Photos by Ole Bye
These photos aren’t what I planned to show here, but that is what makes them special to me. I was hoping to complete a comprehensive photo essay on some socially relevant issue in the Appalachian region, but I discovered that I would need years to really get the kind of story I wanted. These photos are what happened in the meantime, on the side, and without thorough planning. They are glimpses, memories, of the coalfields region of western Virginia and West Virginia.
I’ve been coming to the coalfields since I was fifteen, mostly to chase and photograph the trains here. I have been a railfan since I was a kid, and I still enjoy photographing and watching trains. Over the last several months, on trips into the coalfields with my friend Donnie, I began turning my camera away from the trains. Because the purpose of these trips was the enjoyment of trains, I wasn’t worrying about the technical aspects of my photography like I usually do. The elimination of this worry helped these photos to flow and be reflexive and therefore more personal. Shooting in this situation has been a revelation and I feel like I have been opened up creatively.
These photos are a truer vision of Appalachia - my Appalachia - than my documentary attempt. It’s not that they’re any less fictitious than documentary photos, but that they’re less intentional, and therefore, created with less preconception. Sure, raising the camera to your eye belies an act of preconception, but in this case, I feel that my preconception has come not from the hope of digging into a juicy story which might please and interest others, but from a part of me that wonders at things without asking for a journalistic explanation.
To present a documentary project would have been an act of inter-personal communication, intended to convey a distinct message and elicit a distinct response. In this case, however, I am really speaking to myself about my experiences in Appalachia. Naturally, I hope the viewer responds positively to my work, but that is not my foremost consideration. The story in these photos is about me and about a sense of place, rather than something specific like men or frozen lakes or hawks.
No photos or words can convey the weight of memory. They can only hope to elicit memory, to call it forth from the depths of our selves. Each person has a different past to draw from, but everyone knows the feeling of loosening, of revelation, when those memories begin to rush back to the surface. Everything we see is overlaid with them, everything we know to be true.
Everything I feel about Appalachia - its mystery, its earthiness, and its duration – is in me, and some of it is in these photos. I don’t expect others to respond to them in the same way because they are my own myth about Appalachia. I’ve never seen a toothless pipe smoker rocking gently on his front porch as he picks the banjo and curses Yankees, but I have seen a forlorn looking mannequin imprisoned in a shop window and steps that lead nowhere. I have seen the sun burn fog from the New River Gorge, I have seen poor children smile, I have felt the weight of a trout, I have seen land destroyed, and I have witnessed a heavy train crawling up the grade in the rain and these are the things I want to remember.
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