State

Life after coal in Appalachia through the eyes of a Kentucky photographer

A cluster of homes are seen among an expanse of trees and kudzu from an overpass in Martin, Ky., on Friday, September 22, 2017.
A cluster of homes are seen among an expanse of trees and kudzu from an overpass in Martin, Ky., on Friday, September 22, 2017. The GroundTruth Project

Editor’s note: This story is part of Crossing the Divide, a cross-country reporting road trip from The GroundTruth Project and WGBH. The team of five reporters is exploring issues that divide us and stories that unite us. Follow their trip across America at xthedivide.org.

I’ve always had a complex relationship with Kentucky. It’s home but I’m not a native. I don’t romanticize it but I defend its reputation. I have a flat midwestern accent but identify as a Southerner. I’ve experienced wealth in the landscape but have met few that were rich.

The more I grew in my craft, the more enraged I became about how Appalachia was portrayed.

I no longer viewed the photos of dirty children and toothless seniors as an interpretation of the region. I felt like it was just another trophy for someone to put in their portfolio. I saw photography that exoticized the people but lacked substance.

As I reported in Eastern Kentucky last month, I turned my camera elsewhere, not to ignore the problems but to present complexities that many Kentuckians identify with. I wanted to present the most honest representation of reality that I could, as someone who came of age in the region.

I decided to narrow the focus of my photography to the story of life after coal. However, rather than highlighting how devastated these communities were, as we’ve seen time and time again, our team wanted to offer something different. We wanted to ask, “yeah, but what else?”

My photography in Kentucky comes down to a simple concept: it’s about relationships. It’s about relationships to the earth and how easily the mountains will humble a person. How religion has not only functioned as a driver of culture but a beacon of hope. How communities intertwine and how individuals are forced to fill the gaps when the rest of the country has failed them. It’s about a loss but also a light in the near future. It’s about raising questions rather than having all the answers.

Kentucky_Final_02
Lizzie Jones, 17, proudly wears her father’s employee-of-the-month jacket from his time working at the coal mines. Nearby is a shelf of her family’s relics from the coal industry at her home in Eastern Kentucky on Sunday, September 24, 2017. Jones’ father died from black lung in 2014. In January of 2017, her mother, who also worked in the coal mining industry, died. Jones said she has plans on moving into the home they once shared and has developed a complex relationship with the coal industry that both built her community and stole her parent’s life. Brittany Greeson The GroundTruth Project

Kentucky_Final_03
A cross in honor of a man named Steven Michael Allen is nailed into a wall of rock along US 23 near Tram, Ky., on Sunday, September 23, 2017. Brittany Greeson The GroundTruth Project

Kentucky_Final_04
An electrical pole is over powered by kudzu in Hi Hat, Ky., on Friday, September 22, 2017. Brittany Greeson The GroundTruth Project

Kentucky_Final_07
Pro-gamers spend their evening tactfully planning their next moves at the University of Pikeville’s ESports Arena in Pikeville, Ky., on Thursday, September 21, 2017. The university has offered scholarships to the students who are classified as student athletes on campus. Brittany Greeson The GroundTruth Project

Kentucky_Final_10
Mary Sloane, an English teacher at Floyd Central High School, prays for a member of her congregation at First Baptist Church in McDowell, Ky., on Sunday, September 24, 2017. Brittany Greeson The GroundTruth Project

Kentucky_Final_11
A McDonald’s restaurant sign greets visitors to Pikeville, Ky., on Friday, September 22, 2017. Brittany Greeson The GroundTruth Project

Kentucky_Final_15
Floyd Central High School cheerleaders form their pom-poms into a heart shape for a group photo before a football game in Langley, Ky., on Friday, September 22, 2017. Brittany Greeson The GroundTruth Project

Kentucky_Final_18
Thomas Morgan, 32, steadily lifts swaths of tobacco to be hung to dry at the Robinson Center for Appalachian Resource Sustainability in Quicksand, Ky., on Monday, September 27, 2017. Brittany Greeson The GroundTruth Project

Kentucky_Final_20
Paisley Jarvis, 2, peeks out the window of her father’s living room in Langley, Ky., on Tuesday, September 26, 2017. Brittany Greeson The GroundTruth Project

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments