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Picturing The Future: A Coal Community’s Comeback

Jacob Dyer at the Coalfield Development Corporation site.
Rebecca Kiger
Jacob Dyer at the Coalfield Development Corporation site.

Can a photograph help a community grow?

One photographer is shedding some light on ongoing efforts in a region looking for some new ways to sustain itself.

Rebecca Kiger is a documentary and portrait photographer raised in West Virginia. The images she captures are often exceptionally emotionally evocative. She said it takes a lot of patience, and a little faith in both her process and her subjects.

“You have to imagine anything’s possible,” Kiger said while mousing over some of her recent images at her studio in Wheeling, West Virginia. “It allows these magical things to happen in the frame.”

Kiger went south in West Virginia this year to document new development projects in some of the communities hardest hit by the economic downturn in the coal industry. She focused on light and relationships to capture what she said was a hopeful scene.

“Photography is painting with light, basically,” Kiger explained. “I’m looking for lighting and once I have that, I’m trying to figure out how and I’m going to frame. Then the question I always ask: Why are you doing this?”

Kiger said even more than she loves photography, she loves people. What motivates her to capture compelling imagery is the desire to tell their stories. To find out if she hit her mark, we asked some of her subjects.

'Captures the Moment'

“Captures the moment, doesn’t it?” Danny Ferguson asked Jacob Dyer as they first glanced through a book of Kiger’s photos.

Ferguson is Dyer’s mentor at the Coalfield Development Corporation in Huntington, West Virginia. The two are looking at photos Kiger took while they were building a solar power training site in Kanawha County.

Rebecca Kiger

Jacob Dyer at the Coalfield Development Corporation site.

“It was a rough day that day, we was behind the gun,” Ferguson remembered.

He’s Coalfield Development’s Lincoln County crew chief. He explained that in the wake of the ailing coal industry, his organization is working to create diverse, next-generation jobs.

“I grew up in Lincoln County. That’s the whole reason I took this job,” he said. “I’d see all these kids with no possibilities, couldn’t get a job because everywhere they’d apply they’d say they want two to five years experience. Well how you gonna get the experience if no one will hire you?”

Teaching young people from the region like Jacob Dyer how to work with and install solar panels is one way Coalfield Development is hoping to support a more diverse economy.

“I’d prefer to stay here,” Dyer said, “stay home and be around my family. And help the economy, you know?”

Ferguson pointed to a black-and-white portrait of Jacob’s face. “That one picture says ‘Jacob.’ I’ve worked with him for a year and I’ve learned a lot about him,” he said. “That’s amazing. That’s what I would call a ‘wall-hanger.’”

Ferguson said while working, they barely noticed Rebecca Kiger. But he does remember talking with her during lunch.

“She was trying to find out more and she took what she found out and actually said it in a picture," he said. "To me, that’s amazing.”

Rebecca Kiger

Jacob Dyer on the job installing a new solar site in Kanawha County, West Virginia.

Hopeful Outlook

“I probably listened to and shared more than I ever have on any other assignment,” Kiger remembered.

She said she’s grateful for work opportunities that allow her to put social media down and connect to people of all philosophies and backgrounds.

“I felt hopeful after listening to them talk about ways that they can transform communities and build communities up," she said. "I loved every minute of it. I hope the pictures I take will bring more attention to their efforts so that they can grow."

The photos Kiger took were commissioned by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation – a charitable nonprofit that funds economic development projects in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The title of the latest annual report, which Kiger was hired to help illustrate: "Aspire. Invest. Prosper. Transitioning to West Virginia’s New Economy."

The music in this story comes from Kai Engel.

Stephen George is President and CEO of Louisville Public Media. Email Stephen at sgeorge@lpm.org.

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