A young boy in a sporty blue and white jacket and baseball cap looks directly at the camera. He holds out his right hand to show a morel mushroom he has picked. His expression is honest and unposed and shows a hint of a smile.
This photo appears as part of the Coal River Folklife Collection - a collection of photos, audio recordings, and other media, which sought to record, ‘traditional uses of the mountains in the Big Coal River Valley of southern West Virginia, and explored the cultural dimensions of ecological crisis from 1992 to 1999.’ The collection itself is massive: 13,647 still photos, in addition to videocassettes, audio recordings and other material, but the actual team creating the collection was quite small with only four people listed online: Mary Hufford, the program director, John Flynn, a writer and West Virginia native, and two photographers – Lyntha Scott and Terry Eiler – a husband and wife team (http://lynthascotteilerphotography.com/bio.html). This type of documentary – an open ended ethnography of a changing way of life in response to a changing economic, ecological and social landscape – requires a team with sensitivity, dedication, and the ability to gain the trust of its subjects. This requires time above all else. Think about it this way: a typical roll of 35mm slide film – the type shot in this collection – has 36 exposures. To shoot 13,647 pictures requires 380 rolls of film, 380 times reloading a camera, and the time to capture 36 separate moments 380 times over. In the pre-digital era, this was not a quick process.
This photo is nestled amongst 53 other photos and audio recordings tagged as being about “Molly Moochers” – a term the morel mushrooms that Joe is holding in the photo. This photo has 9 other tags as well.
It is almost difficult to know who this ethnography serves – its subjects, current sociological researchers, policymakers of the mid-to-late 90s considering economic or ecological legislation on the Coal River Forest, future researchers and anthropologists or the ethnographers themselves. For me, the enduring beauty of this type of work (and of the physical collection) is as a record of one group of people taking the time and effort to learn about and develop the trust of a community not (entirely) their own, and share that experience with us.