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Matinee: 'Dennis Welsh's West Virginia Coal' Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

28 November 2020

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 372nd in our series of Saturday matinees today: Dennis Welsh's West Virginia Coal.

In this 3:07 video, New England photographer Dennis Welsh decides to go to West Virginia to take portraits of coal miners. He was not welcome. "Absolutely not," the told him when he offered to take portraits of the workers.

It was not unexpected. Another outsider looking to exploit West Viriginia.

It wasn't always that way, though.

We're going to make it clear that we don't want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we've got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don't want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.

Who said that? Hillary Clinton in 2016. While her adversary was promising the pipe dream of a revitalized coal industry as cheap natural gas from the fracking boom was decimating the sector, she was looking ahead, not behind.

It was lost on West Virginians, who voted for the charlatan. Four years later, he's done nothing for them. Nothing at all.

Clinton was correct that those jobs were not coming back or, as Welsh puts it, the industry is twilighting. She proposed a $20 billion plan to invest in job training, small-business development and infrastructure. It would also have safeguarded miner healthcare during the opioid crisis and pension plans.

Just imagine.

Welsh had no agenda when he went to West Virginia. He just likes to take photos of the people who do the hard work of this world. Like coal miners.

The first day he set up, only one miner took advantage of the opportunity to have his portrait taken. The second day, seven showed up, then 20, then 50. "It started to take on a life of its own," he says.

There are smiles in these portraits. And downcast eyes as well.

Welsh started the sessions with a conversation so he could get to know his subjects before he ever snapped the shutter.

Almost every one of these coal miners was the son of a coal miner who had been the son of a coal miner.

That impressed Welsh. Pride and tradition. Unnoticed.

But it is also what prompts us to view these portraits in a wider context. As the coal mining industry contracts, what opportunity will the children of these coal miners have to better themselves and provide for their own families?

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