A few years ago, he found himself driving to the mountains more and more. He wasn't just visiting family. Roger started roaming on his own. With a camera on his shoulder, he crisscrossed two states, West Virginia and Kentucky, exploring hollers and hilltops, swimming in broad rivers, and making new friends.
The time added up, a few days here and a few weeks there. In total, Roger spent months exploring his native land. That might not sound like much to anyone who's lived in the mountains lifelong, but for folks like Roger, it's a gift. Over the course of dozens of trips, he reconnected with a home he hadn't known for more than twenty years, and he shot a photo collection that he has described as a visual love letter to Appalachia.
As he was culling the photos, Roger kept thinking of his grandfather, a man who'd been both a coal miner and a minister. In the latter profession, his grandfather invited church members to stand up and testify, to share how God had touched their lives. Roger realized that this is exactly what he was doing with his images. "Through these shots, I am bearing witness of a personal journey," he said, "Of never truly being able to go home again, to seek answers from my ancestral home."
Testify became the name of the photo collection, which has now been featured in Oxford American, the Independent Weekly, and Still: The Journal. A couple of shots from the collection are here, but I also asked Roger to share something new. When he was traveling, he carried a video camera and filmed short clips. He did it less as art and more as a simple reminder. The clips help him remember the sounds and details of a place. By accident, they also turned out to be portraits in motion and an intriguing supplement to the Testify collection.
Roger took a few minutes to tell us about these videos and how they bring his corner of the Appalachian South to life. If you like what has has to say and what he's shot, you can support the creation of a limited edition Testify photo book with a donation on Kickstarter.
TR: Roger, thanks so much for sharing these. Let's dive right in. In this first clip, we see Manuel Collins doing some mean flatfooting. What's Manuel's story?
RM: Manuel lives in War, West Virginia where he is on the city council (or was at the time I shot this). He's a fascinating fellow, full of love for flatfooting. I shot this with Elaine McMillion while she was working in the field for her film Hollow. She and I had been shooting all day and stopped to get some food. Manuel walked in to order a milkshake and spotted Elaine. We all talked, then he offered to dance a while. I don't recall how long Manuel has been flatfooting, but I know he's legendary in those circles and a few bluegrass bands have written songs about him.
TR: I will never hear of King Coal Highway again and not think of your noggin. What inspired this clever shot?
RM: Frankly, I was devastated by the scale of this mountaintop removal site, which is now the King Coal Highway. It's a relatively new road, which offers these incredible vistas, but the views came at a terrible price, a price that folk downhill will be paying for a long, long time. As I understand it, CONSOL Energy and West Virginia Department of Transit reached an agreement wherein the land, or enough for a highway, would be signed over to the state. What folk don't realize is that it takes years upon years for the valley fills to settle, so several parts of the highway have buckled, causing serious bumps and breaks in the road. Okay, so that was the horrible backstory, but basically I loved the view. And those spring peepers! Man, they were singing to me.
TR: I could put this on a loop and listen to it all day. I love the sound of railroad cars. What took you to this spot along the tracks?
RM: [My wife] Sarah and I were out looking for pictures one day in McDowell County. We were stuck in traffic waiting for the train to go by. It was hot and we had the windows down. I thought I should be doing something productive, possibly creative. There is something kind of mesmerizing about watching and listening to trains, especially these coal cars. I used Sarah's window to frame the shot and the car door to steady it. She grew up in Mercer County, and I grew up in Mingo County. We didn't meet until 2011 in North Carolina, two West Virginia kids hitting it off.
TR: Tell us more about these graves. Who were Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers?
RM: Hatfield was the famous Matewan sheriff who shot it out with Baldwin Felts Detective Agency thugs [hired by local coal companies] in downtown Matewan in May 1920, resulting in the deaths of 10 people. Chambers was his deputy. The two were to stand trial in McDowell County. More than a year later, in August of 1921, Hatfield and Chambers were gunned down in broad daylight on the steps of the McDowell County courthouse in Welch. This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, and it ultimately led to the miner's march on Blair Mountain, one of the most significant moments in our nation's labor history.
TR: I can't imagine a better summer day. What took you to the river? Did you jump in after shooting this?
RM: I was in the area making pictures, and I realized that I'd never been in the New River. It seemed like a perfect time to remedy that, so I just sat a while, river-sittin', and took in the scenery. I just couldn't believe how serene, how beautiful the day was.