosyncratic names, reflecting both immigration patterns and a haphazard approach to development: Jolo, Amigo, Oceana, Giatto, Yukon, Coalwood, Big Sandy, Johnny Cake Junction. The land is blessed with beauty and majesty. The blue ridges recede far into the distance, screens that partition the inhabitants into a private, isolated world.

Up close, West Virginia is a disturbing overlap of two parallel universes. One is the functioning universe of employed West Virginians, hoping to diversify their economy and their state by insisting on education for their children and working hard to develop tourism and business parks. These people work in the mines and in the government jobs that Senator Robert Byrd brought to the state. Their cozy brick homes sit on well-groomed lawns, with a late-model car in a driveway of newly poured asphalt.

The other West Virginia could be mistaken for a slum in some part of the Third World. Coal camps still line the creeks like peas in the folds of an apron, but they are shrunken and dried out. Dilapidated houses and trailers litter the hollows like piles of waste mixed up with denuded forest, jagged, abandoned swaths of strip mines, and toxic slurry ponds. Raw sewage flows down the creeks along some of the most beautiful mountains in our country. Clumps of toilet paper still cling to tree roots, left from the last floods. Big cities like Welch or Mullens that once teemed with a hundred thousand people or more are now cavernous, disintegrating mazes. Aging and disabled miners, their widows, and a lost generation of people who have never lived in a viable economy are hanging on, passing time in front of the TV or “settin’” on the porch. Anyone who could leave has already gone somewhere else to live and work.

Along with mineral debris, the coal companies left behind human slag. The broken earth and the broken people await reclamation.

-- Melanie Light

** Coal Hollow: Photographs and Oral Histories by Ken Light and Melanie Light is both a book published by the University of California Press and an exhibition currently at the International Center of Photography in New York City through February 26, 2006. For more information, please visit

All photographs and text copyright © 2006 Ken Light and Melanie Light