August 12, 2009 / Photo Shoots
An Unseen Glimpse of American Life
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.
It’s actually quite funny to see these, along with this description about my hometown being so rife with destitution… My sister is the girl in the purple, her best friend in the distance, so considering that I grew up in the area, when I say this post is 100% over-exaggerated, my opinion has a fair amount of clout. When you want to find negativity of the world, it will always be there to be exploited. I’d also like to take note that most of these pictures are not in fact considered to be within Bramwell limits, just as a clarification. It’s actually pretty offensive to have a truly quaint place that I am deeply found of portrayed as the dregs of the nation. So, with that being said, when looking at the images, keep in mind that this is not a true representation of the Appalachia that I, born and raised, am familiar with. This is primarily an outsiders illusion to what is typically preconceived, rather that any kind of real analysis. Again, it is entirely too easy to focus on the negative outliers and ignore the all the whisperings of reality.
I really appreciated this post. There are areas of Kentucky which also experience the same level of poverty if not greater. Thank you for sharing this glimpse of reality. If you’ve never read the Glass Castle you should pick it up. It is the memoirs of a girl who basically grew up in these mountains of WV. I think you would really appreciate it.
I’ve seen these before Catherine but just looked at them again, and wow, I just love these shots. So personal, intense, really well done. Wonderful.
Wow! These are fantastic – I love the use of color and angle. You get such a sense for these people. Nice work.
Thank you everyone for your words of encouragement – they are GREATLY appreciated!!!
Absolutely amazing! Outstanding series!
Wow Catherine! Magnificent images. I’m speechless.
WoW! Absolutely amazing! Reading your blog post gave me goosebumps. Thanks to you I realize how sheltered we can be in our own lives. I wish I knew how to get started doing projects like these. Thank you for making me appreciate what I have in my own life and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.
Dear Laura, Thank you so much for providing this post with a more nuanced accounting of the Appalaichian region. You are more than right–this editorial piece is definitely constructed from the vantage of an outsider. I portrayed only a sliver of the realities of your community and never intended for it to be comprehensive. You are right that it’s easy to focus on the negative, but the lives captured in these images aren’t negative–they are the beating heart and vibrant life of a part of America that has long gripped the popular imagination. The collection is not condemnatory nor celebratory, but rather a subjective, deeply-personal record of my lived experiences in Appalaichia…nobody else’s. That said, thank you so much for having invited me into your beautiful home. It was honor to meet you and your sister both. Wishing you all the best.