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,
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
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 www.coalhollow.org