Tell it on the mountain

A powerful new book of photos and oral histories documents the ravaged lives of West Virginia's coal miners.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz
March 23, 2006 4:22PM (UTC)
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On Jan. 2, 2006, when an explosion at the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, W.Va., trapped 13 men underground, the news media flocked to the site. Suddenly the coal mining communities of Appalachia -- rural outposts that the rest of the country usually regards with a mix of romanticism and ridicule -- found themselves thrust into the national spotlight. And for that moment, as Americans held their breath for the miners, the public caught a glimpse of the men and women and mountains that for decades have fueled the coal economy -- an economy that despite its enormous human and environmental costs, still supplies 50 percent of the nation's power. The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects that figure will rise to 57 percent by the year 2030.

Released just one month after the Sago disaster, "Coal Hollow" -- a new book of photographic portraits and oral histories collected by Ken and Melanie Light -- takes readers where the network news cameras left off, deep into the hills of southern West Virginia. The result of five years' work and hundreds of miles of travel, "Coal Hollow" is a social documentary rooted in the tradition of Farm Security Administration photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks. But instead of migrant mothers and Depression-era drifters, the Lights' subjects are heartbreakingly contemporary. Whether industry barons, retired miners, snake handlers, preachers or state Supreme Court justices, each of the men and women in the Lights' chronicle have lived their lives in the shadow of the free-market coal economy and watched it shape not only the topography of the hills around them, but also their families, their jobs and their towns.


In the introduction to "Coal Hollow," Melanie Light writes that the people of Appalachia have too long been treated like slag -- the waste that's left behind after the mining process is complete. Indeed, the evidence of decades of both corporate and environmental neglect litters Ken Light's luminous black-and-white images. It is in the creased and weary face of a mother hanging laundry, the skeletal, dust-streaked bodies of children at play, in three generations of families crowded atop sagging porches and inside rotting trailers. It is found in the black, blasted mountains and streams of raw sewage, and written on mossy tombstones and across the maimed hands of miners.

I spoke with the Lights by phone from their California home about globalization, the roots of the term "trailer trash," and why, despite the steep human costs, coal is still "king."

What drew you to this project?


Ken: I've had a long interest in photographing rural communities in America; in the past I'd done a book called "Delta Time," about rural Mississippi, and also a lot of work about immigrants and farmworkers coming into California over the Mexican border. But what drew me to West Virginia was that in 1999, when I began the project, the country was in a discussion about welfare reform. And at the same time as that conversation was happening, I began to see some statistics about West Virginia that pointed to it as a state with a lot of problems -- things like black lung disease, a high rate of people using smokeless tobacco, and in certain counties, very high suicide rates. I had photographed in West Virginia in the early '70s, because as a young student I had been to Buffalo Creek and photographed in the wake of the Buffalo Creek mine disaster. So it seemed like it might be a good site for telling an interesting story.

Did you find that people wanted to tell their stories?

Melanie: A lot of people, especially in the hollows, have felt so neglected at every level, that when someone comes to them and says, "Well, tell me what it's like to live here, and work or not work here," at first they are a little taken aback. They think, "Why does this person care about me?" But then they start telling their story, and as they tell it they actually become to value their own story because they realize that they have this very particular way of having lived in America, and it's something that nobody else has.


It's amazing to look at "Coal Hollow" and see so many similarities to work done in the 1930s by Walker Evans and James Agee and the FSA photographers. Most people, I think, tend to think of those Dust Bowl-era images as part of the past, but your photo of "Laura on laundry day" is an almost uncanny update of Dorothea Lange's famous migrant mother. Were you consciously trying to draw an allusion between the lives of the West Virginians and the Depression-era poor?

Ken: Well, I've been a photographer for 36 years and so I'm very conscious of the historical community of photographers that have gone out in America and documented similar subjects. So I don't set out to make a photograph that looks like Dorothea Lange's, but I think that those gestures and those faces are universal, and in fact the images that were made during that period were so powerful that they're really burnt into our brains.


A lot of people have made a comparison between the photo of Laura and the one by Dorothea Lange, which is obviously an incredible compliment. But I do believe that there is also an interesting twist in having pictures that look like they were taken in the 1930s and then having people realize that, in fact, they're modern -- they're from our time. Part of my interest as a photographer has been to make that connection and to show that there is a huge part of America that is really unseen and has gone largely unchanged, even generations after the Depression.

In your introduction you quote James Agee, who once said that there is something "obscene and terrifying" about people of privilege going into the lives of the underprivileged to pry out their stories. Going into the project did you fear your work would be seen as exploitative?

Melanie: I probably struggled with it more than Ken. I don't know that I ever felt I didn't have a right to be there, but I did feel that it was rather presumptuous of me. But the fact that we all partake in the use of these commodities -- particularly coal -- makes it so that we all really do have an obligation to understand exactly where they come from and how they work, from the very bottom of the supply chain all the way up to our table or car. And that idea was infinitely stronger than any of my self-absorbed questions about what my place was in people's lives.


Ken: I think for me, I've been in these communities for decades, so I know that I am privileged and I know that not only is it a great honor but also an incredible responsibility to be allowed into these worlds. People just open up their lives -- it's really quite remarkable -- they invite you into their houses, into their bedrooms, and they tell you their deepest secrets and their stories. They point to the holes in their ceilings and they ask you to take a picture because someone needs to help them. And, of course, partly with the privilege comes the ability to get that story out into the world. Because you have contacts and you can get a book published, it allows the information to get out. So with the privilege comes the responsibility of seeing that those stories are available not only for the present but also for future generations to witness.

Your photographs are simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking. Do you feel that there is conflict in making such luminous, craftsman-like images of suffering? Or is that just what it takes to get the public's attention?

Ken: You know, this is the way I make photographs, and I do understand that a photograph that draws a viewer in because of the craftsmanship of the image is ultimately what will get the work out into the world. Because you could beat editors over the head with these stories but it's hard to sell pieces about Appalachia -- you have to seduce them. But across the political spectrum, when you have a well-crafted, powerful image it can speak to someone's heart and their eyes and they see what you are trying to say.


Melanie, in the introduction you write that the fate of Appalachia represents a "cautionary tale." Can you explain what you mean?

Melanie: When I was doing this story it just struck me how often people in West Virginia refer to their own state as a banana republic. And it seemed to me that now, with the process of globalization -- not just in our country, but across global economic sectors -- there are so many more people facing the same risks of exploitation and disenfranchisement. As corporations increasingly have a global reach, they are less responsible to governments who have traditionally been the watchdogs. Now, in fact, governments are more in the position of having to cater to the corporations just to keep business in their regions -- and usually that ends up happening at the expense of the workers.

Now, our book is a rather dramatic example of a particular disenfranchisement that happened over a hundred years. What happened in West Virginia -- and what we're all at risk of having happen to us -- is that the government didn't require the corporations to diversify the economy, to put money into the towns that depended on them. There was no coal tax, there was nothing left behind; it was all literally and figuratively extracted from the region. So that when, as all industries do, the coal industry moved through its cycle, there was really nothing left behind.

Nothing left behind for both the people and for the environment?


Yes, exactly -- on both levels.

And later in the book you say that when you looked at some archival photographs from the region, shot in the '40s and '50s, you were surprised to see a real change in the people's faces -- that back then they just didn't seem broken in the same way. Is it that while even 50 years ago mining was still a tough, dirty job, people back then had more pride in their work and hope for the future?

Melanie: Yes. Back then they were the working poor. But they had a job and actually when I talked to people about that period they did say that they were happy and optimistic about the future. That was true all the way up into the early 1970s, when the mechanization of the coal industry really began to affect the communities. Then there was no going back. But up until then they really believed in the companies; they believed the companies would take care of them and that their kids would have jobs. They really believed that their role in the industry of coal would go on forever -- but it didn't. Then people just started leaving and as many people as could leave did leave. And the rest were just literally abandoned.

Why do you think these places still remain hidden from most of America?


Melanie: Well, they're quite isolated in a physical sense. I actually think that's one of the reasons why that level of exploitation could take place, because geographically and culturally they are really apart from the rest of the country.

Ken: One of the things that happened with the Kennedys and later with Lyndon Johnson during the War on Poverty was that a tremendous number of interstates were created, but those interstates basically bypassed these communities. So now you can get on the interstate and never get off the road and never see these small hollow communities, simply because there's no reason to do business there.

Melanie: And there is something cultural at work. Back in the 1600s when there was a westward expansion, the people who stopped in Appalachia were people who wanted to live apart; they were the mountain people. And that is still deeply ingrained in them today -- they want to be left alone. I mean, that is almost their informal state motto. They believe in live and let live. So they don't really have a cultural drive to connect, unlike, say, someone who grew up in Manhattan.

Do you think that now, post-Katrina, people's eyes are more open to the idea that true poverty persists in America? Are we finally ready to have a discussion about it?


Ken: We hope to be a part of that discussion. Americans need to see that while we shouldn't stop helping other countries, we also need to look inward. Melanie and I have done a lot of traveling, and in fact a few years ago we went to Turkey to do a series of lectures and I showed some of these photographs. And people's mouths dropped. They just couldn't believe this was America. They had never seen anything like it, because what they see on television is that everyone drives a BMW and lives in a McMansion. So not only is poverty hidden here, but it's also hidden from the rest of the world.

What's also interesting to think of in terms of Katrina is that Appalachia is actually where the term "trailer trash" originated. Most people don't know it but when a lot of the environmental disasters happened in the 1970s in this region, FEMA sent in trailers very early. And that's how people started living in trailers there, just like they are in New Orleans now.

When the Sago disaster happened, a month before "Coal Hollow" was released, all of a sudden the whole country was focused on West Virginia. Do you think that attention will bring any change to the lives of the people with whom you spoke? Or will it just fade away?

Melanie: It would take an act of God -- an even bigger act of God, I should say -- to draw some attention to them. I think what will happen, and has begun happening already, is that there will be a flurry of posturing around mine regulations. But that really is a separate issue because the detritus that we saw -- of both the people and the land -- is really the result of decades of negligence. I think this whole thing will die down because it's just so ingrained historically for people to ignore regulations in the coal industry.

You interview a retired coal miner who speaks at length about the open disregard for safety at every level of the industry -- from the government to the owners to the managers and even the miners themselves. I think a lot of people wonder why miners would allow themselves to be put in such risk.

Melanie: On some level it is really a product of the isolation of the communities; if this was going on in the [San Francisco] Bay Area or in New Jersey it'd be a different story. But then there's also a cultural part in that most Americans really do have a lot of prejudice about the working poor in the region. People really believe that the poor are different somehow, that they really don't mind the hardships they face. So, in order for real reform or change to happen we need a national outcry -- we need people to demand stewardship from corporations and the government in general.

Ken: I think it's also telling to look at Melanie's own personal experience coming into the project, because at the beginning, she didn't even realize we were still using coal in America. [Melanie laughs] I'm not making fun of her -- but Americans really don't have any concept of the tremendous amount of coal consumed, because it's taken out of these isolated communities and shipped by rail cars that most people never see. Part of starting to help these communities has to start with realizing that coal is still being used and the people and the land are still deeply affected.

I'll never forget when a retired miner showed Melanie a mimeographed sheet with a chart listing all the different things that come from coal; her mouth dropped.

What were some of the items on the list?

Melanie: You wouldn't believe it. Aspirin, toothpaste, lipstick, carbonated water -- because they use off-gassing to carbonate it -- leather dyes, asphalt, paint, paint thinner, roofing and building materials. Coal is used in over 3,000 things.

Do miners still take pride in their work? How did the people you met feel about their jobs?

Melanie: They're just happy to have a job. Working in a mine pays fairly well and I think if you have the option of that rather than no job, it's better to have a job. But I'm sure that if they had the option, they'd love to trade that in for a better job, because it's dangerous and it's rough. The problem is, though, that it's that or nothing. Most coal mining communities have no diversified economy -- stores, schools, everything is closing down.

Ken: I think people look back to earlier generations of their kin and they hear stories about how they lived in these neat little coal camps with a bowling alley and company stores, the company church, and the company doctors. The coal company was where your daddy and your grandpa worked and it was hard, dangerous work and people did die, but it was steady and there were communities. But slowly, as coal began to mechanize and companies began to realize they didn't need the people and they didn't need the company towns, they could let go of all those benefits that created a safety net and an infrastructure. So now people look back on those earlier days with awe, and with hope that it will come back. It never will come back, but in their minds those are the good old days.

What do you think the future looks like for these communities?

Ken: That's a hard question to answer. I think people do very much want to develop the areas and there are plans afoot to bring different factories or prisons or other industries in, but it's a huge challenge for many reasons. There's hardly any infrastructure there and it's hard to persuade people to go there. I mean, why would you move there from Chicago?

Is the problem that coal as an industry has run its course?

Melanie: Absolutely not. Coal is booming, companies are making a lot of money and bringing out more coal than ever before. They just don't need the workers. It's the human and the environmental factor that has collapsed. They are just blasting those mountains. For hundreds and hundreds of square miles, they are basically recontouring the Appalachian Mountains.

After a point isn't that sort of usage going to be unsustainable?

Melanie: Well, that's tricky. If the country decides that they can sacrifice Kentucky, West Virginia, Wyoming and other places where there aren't a lot of people...

You mean as a kind of collateral damage?

Melanie: Yes, exactly. If people will accept that, then there's no question that it will just go on. And right now a lot of the environmental laws that provide oversight are being rolled back. Again, it sounds so corny, but it's really the will of the people. If people don't wake up and say that it matters, then nothing will happen.

So what can people do?

Melanie: They can vote more, they can participate in the debate. In California, I thought that we didn't use much coal. But it turns out that because of the national grid, California actually uses about 25 percent coal to light my house, right now. People can be more politically active when measures come through about energy regulation at the state level and nationally -- just be a citizen, basically.

Coal is so noxious for the environment at every level -- the people who work in it are in danger; when you burn it, it wrecks the air -- that any way you slice it, it's a bad form of energy. Probably the smartest thing is to just try to bypass the coal industry, but there are all these new coal plants in the works. People can be good citizens by trying to vote them down.

You and I look at the poverty and the environmental impact and think, "OK, coal is the problem." But for so many of the people in your book, hasn't coal been the only answer?

Melanie: It is problematic. But they have other minerals. It is a very blessed region; they have hardwoods, they have a ton of things in the ground besides coal. If someone sat down and really gave it some attention, they would see there are alternatives.

But it's tricky. The West Virginia Coal Association has a ton of lobbyists and a lot of money and they basically use it to get their way. And they work the people, too; they keep them in fear. For instance, the first time George Bush ran for president, a lot of the campaigning had to do with promises that he'd bring coal back and that he'd bring jobs. Well, he did bring coal back, but not with the jobs.

Now, even after Sago, there are still violations being discovered and the companies just do what they want to do; they are very powerful. Sago is only the tip of the iceberg.

Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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