Dragline – Magnificent Photography Highlights Mountaintop Removal Mining
By Johnny Kilroy on February 10, 2010 From the Arts campaign
If I told you of a crack photojournalist embedded in a harrowing and dangerous adventure, you might first think of her ducking machine gun fire in a smoky combat theatre, or possibly documenting the indigenous people of some exotic jungle.
Dragline is the visual story of mountaintop removal coal mining in contemporary Appalachia. It’s a horror story that is closer to home than you may think – the hills and woods of your own country.
“It’s a war zone down here. It’s insane!”
TENTHMIL interviewed photojournalist author Laura Antrim Caskey about her new work, about the explosive situation in southern West Virginia, and about the importance of “long-form photojournalism.” She tells us,
“I learned so much, I educated myself, and I think, really, this subject radicalized me.”
With her 74 pages of shocking photographs and anecdotes, Caskey exposes the viciousness of the coal industry and the tenacity of the mountain people who are fighting for the right to exist.
In September 2008, Antrim left New York for the coal fields of West Virginia, the heart of the story. Embedded as an independent photojournalist within the Climate Ground Zero campaign base in Rock Creek, she reported on the MTR resistance movement for more than a year. She describes to us how, while working at the New York Indypendent, she got into the MTR story,
“They called me up to the front of the room, they were like ‘Hey, Antrim, someone from West Virginia’s here!’ It was Maria [Gunnoe] and she talked to me for about 45 minutes straight…she totally convinced me.”
Antrim Caskey is her own brand of exceptional photography. No one else has captured the tumult of MTR activism with the same poignancy (I know – I ‘ve tried). A seasoned hand, she has documented protests and social justice issues throughout her career, in New York City, Afghanistan, India, Appalachia and elsewhere.
“…this idea, the power of the picture, and the power of photojournalism which is…a dying art.”
In a sequence of near-tactile scenes, from the cover photo of a sludge impoundment to the young activists taking up the fight, from courtrooms to streets, from a Marsh Fork protest to explosions on Kayford Mountain, Caskey takes you on the ride she has be on with CGZ. She shows us a pristine Coal River Mountain and a devastated Kayford. We feel through their hardened eyes the experience of activists who have lived in coalfields for half a century, and some who only recently moved there to join the battle. We see faces twisted in anguish, twinged with resentment, becalmed with purpose, and grinning in quiet triumph. There are firebrands, cops, old timers, would-be martyrs, policy makers, assailants, and innocents. We meet the famous, the infamous, and the obscure.
“Because you’re the journalist, you’re witnessing all this stuff, and you see that laws are being broken, you see the corruption, you see the nepotism, and all of this outlaw behavior.”
She has been arrested several times for crossing property lines with activists to get the story up front. Massey Energy Company is battling Caskey in court, pending appeal, for violation of a temporary restraining order in spring 2009.
Caskey is Director of Appalachia Watch, a “long term documentary photography project” of photojournalism training, field reporting, and collaboration. It began in 2005, and with the release of Dragline it is seeking new interns.
Dragline is a jolting, crystal view into the mutilation of Appalachian beauty and liberty.
“This is the real news story…not just a story about poor Appalachia…it’s a global story.”
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, Caskey says,
“We’re seeing the shadow of the falling coal giant. Of course, it’s inevitable.”