Classic American photojournalism in the style of Walker Evans and James Agee or Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor has become increasingly rare. Either it heads off into documentary or art territory like Robert Adams and John Gannis or it becomes more monographic like Mitch Epstein. Ken Light, director of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism Photography Department, hews more towards classic photojournalism. Known for his work on prisoners and the American Deep South, Texas Death Row (1997) and Delta Time: Mississippi Photographs (1995), his new book, Coal Hollow, created in collaboration with his wife Melanie Light, an oral historian, is a tour de force of the human face of the dark underbelly of American capitalism.

The extractive industries, mining, oil production, and so on, are the hardest, most dangerous laborious jobs imaginable, and coal mining is probably the worst. The work is brutal and the economics vicious. Human labour is expendable. We see this on a daily basis as miners die in a flash of methane or rush of water in China and elsewhere in the developing world. One forgets that coal mining in America is also subject to the brutalities of global capitalism. Warren McGraw, Justice for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and one of Ken Light’s subjects, says West Virginia is “a mere colony” where workers “are exploited for what [they] can do for people in other places.” Those people in other places, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Amsterdam and elsewhere, control both the economics of the coal industry and the politics of the region.

With global competition from other low wage areas, it is not surprising that the outside owners, the true colonists of West Virginia, treat the miners and the environment there as mere costs on a bottom line reckoned in plush board rooms and outsourced accounting offices. The people and the environment, the miners and the mined, are treated like exploitable resources. When the job is done, they are disposed of [see also Louie Palu’s story on mining in Canada, Living for Today, Vol.4 No.3] Not for nothing is Melanie Light’s introduction entitled “Slag” after mining’s waste products.

In an interview Ken Light remarks: “The idea is that this project is … about the human slag that is left after the mechanisation of coal. The real story is about the people, their life and humanity. This is a book that shares the faces and lives of this part of Appalachia. If we had a more visual story telling about this region rather than just statistical government information, maybe we would realise that we are talking about flesh and blood Americans, maybe our leaders and citizens would actually take a look.” As a result there are no numbers in
Coal Hollow, a composite portrait of the region, only beautiful, compelling portraits. The statistics, though, are damning. According to official West Virginia and U.S. Government figures from 2004, West Virginia ranks last in college graduates, more than 50% households have someone suffering from disabilities, least in average income per household, and worst in terms of unemployment in the United States.

Ken Light’s images are darkly beautiful portraits of miners, industry people, and their families taken over a period of four years. He gives the viewer the human faces of the people whom the industry and its representatives treat like so much slag. There are very few establishing shots here, just some ramshackle homes and poverty stricken towns hanging on to the sides of mountains with raw sewage pouring into creeks. Somehow, the legislators in Charles Town, the state capital, and in Washington, have found it all but impossible to build up the necessary infrastructure for its citizens. Then again, that is typically how the colonists have always treated those they exploit, in the diamond mines of South Africa or in the coal filled hills of West Virginia. 

Bill Kouwenhoven