A photographer who sets out to explore the polarizing issue of mountain top removal coal mining finds a far more complex story in southern West Virginia. Lauren Schneiderman, who grew up in New York City, hopes her “Living Coal” project will help others see their connection to a rural region and its people.
Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little about your background.
Lauren Schneiderman: I was born and raised in New York City, in the suburban area of Flushing, Queens. Spending my formative years in Queens, one of the world’s most diverse communities, inspired me to see more of the world. After moving around for a while both nationally and internationally, eventually I ended up at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, where I received a B.A. in women’s studies and international relations and later an M.A. from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in new media photojournalism.
DY: When and how did you start taking photographs?
LS: I began taking photographs in college, after taking an introductory course on darkroom photography. Although I was pursuing a degree in women’s studies, I was drawn to the darkroom process because of the hands-on nature of it. I’ve always enjoyed creating things from scratch, and this seemed to be the perfect medium to fulfill that interest. After college I spent a semester at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, an intensive program in documentary storytelling. As I continued to develop my understanding of photography, I realized that visuals can cross cultures and languages, and I wanted to use images as a story-telling device. This realization has led me to the point where I am now, working as a visual-journalist.
DY: Where do you live now?
LS: I’m currently based out of Washington, D.C. I moved here in 2011 to begin a master's program at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in new media and photojournalism. I graduated in 2013 and took up full-time residence here because of its thriving photography/storytelling community and all of the opportunities available for people in the industry. Living in D.C. has opened the door for me to work with some incredible people and organizations like the working on a feature length documentary and photographing for The Hill Newspaper, where I cover politics and Capital Hill.
DY: Tell us about your approach to photography.
LS: Honestly I believe that I started photography as a purely selfish act. I used it as a tool to explore my loneliness and as a way to discover where I belonged in the world, and with whom I fit in. Through photography, I’ve found myself in unique and exciting situations around incredible people I never would have met, which has expanded my understanding of the world and myself in relation to it.
Before I became engaged in journalism, I believed that picking up a camera would put a distance between my subject and me. While that is true in many ways, I’ve found something beautiful in the complex relationship that emerges and the distinct sense of closeness that is possible. This realization gave me a greater appreciation for photographs and the act of image making. It’s my hope that my images can bring people together in some of these same ways, by illuminating our similarities. In an idealistic world, I’d like for people to view my photographs and find the person on paper to be relatable or understandable, despite their differing political or cultural beliefs. It is my hope that my images can bridge an understanding. Often, this is what guides my stories – this notion of a thing that I don’t understand, that I’d like to learn more about and my belief that if I feel this way, that others will, too.
DY: How did you start the Living Coal series? What impact do you hope it has?
LS: While working on my thesis project in West Virginia, I discovered myself. I thought that I was going to do a project on mountaintop removal [coal mining] until I actually got there and realized that it was not the story I wanted to tell. The story I became interested in was more nuanced and less polarized, one that reflected the true complexity of West Virginian’s relationships to the coal industry.
Although this project has its roots in coal mining, it is not simply a story about coal. Rather, it is a story about a dying industry, what it is like to live in a mono-economy and the people that are impacted when that staple economic industry is no longer successful. My project is about one family and their struggles, but the story is not theirs alone. It is a story that is being played out through households across Appalachia, and more specifically West Virginia.
Coal is so often in the news, as we hear the political rhetoric surrounding its positive and negative impacts—that it keeps our lights on, that it’s dying, that it’s bad for the environment and is being replaced by natural gas. What you rarely hear about are the people that live these headlines and experience the impact of the environmental, economic and health impacts.
It is my hope that Living Coal can show people, specifically those who live outside of coalfields and outside of a mono-economy, what happens when an industry fails and there is nothing there to replace it. I hope that viewers can look beyond their pre-conceptions of the coal industry and this region to see the complicated impact it’s had on these families.
Through working on this project, I’ve watched as this family lost their income and home, were forced to move back in with their parents. I watched their subsequent moves out of the state, their marital separation and the impact it’s had on their children— at the core of all of these major life changes was the economy, joblessness, financial struggle.
I don’t regard this as a finished project and I’m not quite sure if I ever will, for this is a story that needs constant reflection and consideration. How will the impact of this affect their future, and the future of their children, five, 10 or even 20 years down the line?
I created www.livingcoal.com as a kind of historical document where viewers can go to and see what is new, what has changed and what remains intact.
DY: Do you consider yourself a “rural” photographer?
LS: This is a funny question for me, because I grew up in New York City, now I live in Washington, D.C.—and have lived in many cities in between—so no, I do not consider myself a rural photographer. Though, over the past three years my work and my heart have been in photographing southern West Virginia.
DY: What is your process for finding your subjects and locations?
LS: When I find a story that I’d like to tell, I begin my process my emailing and cold calling everyone that I think could be of help. A lot of people think that I’m crazy or just simply don’t respond—but I’m always impressed by the kindness of strangers who do offer to help, either by just offering me information, a place to stay or by allowing me to document them. When I am on the ground, everything changes—meeting people and explaining my intentions becomes much easier. I generally speak with anyone who will talk to me until I find folks that are interested in collaborating.
DY: How do your personal experiences and point of view influence your photography? Do you think about how you are representing your subjects?
LS: Visual representation of Appalachia is complex. It’s a diverse region that has been repeatedly simplified and diminished by extractive industries and chemical companies, missionaries and journalists/media makers. It’s a region that has been the center of natural and mediated exports for almost a century. This is something that I’m constantly considering while working on my projects, as I consciously make an effort to create something different while acknowledging my similarities to generations of documentarians that have come before me. For me, it’s important to make long-form projects, rather than telling a story in a day, or even a month. I really make an effort to spend a significant amount of time with my subjects—to understand their history and their stories.
Everything I do is curated; I’m not simply a ‘fly on the wall’. I’m ever aware that I alter situations by being present, yet I do believe that barriers have become thinner and thinner as my relationship has extended and developed over multiple years.
Lauren Schneiderman is an independent photographer and filmmaker. She recently graduated from the Corcoran College of Art and Design with an M.A. in new media and photojournalism. Originally from Queens, New York, Lauren is currently based in Washington, D.C., but spends her free time in West Virginia.