Thoughts on photography and other related subjects from editorial and landscape photographer Craig Hudson
Author: Craig Hudson Photo
Craig Hudson is a photojournalist based in Washington, D.C. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Craig got his start as a a freelancer while working as a newsroom copy aide at The Washington Post. He has been a staff photojournalist at two newspapers; most recently at The Charleston Gazette-Mail, West Virginia's largest newspaper, and The Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. He also worked as a photo intern at The San Francisco Chronicle, and is an alumnus of Eddie Adams XXV and most recently the 71st Missouri Photo Workshop. He graduated from George Washington University (Formerly the Corcoran College of Art & Design) with a BFA in photojournalism in 2016.
Craig has completed assignments for publications such as Politico Magazine, HuffPo, the Associated Press & ProPublica. His work has appeared in print and digital platforms of publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine, USA Today and more.
Forgive the title, but I think to describe 2020 in any less a way would minimize just what a year this has been. We started it full of optimism for what the next decade would bring us, unaware we’d get what feels like an entire decade crammed into one tumultuous, chaotic year. You could say this year has been a roller coaster, but roller coasters are supposed to be fun. This roller coaster went off the rails, crashed into a ditch and blew up.
A virus that effectively shut down the world and has killed millions while continuing to affect the lives of countless in ways both large and small. A murder of yet another innocent African American at the hands of the police that shook the nation and ignited a Summer of protests against systemic racism. A Presidential election that lasted a week and a defeated President who continues to deny that he actually lost.
Amidst all of this we’ve lived our lives, watching endless amounts of Netflix , having countless conversations over zoom and spending time on hobbies both new and old. It’s been a time to be alive, and now that we’re at the end of the year, with vaccines beginning to be distributed and finally seeing light at the end of this long, dark tunnel, here’s a look at 2020 through my lens.
At the beginning of the year, I decided to become more involved with photographing politics, beginning with covering the Democratic Primary in South Carolina. I figured that the 2020 Presidential election would be my focus this year. Boy was I wrong!
As the virus swept the country and shutdowns sporadically began, its effects were obvious across town. Spring time is popular in DC. The temperature is warm without the oppressive humidity of Summer. Streets that would normally be filled witch college students were suddenly silent. The national mall which would normally be teeming with thousands of tourists was more empty than I’ve ever seen it. Areas of nightlife like Adams Morgan, H St NE and U Street were deserted on weekends. Despite this, it was amazing to see all of the ways that people continued to stay upbeat and show support for one another amidst social distancing, whether that was drive-by graduations, front porch concerts or group video chat happy hours. I think one silver lining is that all of us realized how important the relationships in our lives are more than ever before.
After the murder of George Floyd, protests erupted across the country, including in DC. The very first weekend saw marches throughout downtown that would end at the Northern edge of Lafayette Square, where the scene turned from tense to chaotic after the sun went down. Protesters repeatedly pressed forward against secret service and police in riot gear, only to be pushed back and scattered by volleys of tear gas, flash bangs, pepper spray and rubber bullets. The protesters would quickly regroup and return the favor with volleys of their own-plastic and glass bottles, rocks and bricks taken from the sidewalk and broken into pieces. Fireworks were thrown indiscriminately into the mix; exploding at consistent intervals throughout the night. This back and forth went on into the early morning hours that weekend. Mayor Bowser would enact a curfew that Monday (the same day President Trump tear gassed peaceful protesters so he could have his photo op) which would go largely ignored, leading to a mass arrest after police were able to corral a large group of marchers on a one way street. This would all just be the beginning of the many demonstrations to come.
Of all the things that stood out to me immediately surrounding these protests was the incredible level of diversity in the crowds. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these were the most diverse crowds I have ever seen. Black people, white people, asians, latinos, young, old. LGBTQ; people who seemed to have never been moved to join a march for black lives were now doing so in numbers never seen before. It was clear that the murder of George Floyd touched a raw nerve in the United States, not only in the black community but in areas it never has before. Even rural, mostly white areas saw their share of demonstrations, though many of them were met with counterprotests.
Amidst so much of the tumult that I felt covering the ongoing protests, photographing for the the Washington Post’s Where We Live column was a welcome respite. While it felt slightly surreal to go from photographing these protests to situations of every day life, it was a welcome reminder that in many places, life goes on as normally as it can. Kids are still kids and adults find what moments of relaxation and fun that they can. It was also nice to get away for a time to photograph things like the Neowise comet and the fall foliage that envelops West Virginia every year; a place I lived and worked and still hold very close to my heart.
Along with the hundreds of thousands who have needlessly died of Covid-19, We lost a lot of greats this year. Giants of civil rights like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Lewis, Entertainment icons like Alex Trebek and Chadwick Boseman. Legendary athletes like Kobe Bryant and Diego Maradona. Their deaths have consistently felt like rotten cherries on top of all that’s happened this year.
The 2020 Presidential Election was as dramatic of an election as it could possibly be. The night of the election felt like 2016 all over again, and I went to sleep assuming President Trump would be getting a second term. What followed was a week of the nation being glued to their TV’s and phones as results from mail-in ballots trickled in. Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, Arizona. I said the names of those states in that week more than I probably have in my entire life. I was on my way out of Philadelphia when my friend called me to say the race had been called for Biden. Turning back around and heading for Independence Mall, people everywhere could be seen cheering and dancing as drivers honked their horns. I stayed for a couple hours to photograph the celebrations before heading back to DC to catch the tail end of the party at Black Lives Matter Plaza.
Predictably, President Trump has refused to accept his defeat, and has relentlessly worked to cast doubt on one of the most pivotal foundations of our democracy; the integrity of our voting process. Many in the country now genuinely believe that President-elect Biden’s victory is not a legitimate outcome, and they’ve shown themselves in DC the last month, with “Million MAGA Marches” attended by followers of President Trump across the country; including notably the Proud Boys, whom Trump tacitly endorsed with his “Stand Back & Stand By” comment during his first presidential debate with Joe Biden. Like it or not, these groups are not going away anytime soon. President Trump may soon be out of power, but he maintains a stranglehold on the Republican Party. Only time will tell how long that will last.
On a more personal note, Of all the most improbable and inexplicable things to happen to me this year, I fell in love with someone. Not only that, but with someone who currently lives on an entirely different continent. Crazy right? We both know it. But after six months of seeing and talking to each other through a screen, we’ll be spending New Years Eve together in Mexico City, and I couldn’t be more excited to leave this year behind and begin the next with her.
2020 will, for better or worse (mostly worse) be a year to remember for all of us. We’ve lived through a truly historic time, and it’s an experience none of us will forget. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for the people that I have in my life and for the experiences I have had this year. So long 2020, you can’t end soon enough.
It’s been a long time since I wrote anything for my blog. Last time I put up a post was a review of 2018 in photos from my desk in my apartment in Charleston. Now I’m writing this from the same desk in my apartment in DC. Because of how long it’s been, I thought I’d write a couple things outlining what’s happened.
When I wrote my last post I was entering my second year as a staff photographer for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. I was proud of the work I’d done the previous year and was looking forward to the possibilities of the next. A little more than halfway through the year I was told I was being let go. There’s no way around the fact that being laid off is deeply painful and debilitating, especially given our tendency as photojournalists to bind so much of our identity in the work we do. Even though I wasn’t planning to spend the rest of my 20’s in West Virginia, it was still a shock to me when it happened. Still, I felt that, unlike my abrupt layoff from the Journal in Rapid City, I had made a pretty good run of my time at the Gazette-Mail, and was able to walk away with my head held high and a heart full of gratitude for the experiences I had.
West Virginia will grow on you. Even though I don’t live there anymore, I still use the personal pronouns “we” and “our” whenever talking about the state. For some reason it doesn’t feel right to use past tense yet. Maybe it’s because West Virginia is a lot closer to DC than South Dakota is, but then again, while I genuinely valued my time in South Dakota, I wasn’t really there long enough to connect with the state as profoundly as I did with West Virginia. I believe that you leave a piece of yourself everywhere you live, and there will always be a big piece of myself somewhere in the Kanawha Valley or atop the boulders of Dolly Sods. I’ve been working on and off on a post about the many different awesome places the state has, and I hope to put that out at some point (among my New Years resolutions being to post more often) To be sure, the state still has a long way to go in freeing itself from the limitations of an economy largely dependent upon revenue from outside exploitation of its resources and its people. That said, there truly are many West Virginians, young and old, who are working hard to make that happen, and I’m proud to know them and call some of them my friends.
It’s also true that going through such a shakeup puts in sharper focus the things that are most important to you. I’ve really come to value, more than at almost any other time in my life, the importance of maintaining friendships and relationships with others; family and otherwise. After having spent so much of my life largely being out of touch with myself and others, it’s been quite a journey to arrive at the headspace I’m in now. That desire to listen to my own desires outside of my career played no small part in my decision to move back to DC. I told myself after being laid off that wherever I moved next, it needed to be a place that I actually wanted to live, not just for whatever job I was doing. I thought of every possibility, but again and again my thoughts came back to one place; DC. It’s not only where I went to college and got my start in photojournalism, but where I became the person that I am now. And for the majority of the six years I spent living here from 2010 to 2016, I didn’t appreciate it nearly as much as I do now. I wanted to re-experience the city with that newfound appreciation, and I can’t say enough how happy I am to have made the choice to return.
There are a lot of things that happened this year that I’m proud of. I attended the Missouri photo workshop, something that had been a little dream of mine since starting out as a photojournalist. I did my first assignment for The Washington Post again after five years. I’ve made plenty of new friends, have struggled at times and grown from those experiences in a lot of ways for which I’m thankful.
Some folks on social media have gone beyond a year in review to do a decade in review. Ten years ago I was 5 months away from graduating high school and a few months more from moving across the country. I can’t imagine the person I’d be if I had stayed in California, and I’m so grateful to have had all of the experiences, good and bad, that have shaped me through the years since. Here’s to 2020 and another decade of growth and self discovery.
2018 has been quite a year. It started off quietly but picked up speed with the beginning of the teachers strike, and it hasn’t really let up since. This year I had my byline in almost every major publication across the country for the first time, traveled to South America, made some important personal life steps, met so many amazing people, and had experiences that have profoundly impacted me. Looking forward to what 2019 has in store.
It’s now been a year and two months since I moved to West Virginia.
When I accepted the job at the Gazette-Mail, I was almost a month into living in my best friend’s loft in DC after moving back from South Dakota; where I worked at the Rapid City Journal for four months before being suddenly laid off. Other than Harpers Ferry, I’d spent no time in West Virginia. “why are you here!?” was a common question. Admittedly, the first time I visited Charleston, I wasn’t impressed. From the height of its population of eighty thousand in the 60’s, the city count barely scratched fifty thousand now, and that number showed itself in the numerous closed storefronts and vacant lots that lined the streets. With the exception of Capitol street, every other one seemed like a random mishmash of drab office buildings and parking garages. I liked my apartment well enough, but I knew it’d take some time for me to warm up to this place.
On the road to Dryfork. Route 32. West Virginia.
Truck lights frame a house in this long exposure taken in the town of Daily along the Seneca Trail.
The John Amos power plant is seen in a long-exposure from across the Kanawha River in Poca, W.Va., on Sunday, November 26, 2017.
WVA Manufacturing. Alloy, W.V.
Night over Gauley Bridge, W.V.
In a city where the median age is 39, making friends in my age bracket hasn’t been easy. Thankfully, that has changed as of recently, and I’m the happiest I’ve been since I moved here. The scene continues to get brighter as new restaurants, cafes, bars and other businesses pop up around town. I’ve made some great friends, and only grown more comfortable here as time has gone on. Meanwhile, West Virginia itself is undeniably beautiful. I’ve swam in more creeks and rivers and done more hiking here then any other place I’ve lived. Nature surrounds you everywhere, and there are few places in the entire country more beautiful than West Virginia in the fall; when the entire state turns into a sea of gold and crimson.
Lights from a house are illuminated in fog that blankets the road ahead under a starry sky in rural West Virginia
Hawks Nest Overlook.
All too often states like West Virginia are depicted in extremely simplistic stereotypes; coal, trump country, moonshine etc. A lot of people would probably be surprised to learn that the coal industry makes up less than 3% of the state workforce, whereas other sectors of the state economy such as healthcare and tourism combined make up over 26%. While it’s true that all 55 counties of West Virginia voted for Trump in the 2016 election, it’s also true that all 55 counties voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. More than that, Democrats dominated state politics for generations. It’s only been over the past 20 years or so that West Virginia’s legislature has flipped to a republican majority. Moonshining was popular in West Virginia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but moonshine has since been legalized and sold as a commercial product. Marijuana growing has long replaced moonshine as the illicit product of choice in West Virginia, with cash flows far more lucrative to its cultivators than moonshining ever brought to its distillers.
Star trails swirl around Polaris, the North Star, in this hour-long exposure at Calhoun County Park outside of Grantsville, West Virginia;
Summersville Dam & Gauley River.
Despite a steady stream of stories that come out of here that focus on the things you’d expect to be covered here, the truth is West Virginia is not the backwards, poverty stricken hell hole it’s often made out to be. West Virginia is a complicated state, with a history that is complex and deeply misunderstood. This isn’t to say this state doesn’t have major problems; Near-colonial exploitation of the state’s natural resources for generations by out of state entities that cared little for what collateral damage they inflicted on the land and people, A drug epidemic fueled in part by pharmaceutical companies that flooded West Virginia with prescription drugs, a steady exodus of young people, lack of opportunities, poor education and infrastructure from lack of proper funding. longstanding political corruption that makes a lot of other state governments look saintly in comparison. The list could surely go on.
in Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday, October 22, 2017.
at Dolly Sods on Sunday, September 24, 2017.
in Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday, October 22, 2017.
But I’ve also met a lot of amazing people here; people who love this state and do their best every day to make it better. For each person that may pine for the “good old days”, there’s another person eager to look to a future beyond the resource dependent, boom-bust cycle economy that the state has largely relied on for much its 155 years of existence. I’ve also seen some pretty amazing things. Thousands of teachers across all counties in the state converged for weeks at the capitol demanding higher wages and a stable state health insurance program; a victory that has turned into a movement across the country. 4th and 5th grade students giving presentations to their classmates about everything from ways of solving the opioid crisis to alternative energies, 3d printers and more. People who’ve started farmers markets and greenhouses to alleviate the food deserts that plague the state. People who left the state and came back to open businesses and help their communities grow. I’ve learned a lot living here, and I’m glad I made the decision to do so. I thought i’d end this post with a small gallery of photos in no particular order dedicated to the people who make up West Virginia and give it the spirit it has.
Prestera counselor Sue Howland hugs longtime friend Dawn Streets after having recognized her in Huntington, W.V., on Thursday, April 19, 2018.
Larrecsa Cox of Cabell County EMS lookes over clients that the QRT will visit that day as she sits inside the QRT office of the Cabell County Emergency Service building in Huntington, W.V., on Thursday, April 19, 2018.
Connie Priddy, coordinator of the Quick Response Team stands in the doorway of the QRT office of the Cabell County Emergency Service building in Huntington, W.V., on Thursday, April 19, 2018.
Camp Director Dave Hurd speaks with a colleague before the evening sermon at Shenandoah Family camp in Culloden, W.V. on Thursday, August 02, 2018.
Curator Roger May is seen in the apartment earth art gallery in Charleston, W.V. on Wednesday, August 08, 2018.
From left, Brenden Hosten, Dylan Buckley, Jackson Stanley, Lauren Ballard, Zane Justice and Zamiyah Brooks present their project-based-learning (PBL) showcase on Hydroelectricity inside Mrs. Nesius’s 5th grade classroom at Kenna Elementary School in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, May 29, 2018
Dr. Gabriel Al-Hajj poses for a portrait in his office in South Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, April 24, 2018.
Brianna, Ruth Kelly, Isaac and Kachina have a moment together before sampling the day’s specials at the Fruits Of Labor Cafe in Rainelle, W.V., on Friday, April 13, 2018.
Executive Chef Roy Lynch speaks with a reporter at the Fruits Of Labor Cafe in Rainelle, W.V., on Friday, April 13, 2018.
Sophie Fatu, professional cute kid, poses for a portrait in Charleston, W.V., on Friday, March 09, 2018.
Paul, right, laughs as Gary pretends to tie him to his cart outside of the Charleston Men’s Emergency Shelter in Charleston, W.Va., on Wednesday night, December 13, 2017.
Hurricane High School Redskins celebrate their victory over Wheeling Park High School in the Class AAA state baseball championship at Power Park in Charleston, W.V., on Saturday, June 02, 2018
Mike Pushkin (D – Kanawha, 37) poses for a portrait with his taxicab outside of the State Capitol building in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, April 24, 2018.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, state health officer and commissioner for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau, poses for a portrait in his office in downtown Charleston, W.V., on Monday, April 16, 2018.
John Berta of Oceana in Wyoming County, W.Va, shows off his mining helmet before President Trump takes the stage at a rally in support of the Senate candidacy of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Monday, Aug. 21, 2018, at the Charleston Civic Center in Charleston, W.Va. Berta worked as a coal miner for 36 years.
Kylie Robinson, forefront, covers her ears as police cars wail their sirens during the third, “Operation Citation” at the Dunbar United Methodist Church in Dunbar, W.Va., on Tuesday, November 28, 2017. Created by the Charleston Police Department Traffic Division, ‚”Operation Citation” honored four Girl Scouts this evening.
West Virginia Governor Jim Justice criticizes an article by the Charleston Gazette-Mail while holding a copy of the newspaper during a rally by President Trump in support of the Senate candidacy of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Monday, Aug. 21, 2018, at the Charleston Civic Center in Charleston, W.Va.
West Virginia State Senator Richard N. Ojeda II (D – Logan, 07) poses for a portrait in Logan, W.V., on Thursday, February 22, 2018. Ojeda is seeking the democratic nomination to run for the 3rd congressional district.
Fiddler apprentice Jen Iskow and fiddler master John Morris play a song together inside John’s home in Ivydale, W.V., on Monday, July 30, 2018.
Herbalist apprentice Kara Vaneck follows herbalist master Maron Harless around Maron’s garden outside of Elkins, W.V., on Monday, July 30, 2018.
Dyer Stanard, who participated in the invasion of Normandy and other strategic campaigns of World War II, poses alongside his medals, pictures, patches and other memorabilia inside his garage in Hurricane, W.V., on Wednesday, July 11, 2018.
West Virginia Sons of the American Revolution Association members Zach Mason, left, and Bob Grumbling, respectively dressed as a soldier of the 7th Virginia Militia and as a soldier of the Westmoreland County Pennsylvania Militia, pose for a portrait on West Virginia day outside of the Culture Center in Charleston, W.V., on Wednesday, June 20, 2018.
From left, Joel Mckinney, his mother Linda Mckinney and his wife Melissa Clark speak with a reporter inside Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank in Kimball, W.V., on Tuesday, March 27, 2018.
Chelsea Carter, a former addict who is now a program director and addiction counselor at Appalachian Health Services, is seen in her office in Logan, W.Va., on Friday, January 26, 2018.
Owner, baker and stylist Linda Javins laughs while on the phone inside Guy’s Cut-N-Shave along Midway Road in Yawkey, W.V., on Friday, March 23, 2018.
Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader embraces Andrea Harrison, a recovering addict during a panel discussion at the University of Charleston in Charleston , W.V., on Thursday, February 15, 2018 after a screening of Sheldon’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Heroin (e)” which focuses on three women dealing with the drug crisis in Huntington. Harrison who thanked the Huntington fire department for providing Naloxone.
Rafael Barker poses for a portrait outside of Underground Cinema in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday, December 08, 2017.
A man walks down Capitol street amidst a squall in Charleston, W.Va., on Tuesday, December 12, 2017.
Bud Sears rocks a baby inside the NICU of Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston, W.V., on November 06, 2017.
Johnny “Tarzan” Copley of Salt Lake City base jumps while dressed as a unicorn during the 40th annual Bridge Day on the New River Gorge bridge in Fayetteville, W.V., on Saturday, October 21, 2017.
Employee Scott Mckenzie is seen inside Appalachian Cannabis Company in Cross Lanes, W.V., on Thursday, August 31, 2017.
Malyka Knapp-Smith gives a hi-five to Asmael Saifo of Syria during her English as a Second Language class at the Garnet Career Center in Charleston on Monday, August 28, 2017.
Hurricane fans crowd the stands during the Hurricane Redskins-Winfield Generals football game at Hurricane High School on Friday, August 25, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Cheryl Laws speaks about her plans for Cafe Appalachia inside the former St. John United Methodist Church as her daughter Sydney Atkins looks on in South Charleston, W.V., on Friday, August 18, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Belinda Harnass, Housing Authority director for Mingo County, looks into a room at the Sycamore Inn in Williamson, W.V., on Wednesday, August 09, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Carol Bellamy, right, and Cickie Cox make chili dogs before the nigh’t festivities in Iaeger, W.V., on Tuesday, August 01, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Nada White and Joseph Miller sort through orders at a farmer’s market outside of the Cabin Creek Health Center in Dawes , W.V., on Thursday, July 27, 2017.
Captain Mark Strickland drives on patrol in Charleston on July 26, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Eli Hamilton, 7, jumps into the Elk River as his grandfather don watches on Thursday, July 20, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Anjeanette Spencer of Columbus OH hoists up her fish as her aunt Catherine Saunders continues to cast her line at Kanawha Falls outside of Glen Ferris, W.V., on Wednesday, July 19, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Lois Vance and Mary Aldred-Crouch share a laugh at the Kanawha City Health Center, a branch of Cabin Creek Health Systems in Charleston, W.V., on Tuesday, July 11, 2017.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail Ruth Andrien, a former dancer with Paul Taylor Dance Company, instructs Sheena Madden Jackson during a master class at the Charleston Ballet studio in Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday, June 22, 2017.
Visitors line the street and yard of the famous Kenova Pumpkin House in Kenova, W.V., on Halloween night, October 31, 2017.
Mary Kathren Robinson, longtime Administrator for the Hubbard Hospice House in Charleston, W.V., pauses in front of the memory tree, which is filled with the names of those who have passed on in the care of the hospice house.
I hope the reader understands, even just a little, that there’s a lot more to West Virginia then what you’ve read or heard. Thanks for reading!
Hey everyone. Long time no talk. Sorry I’ve been away for awhile. I’ve been meaning to start writing again. A lot has happened in the past couple months. At the beginning of February it was announced that our paper was declaring bankruptcy in order to be sold; and that wasn’t even the worst part. Our buyer was to be a company that was well known for having a penchant to slash newsroom staffs; often by dramatic numbers. None of us had much hope for keeping our jobs, the only upshot to the whole situation was that the process was to take relatively two months to complete; with the final auction being held sometime in later March. Meanwhile we still had a job to do.
I spent the first half of the month mostly shooting high school basketball; the notable exceptions being groups of teachers were staging throughout the state along highways and busy street corners. I knew almost nothing about the various issues facing teachers in West Virginia; that wouldn’t last for long.
West Virginia has long suffered from a debilitating brain drain, as workers can often make substantially more money doing the very same job in a neighboring state than they can in West Virginia. Teachers are no exception. When it comes to teacher pay, West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation; second only to Mississippi and Oklahoma, where teachers are now staging their own statewide walkout. As one teacher from a group who came from the Eastern Panhandle told me, “I can drive 20 minutes North and make $20,000 dollars more per year than I do right now, or I can drive 40 minutes South and make $27,000 dollars more”. While it’s true that the average teacher’s salary is higher than the average income of most West Virginians, it’s often still not enough to raise their families and pay off student loan debt accumulated to get the necessary credentials to teach, forcing teachers to take a second job to make ends meet. So for many of the teachers that I talked to, the money was less an end in itself than a means to continue doing what they really wanted; to do their part for their communities in educating the next generation of West Virginians.
Teachers and school personnel were also striking for a longer term solution to their insurance plans under the control of PEIA’s (Public Employee Insurance Agency) Finance Board. As reported by the Gazette-Mail’s statehouse reporter Phil Kabler a few weeks ago, “In December, the PEIA Finance Board approved changes in the 2018-19 plan that would have cut benefits and raised premiums by a total of $29 million — primarily through significant premium increases for family and for employee and spouse coverage for most insurees.” While the Governor froze premiums for the coming year, the measure was deemed inefficient as it offered only a temporary solution to the issues of funding that have plagued the agency for years. Because PEIA affected all other public employees who were not permitted to walkout, the striking teachers and school personnel insisted that they weren’t just striking for themselves but for all public employees in their efforts to stabilize the agency. As it stands, a special task force ordered by the Governor in the midst of the strike has been assembled to address the issues.
One of the things that admittedly took me by surprise was just how many of the people I spoke with were not merely supporters of the strike but actual teachers or other important school personnel; cooks, bus drivers, librarians, etc. I’ve been to a lot of rallies and protests, but I don’t think i’ve ever been to a demonstration that was almost exclusively made up of the very people the topic of protest was about; and in such huge numbers. On top of that, none of the people I spoke with hesitated when I asked for more than just heir name. In fact they were proud to mention their position, their school and their county; even continuing to do so after they had temporarily lost their legal protection when their Union leaders called the strike off. Hell, hundreds of them wore red shirts with the names of their respective counties like they were team jerseys.
Another thing I loved was that despite the seriousness of the issues, there was no shortage of creative signs, costumes and lighthearted moments along the sidelines and halls of the Capitol. For me, those quiet moments that happen while everyone else’s attention is elsewhere can often say just as much if not even more than the loudest ones.
I shot the strike for as many days and as much time as I could. Because of our paper’s connection to the AP my images started appearing all over the place; major newspapers, some networks and even an appearance on Late Night with Seth Myers, haha. It was a strange combination of emotions; feeling the most successful and fulfilled that I’d felt in years, all the while not knowing if I would have a job at the end of the month. The truth is I had convinced myself I was going to lose it, so I went about my work assuming it would be the last big assignment I’d be doing for the Gazette-Mail. Thankfully that didn’t turn out to be the case, but it motivated me at the time to get as much work as I could out there. I finished out the rest of the month shooting as best as I could for the assignments I had. Last Monday was the day we were supposed to find out if we were staying or leaving, with sealed letters placed on each of our desks to let us know if we’d get a rose or not. I had my editor open mine up, and thankfully most of us in the newsroom stayed on board. We did take some bad losses though, especially the loss of our executive editor Rob Byers, who’d dedicated himself since joining the paper straight out of college to keeping it as successful and important as it has been for West Virginia. Things are still calming down here, but I’m happy to say that at least for now, I can look past the date of March 31 and start moving forward on some stories I want to do and really dive into this state now that Spring is upon us!
If you just want to look at pictures, scroll down.
For me, I look back on three important things this year. Experiencing the landscape of the West, becoming an honorary West Virginian, and the further embracing of my visual style. The first one happened rather unintentionally. While I had explored the surrounding region of the Black Hills and Badlands to a certain extent, my work hours prevented me from venturing too far out. Once I got over the initial shock of being laid off I began thinking of all the places I’d been meaning to go to. In those few months I made my way to Montana, Eastern Idaho, Western Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and other closer but still important areas. I still struggle to describe the feelings invoked by the landscape there, everything from its vastness to how light seems to dance across it. I think about that land often and wish I could go back there even for a short time. It never felt like I was in just another part of the states, rather it truly felt like a world unto itself.
Eventually, after being unemployed for four months and living off of my severance, unemployment insurance and tax returns, I moved back to DC and took back my old job at ProPhoto and applied for jobs while crashing at my best friend’s place. On a facebook job page, I saw an opening for a staff photography position at the Gazette-Mail in Charleston; West Virginia’s capital and largest city. With the exception of Harper’s Ferry and a night trip to Shepherdstown, I had never stepped foot in West Virginia. However, I have always been interested in places that hold ideas and assumptions in the American psyche; places that everyone seems to have an opinion about without ever really having been there. Since taking the job nearly six months ago, I have visited many areas of the state and gotten to know the people who call this place home. I can thankfully say that i’ve only come to enjoy this place more as time has gone on. Yes, West Virginia has plenty of problems and issues it has yet to overcome, but this place has plenty of good in it too, and a lot of people who care deeply for its future.
Lastly, and what has personally meant the most to me, has been the overwhelmingly positive response I have received from people here regarding my more artistic images; specifically my long exposures. Long exposures were the very thing that made me fall in love with photography in the first place; a creative method that could take a scene or moment in front of you and reveal so much more than our immediate senses could perceive. Admittedly, it had been a long time since I had regularly taken long exposures (one of my biggest regrets this year being that I didn’t take nearly as many long exposures in South Dakota as I should have). I decided to take it up again as a means of showing West Virginia from a different take, and the amount of enthusiasm with which my paper has embraced those kinds of images coupled with the responses I have received from others have motivated the hell out of me to shoot, shoot and shoot more. It’s been awhile since i’ve felt so compeltely energized, and I think great things are around the corner for 2018.
So here are, in no particular order, my favorite images from 2017.
I’m about a week or so away from hitting the 6-month mark of my time in West Virginia, and I think November has been the first month where i’ve started getting a grasp on this state and no longer feel like an outsider. I’ve been here long enough now to already have made some good memories and long enough to decorate my desk! That being said, November was also a good month for photos. I think I’ve shot more sports (football, soccer, basketball) in the last month or two than I have for the past 12 months combined, but I’ve also shot a decent amount of other subjects. This month I started incorporating single or multiple on-location lighting setups and hope to use them to better effect this coming month. Considering how dark it’s going to be I’m sure I’ll find a time to. Lastly, If you know me even a little, you know how passionate I am about long exposures, and i’ve been blown away by the overwhelmingly positive responses i’ve recieved from people regarding my long exposures for the Gazette-Mail. The photos that have been published so far have been photos taken on my own time for the fun of it, and to know that the publication i’m working for appreciates and embraces the use of those images means a lot. One other thing i’ll mention that was great this month was I got to volunteer at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar. I’d like to thank Kevin, Ted, Michael and all the others who’ve been incredibly kind to me and made my time volunteering there a great experience.
This month was one of those that’s at times representative of what it means to be a staff photographer. One week you’re shooting assignments like marathons and high intensity sports while the next is dominated by court appearances, press conferences (and a golf game). Nonetheless, September was a really good month. Iv’e started pitching and pursuing my own stories for the first time, and have gotten back into shooting long exposures at night; something I used to do a lot and very much have missed. All this combined has had me feeling very good about where I am and what i’m doing. I’m also writing other blog posts that I’ll be putting out soon, including a second part to my post about advice to photographers starting out.
I’ve got a couple trips planned to various parts of the state as Fall sets in and the leaves change.