Before I went to Appalachia, I knew it was a land ravaged by the coal mining industry and rife with poverty. When I got there, I was struck by how this area of the United States seemed like an entirely different country. The people told me their stories of struggle and hardship, and how they survive in such an unwelcoming environment. According to the above Appalachian woman, the way to make a living is “To sell things you can’t buy at WalMart.”
A few years ago I received a Julia Dean scholarship that launched my adventures in Appalachia. Once there, I rented a Subaru and drove around, documenting everyday life. The images I captured show the lives of people who, quite honestly, seemed to be victims of natural resource industry. I could see how logging and mining stripped the land, how floods consumed towns, and how people eke out a living in this mountainous setting. Poverty is everywhere. Decaying equipment and cars are scattered about, left to rot with the people the industries have forgotten.
What I found fascinating were the huge economic shifts that occurred because of coal mining and logging. Appalachia was once a place for millionaires. In fact, the little town of Bramwell, West Virginia, once had the most millionaires per capita. People lived in mansions and enjoyed a life of luxury. Fast forward 100 years, and most coal mining companies are gone. People live in overcrowded houses. Children play in cars that haven’t run for years. But most surprising of all is that this landscape is only a few hours’ drive from several of our country’s major metropolitan areas.
I’m so thankful for the people of Appalachia who let me into their lives. Without their trust and support, I wouldn’t have been able to showcase such an unseen glimpse of American life.