This photo essay is part of a series exploring the dimensions of daily life in West Virginia, “coal country” as it’s known, where chronic job loss has affected every aspect of life since the industry’s decline began in the 1960s. For generations, communities have grappled with teacher shortages, homelessness, business closures and food insecurity, problems that worsened when the coronavirus struck in March and West Virginians began to see their children go hungry.
F. Brian Ferguson has been photographing in West Virginia for 25 years, mostly for major newspapers like the Charleston Gazette. But like many newspaper photographers, he has a personal project going on the side.
Comprising hundreds of photographs spread across his Zip drives, negative sleeves, CDs and hard drives, “Vanishing West Virginia” is a love letter to Ferguson’s home state and an elegy to a way of life he sees disappearing.
“Most of the men in my family were coal miners, but my grandpa ran two newspapers – one was a serious paper, and the other was a more literary and humorous paper called The West Virginia Hillbilly,” Ferguson said. “I think I absorbed a lot of his complicated humor and put it in my pictures.”
Ferguson’s pictures recall Robert Frank’s landmark work The Americans, and he says he was influenced by other photographers you’d expect – Danny Lyon, Eugene Smith, Eugene Richards. His pictures, however, dig far deeper than simply mimicking visual styles – they stand on their own as both earnest and deftly observed moments in an often-misunderstood place.
To see more of Ferguson’s work, please visit fbrianferguson.com
Related: Kids in WV are going hungry as state touts summer feeding plan