I came to The Indypendent during the 2004 Republican National Convention held here in New York. I had picked up a copy of the paper that showed all the upcoming protests and related events and thought, “Oh, this is just what I’ve been looking for.”
I had been the assistant to the art director at the New York Times Sunday Magazine, where I helped coordinate between the production and the editorial departments. It was a dues-paying job, and I got pretty bored and restless. I wanted to be out shooting photo assignments. So I decided to go freelance.
When I attended my first meeting at the Indy, I found a thriving hive of production. I tried to find a place to fit in and eventually became photo team director. There was professionalism and you were allowed to do your thing, and you did it.
I thought it was impressive that people stayed up all night working together to finish the paper. There was a refrigerator that was always stuffed with all sorts of good food that people shared. It was the first time I came into contact with dumpster diving.
At the beginning of my time at the Indy, I did one of the reporting workshops the paper regularly puts on. From that, I found I could do reporting that would complement my photography. The Indy was a wonderful venue to publish in.
I did cover shoots of tenants fighting to stay in their homes, atomic bomb survivors visiting the United Nations and dockworkers in New Jersey fighting to regain control of their union from the Mob.
One night when I was hanging out at the office after a meeting, a personal turning point came. Someone called out from the front room, “Hey, there’s someone from West Virginia here!” I was introduced to Maria Gunnoe, a native West Virginian who, earlier that day, had been kicked out of a shareholder meeting of one of the coal companies that was engaged in an especially destructive mining practice known as mountaintop removal.
An Indy reporter was already working on an article about young activists who were planning to spend the summer in that state supporting locals who were trying to stop coal companies from engaging in mountaintop removal. When Maria described the destruction being visited on her hometown of Bob White, West Virginia, and many others like it, my jaw dropped to the ground. It was a 45-minute monologue. She never blinked and neither did I. Three days later I drove to West Virginia and began photographing. I would be there for the next 10 years.
I lived in a cabin at the end of a road. I was chopping my own firewood and was arrested several times for trespassing on coal company property when I was out doing my work. In addition to the Indy, my photos appeared in Clamor, The Smithsonian, Nature, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In 2010, I published Dragline, a 76-page photo book with all my best work from West Virginia. That won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Prize for Domestic Photography. It was pretty neat when I got the call from Ethel Kennedy.
There’s been a huge step forward in awareness about mountaintop removal in the past 10 years. And there’s a lot of talk in the air about climate change and renewables. Now it’s a matter of people wrapping their heads around it all and making the change.
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