Molly Moore | December 21, 2011 | 7 Comments
He was born into a coal miner’s family in Kilsyth, W.Va. For generations, every male in his family had become coal miners, but a chance encounter when he was 12 years old ultimately resulted in a different career.
“In seventh grade, they told us if we kept good grades, that when we got to eighth grade we would have the option to learn photography as part of our science class,” says Brown, who became captivated by cameras in his early youth. “So I went to the [teacher] and said ‘I don’t want to wait, I want to do it now.’”
With Brown’s continuous prodding, his teacher relented and challenged Brown to give up his lunch breaks to pursue photography. Brown showed every day, learning first to develop film and then to print. “As soon as I saw that image come up… I was hooked.”
After intensively studying photography in college, Brown wound up in advertising and marketing. He quickly grew disillusioned and reached an “existential crisis” with photography around age 23, while also going through a divorce. Around this same time, Brown met a Lakota Medicine Man who would eventually adopt him as a grandson and bring Brown to a pivotal choice.
“I walked away from everything and just moved out onto the reservation in South Dakota.”
For three years Brown lived in relative isolation from the rest of the world, teaching in the tribal school and taking pictures of the beautiful mesa countryside. One day a woman from the tribal college asked if he would create a photo documentary of the issues bearing down on Lakota teenagers — pregnancy, alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide — and detailing how traditional tribal culture could help.
“It was a big success, people really loved it,” Brown says. “Kids would come to me and say ‘You changed my life.’ And I thought, wow, here’s something I can do with photography that actually does some good and is truthful, and I can live with the results.”
“I realized I could do something with photography besides just make money. I could make a difference.”
In the mid ‘90s, Brown returned home to West Virginia to help his ailing mother. He took a part time job as a photographer with a local paper, and soon started to hear talk of mountaintop removal coal mining and a group of people campaigning to stop it. He asked his co-workers about it, but heard nothing.
“But it didn’t make sense to me, because nobody could really tell me what MTR was,” he says.
Then a press release about an anti-mountaintop removal rally in the nearby town of Blair found him. Brown’s editor was not interested in the story and refused to let him leave to cover the rally. Brown requested the day off.
Brown was so moved by the event’s speakers — including retired miner Jimmy Weekley — that when organizers called for the public to speak, he jumped to the mic. “I was mortified of speaking publicly. But For some reason, the injustice of [mountaintop removal] overwhelmed me to no end.”
Rally organizers, impressed with his passion, recruited him to present the issue and he soon recognized a need for impactful images conveying the scope of devastation. Brown connected with the newly-formed SouthWings organization to produce some of the first aerial photographs of mountaintop removal mine sites.
“My first thought was “Oh my God, these things are huge,” says Brown of his first overflight.
Brown worked to document the families affected by mountaintop removal, making international waves with his images. He was invited to testify in front of Amnesty International about the issue. “I told them, “We in the coalfields of Appalachia are suffering from a genocide,’” he says.
Shortly after, Brown started his travels around the world documenting humanitarian issues in exotic and turbulent places like Rwanda, Indonesia, northern Iraq, Laos and, most recently, Haiti.
“I don’t use the word genocide lightly. I’ve been to Rwanda five times, I’ve slept on the streets with kids who were orphaned by genocide. I know what genocide looks like,” Brown says. “The death of my people doesn’t come quickly and at the end of a gun,” he adds, “It comes slowly and from the simple act of drawing water from your kitchen sink. And we have a government who’s complicit in it.”
Brown’s photographs are haunting and evocative: a family holding jars of sludge-brown water drawn from their kitchen sink; a stream frothing with thick, orange and red ooze; a man examining his property destroyed by out-of-control flooding from mountaintop removal operations.
“The strength of a photo is that it captures a moment, and gives you a chance to study that moment for a long time,” he adds. “Photos are a way to give a voice to people who otherwise would not be seen or heard.”
Brown chooses to live simply in order to pursue humanitarian photography. He shares his images freely with organizations who cannot afford to pay. Situated on family land in Fayette County, Brown built his home with recycled and reclaimed materials. He exists primarily off the grid, refusing to add to the problems created by coal-fired electricity generation, and farms to grow most of his food.
“I never got in this movement as a way to make a living, or become famous,” Brown says. “I got in this movement because I want to end mountaintop removal.”
On a recent photo shoot with two West Virginia civil rights religious leaders, the Rev. Jeremiah Watts made a comment that resonated deeply with Brown and epitomizes his work to document the tragedies of the world. “’The only thing that powerful people fear is the truth,’” quoted Brown. “’And that is what we can do, we can offer the truth.’”
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I too, had never heard of MTR before attending a writer’s workshop in Hindman, Ky where I met Silas House. He spoke about the practice, but I only heard words. On my way home, I took a wrong turn onto old Rt. 80. Driving along, windows down, I was enjoying the beauty of lush wooded slopes rising around me, then noticed scattered lumps of coal blackening both sides of the road. My car rounded a curve, and I nearly wrecked, I was so shocked by the devastation. I pulled over and could only stare. Returning home, I couldn’t erase that image from my mind, so I wrote, and recently published a novel, “Wildflowers Don’t Care Where They Grow”. This story, set against the backdrop of (MTR) mining. Columbine Archer, the priviledged daughter of a mine owner who moves his mining operation to Charleston, WV, discovers what the wealth, and priviledges she takes for granted, actually costs the people of Appalachia.
A puff piece that does, however, bring up an important issue about the relation of art and politics. Liberal artists like Brown love to congratulate themselves that they are doing something “important” — but are they really?
Since the 60s, “activists” haven’t really been active in anything: they just take pretty pictures, or write a feel-good song, or march in a silly protest. This is why liberals are so ineffectual – they simply aren’t serious enough to do the real work necessary to make a lasting impact. If you really want to be catalyst for positive change in the world, you need to grow up and actually DO something instead of just observing it.
To fight the tragedy of MTR, we need ecologists, lawyers, and lobbyists, not “artists.” Rwandans need biologists and anthropologists to help them develop in a sustainable manner, they need engineers to help them build a clean water infrastructure, they need doctors and nurses to reduce the child mortality and AIDS rates, they need teachers and diplomats and agriculture specialists. What they don’t need is some self-righteous, privileged American trying to pad his portfolio and have some “exotic” adventures.
If Brown wants to make a real difference, he needs to stop spouting feel-good spiritual cliches, put down his camera, and do some real work.
Dear Truth Hurts,
I do believe you when you say we need trained specialists to do on-the-ground work, but I also respectfully disagree with you that art has no place in activism. If it were not for the amazing photographs of Ansel Adams and paintings by Albert Bierstadt, two of the several artists who documented the breathtaking scenery of places like Yosemite in a time period when family vacations were typically to the next town (and most Americans never even saw Yosemite first hand), convincing Americans to protect those lands in the fledgling National Parks system would have been a much harder sell.
What photographers like Paul Corbet Brown have done is to document the struggles of Appalachia and other places in the world for people (like me) who may never have the chance to see first-hand what is occurring. I will likely never visit Rwanda, Ethiopia, Indonesia or Antartica, but due to photographers and other artists, I am better informed about the beauty, and tragedy, this world contains. A picture IS truly worth a thousand words, especially when it comes to injustices.
I do believe, however, that Paul Corbit Brown has been involved in the movement in other capacities — including lobbying to end mountaintop removal — but the issue that featured this article was a celebration of Art in Appalachia, including a three-part spread on artists who use their art as tools to document social injustice in Appalachia and help educate the broader public. Because of these artists, the movement to end mountaintop removal is not just limited to the people in Appalachia, but has become national.
In my way of thinking, it takes all kinds to make a movement.
Thanks for your comments, and thanks for reading!
Jamie Goodman, Editor
I heard Paul Corbit Brown speak at a memorial service for Larry Gibson, the Keeper of the Mountain, yesterday, October 14, 2012. I was so impressed with what he said, and how he said it, that I have looked him up today on the Internet. I am deeply involved with issues of building a sustainable future here in West Virginia, so Mr. Brown and I are looking at the same thing, only slightly from different angles. Having grown up playing on old slate dumps in Mabscott, West Virginia, and having been deprived of a real education in civics and history by deliberate government policies established under Governor Homer Adams Holt in the late 1930s and maintained, mostly by cultural habit since then, I have been very lucky to get the opportunity to see beyond what has been dished up to me as what I deserved. In an effort to maintain the civil tone established here, I will only say that I very much appreciate a West Virginia native son using his artistic eye and technical skills to tell the truth of how the energy industry deals with the land and people here. West Virginia has been dscribed as a national sacrifice zone. I know that’s true. I refer to it as the nation’s boiler room, and the people who live and work here are relegated to the status of boiler attendants. Don’t want to be a boiler attendant? The most popular option is to leave. And what’s wrong with being a boiler attendant? Nothing… unless people try to convince you that you’re a boiler attendant, the child of a boiler attendant, and you should be content with spending your life as a boiler attendant, even if you have an artist’s eye and mind–something that obviously isn’t appreciated by everyone. And maybe you have an idea or two about life beyond the boiler room.
I’m rather surprised that Truth Hurts doesn’t recognize the power of art in every movement–in life itself. That’s like saying the eye and the ear are not important, only the back and hand.
Here’s my vote, Paul Corbit Brown: Hang on to that camera. Keep up the good, hard work. And to Truth Hurts, where are you, with your money and your mind? Are you here in West Virginia, creating a business that doesn’t doesn’t exploit the state’s natural resources? If you are, great. If you aren’t, then hey–what are you waiting for? An invitation? Then here it is: I invite you to make an investment in a sustainable business in West Virginia. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a list of ideas and prospects.
BTW, in the bio for Brown, I think you mean Fayette County, not Barrett County. Kilsyth, his home coal camp, and Oak Hill, which is listed as his current address, are both in Fayette Couty, WV.
Good catch, Rebecca! We will fix that above. And thank you for your insightful comment.
The latest issue of The Appalachian Voice is hot off the presses and will be online in the next week. Our cover image is a photo of Larry Gibson taken by Paul Corbit Brown, and on the inside cover Brown shares some of his thoughts about the conversations he had with Larry on the day he took that photograph, which was several days before Larry passed away. Check back next week and the issue will be available for online viewing.
Much like Mr. Brown I too had been gone from Wv for many years and all of my family are here . I came back 6 years ago and bought a home .What I’ve seen and heard since then with regard to MTR makes me nauseous.I post information on my sights begging my friends in other parts of the country to please share and be informed . But THEY DON’T. and they don’t say anything to me . No one seems to get it .Not even my fellow mountaineers. It’s as if they are all brainwashed or something . These are people who are tough and know how to rough it when times are hard they can survive . Yet they are in large excepting this madness . They cry for their jobs but their jobs will end anyway and their homes they slave to pay for in coal dust will be laid to wasteland and uninhabitable . I want every home in wv to receive a DVD showing the genocide of what is rapidly becoming Almost Hell West Virginia .I’m a singer Song Writer and an artist with canvas and clay as well . I will give 1/2 of everything I make in sales to the making or purchasing of these DVD sand what ever it takes to get one in every home free so we can see how many are willing to speak up for their human rights and defend their very existence or at least know for sure that they “just don’t care”. They can throw us in jail for standing our ground peacefully only until the jails cant hold us all Something needs to happen soon before things fade from black to blood.