When poet and photographer Thomas Sayers Ellis was passing through West Virginia he didn’t know he would be visiting in the wake of what is being called the “thousand-year flood”. He just knew he would briefly be in Charleston, West Virginia, a place he had never visited.
Charleston greeted Ellis with the added fanfare of FestivAll, the city’s growing art festival. Just as the city was “coming to life” it was also filling with conversations and headlines about survival, death and flooding. Talk about the flood was everywhere as were the donation tractor trailers and supply drop offs. Ellis decided he wanted to document the aftermath of the flood and the relief efforts but knew he would need a guide. I was an obvious guide choice having directed numerous film and media professionals across West Virginia for stories about Black Appalachian life, surface mining and a host of curious locations and features.
I avoided telling Ellis about the documentary “Strangers with Cameras” or what happened to the recent MTV photographers who visited West Virginia. Appalachia has a reputation for not being kind to outside photographers. I have no fear of West Virginians and challenge any and all stereotypes about us. According to my Granddad Titcher I am six generations West Virginian. Grandad used to tell me, “I was West Virginia before West Virginia was West Virginia.” I didn’t anticipate any hostility toward me or Ellis but what I didn’t expect was hospitality from people who had just lost everything.
For four days Ellis and I would enter into the always honest but now vulnerable parts of West Virginia. He packed two Leica cameras (one digital and one analog) Sorrel boots and GoGo cd’s. I packed a writing pad, business cards, my good boots from Cabela’s, cat and dog food, gallons of water and bleach, an array of survival supplies including a portable generator. I left my gun though I debated it. I also packed my guilt. I thought I should be physically helping to clean, volunteering on a phone bank or playing “Social Media Senator” on the internet to help folks find resources or make donations. The idea of being a photographer’s guide seemed like a waste of time.
If I was going to be a guide, a good guide like West Virginia’s white water rafting guides, I needed to read the river – except mine was a river of time. My instincts told me that soon the flood story would be fading from national newspaper headlines and that we would need “outsiders” to tell our story up close and without prejudice. I trusted Ellis.
We ventured first into Clendenin then White Sulphur Springs finishing in Rainelle. At each location I asked “May we take your picture?” Perhaps it was my accent (I don’t really say picK- ture but pitcher) that perhaps put people at ease as they hauled the muddy insides of their homes to the roadside or to a park and ride that was now a trash dump. Everyone said yes to being photographed.
While Ellis took photographs, I listened. It seemed people wanted to talk about how they survived, what they lost and the lessons they found. One couple who lost everything but their camper and a four wheeler asked me to read them a poem by Jason Barnhouse. I found the poem, “A Town Through Tears” on Facebook and read to them as they sat in a four wheeler. Together they cried and when the poem was finished the wife told me, “Never collect things, only experiences.” She made me promise.
I let go of my guilt knowing that pictures, poems and listening was just another way to be of service. I recognized that as I was being a photographer’s guide, I too was being guided into the responsibility of a poet and story keeper to tell about the “thousand year flood”.
Should you find the courage to venture into the unknown but knowing parts of West Virginia I hope these photos guide you toward the spirit of family, perseverance and The Praying Tree.