Today I returned to my alma mater, Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green to photograph courses amid the global pandemic. I was curious to see how students were handling everyday protocol for mask wearing, distancing and how instructors would be using technology for those at home. I covered a biochemistry lab taught by Dr. Blairanne Williams. The students were all split into two rooms to fit social distancing protocol. All students wore masks and sat a couple feet apart. This day they were learning to separate milk proteins and the class was made up mostly of pre-med majors. I found myself chatting with the graduate student instructor named “ “ who was originally from Nigeria. Dr. Williams explained to me that “ “ father got stuck in Bowling Green with his daughter and is unable to return to his home country due to US travel bans. I felt sympathy for “ “ having to pursue her graduate studies at such an unprecedented time in U.S. history. I thought about how much her father must miss her mother. We chatted about Nigeria’s weather, how she’s adjusted to her time here, but we had trouble communicating through our masks. At one point Dr. Williams remarked that she expected the school to be shutting down within a couple of weeks. Bowling Green had been seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases since school started back. There have been reports of frat and sorority parties and other students not following safety protocol. My best friend, whom I’m staying with and who is also a student at WKU, has told me several times how nervous she feels being around other students. Walking back to my car, I noticed how empty campus felt. It was nothing like my time in 2011-2015. I can’t imagine being a college student during this time. As I walked nearby Park Street, just a block from one of my old college apartments, I saw an electrical box tagged with “F*ck the KKK.” It was a symbol that spoke to me amid the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and increasing racial tension in our country. Given how segregated the college campus felt during my time there, I felt the need to take a photo of it.
I have always liked Russellville. It’s in Logan County. The northern section of the county is hilly, bordering, Muhlenberg County. As you go south, the land gets more level, becoming rich farmland.
Russellville seemed genteel. The people were (and still are) gracious. The historic architecture is good and of interest. It was always a comfortable town to be in. I spent time there in the 70’s on the original Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project, and subsequently visited while doing commercial work, and on another occasion while riding a bicycle cross Kentucky. I like Russellville.
Russellville has a town square. In the square is a large monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers, a smaller granite monument commemorating the Sovereignty Convention held in Russellville in 1861. At that convention, representatives of 68 counties met and “BY THE ANCIENT RIGHT OF SELF DETERMINATION AND REVOLUTION, SET UP A NEWLY CONSTITUTED STATED OF KENTUCKY . . . UNDER THIS NEW REGIME THE SOVEREIGNTY OF OUR PEOPLE FOUND A MEDIUM OF EXPRESSION FOR SYMPATHY WITH THE SOUTHERN CAUSE IN WHICH THERE COULD BE NO STIGMA OF TREASON.” So reads the monument. There is also a Kentucky State historical plaque commemorating that event.
The town square is bisected by a paved walkway. On the other side of the walkway from the Confederate memorials is another state historical plaque commemorating Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first African-American woman to gain press credentials for both houses of Congress and the White House. Alice was also a civil rights activist and served on presidential commissions during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Ms. Dunigan is memorialized with a bronze statue at the Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky museum sited on a former plantation homesite 6 blocks from the town square monuments.
Logan county had the second highest number of lynchings in of any county in Kentucky. John Rhodes, a lawyer who defended a black man charged with murder in 1908, stated, “It was as easy to raise a (lynch) mob in Logan County in those days as to drop a hat . . .” Rhodes client was spirited away from the mob, so the mob lynched four other black men instead.
Kentucky is a land of contrasts. On one hand we have a town square honoring the town’s confederate history, and six blocks away there is an emerging museum honoring African-American contributions to our culture.
I’m always interested in people at work. I began to think a lot about fast food workers and wonder about their lives – and so I made some efforts to photograph them. They are mostly kids and put on big smiles when you face them with a camera. The Sonic Drive In I went to was a lot looser than the McDonalds I got access to, but they were both interesting places and I felt a lot of empathy for the workers in both.
I was pretty amazed at the food people were ordering at Sonic especially – lots of huge containers of surgery shakes drizzled with caramel, various sweet toppings, and finished with a cherry. The burger and fries seemed to be the healthy option for more responsible eaters.
I took some prints back to the Sonic to give to the people I had photographed. This girl, who had been expressionless and a little dour when I was shooting the others, had put on this beautiful smile when I photographed her. When I came inside to find her and show her the print I had brought her, she looked at me as if I were a child molester. This hurt my feelings, as I had gone to some trouble to make the prints and bring them, and all I really wanted was that same smile and a “thank you.” I thought a lot about what kind of life she’s had to make her react the way she did.
“We’renot bad people, we’re just strange people, you know what I mean?”
Quote from a tobacco farmer in far western Marshall County who let me photograph his Mexican workers.
Leaving Paradise I meandered. I went to the Rochester Dam that John Prine sang about. Rochester is a small town with maybe one store a bank and a post office. I saw a dot on my Delorme Map identifying the town of Gus. My older son’s name is Gus, so I had to go there. I drove to where the town was supposed to be and didn’t find it. I circled back, no town, then back the other way. The town of Gus is extinct. I had to call my son and tell him he no longer exists.
From Gus, I made my way to Lake Malone, still in Muhlenberg County. I’m on State Road 973, a narrow two lane road, on the north side of the lake, and the traffic is halted. There are three cars stopped in front of me. In front of them is a stove in the middle of the road. Further down the road are a number of police vehicles. There’s a shirtless man in the ditch next to the police vehicles. He is handcuffed with his arms behind his back. He periodically writhes on the ground. Two officers are entering the scrub land on the right side of the road with dogs. Rifles are out.
I grab my camera and press pass and go up to the scenes. I’m photographing the handcuffed man and the police vehicles on the road above him.
“Whatchu wanna take my picture for?”
“I’m doing a documentary on Kentucky. I’m with the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project.”
“You got any meth?”
That was the last of our exchange. He continued to periodically writhe on the ground, to avoid letting me see his face.
The K-9 cops came back with no other suspects. The rifles were put away. And a wrecker was engaged to pull up the stove, and other items that had fallen off the handcuffed man’s trailer as he was being chased by the police.
In Paducah I arrange to ride with the Police Department. I’m paired with Officer Kelly Drew but we had a fair amount of contact with the other officers on that shift as well. Kelly amazed me with his background (broken home, alcoholic abusive father, but saved by his grandfather who guided him through his adolescence) and his approach to his work and people. This was shortly after Ferguson and several other police shootings, but I watched Kelly defuse and calm potentially violent situations. “I want you to just go inside and don’t come out until tomorrow morning” he said to one very loud and drunken man at the Motel 6 who seemed to be doing everything he possibly could to get himself arrested. Being with Kelly was re-affirming though he said he’d never want his son to become a police officer.
Later on during my second trip to Paducah, I get a call from Jody Cash who tells me, in his soft, almost feminine voice (during my shift with him a phone caller kept referring to him as “Ma’m”) that he’s a State Police Officer and is willing to let me do a “ride-along” with him. We set this up, and I meet him at 8 am that Friday at the State Police Post outside Mayfield. During his shift he’s the only officer covering 3 counties – McCracken, Ballard, and Carlisle. Jody has always had a religious calling and began preaching when he was 16. At some point though, he realized that being a preacher wasn’t the right path for him and he began a career in law enforcement. He sees his religious calling as being better fulfilled as a police officer – this might seem like a contradiction in terms but as I spent the day – an uneventful one – with him, I could see he meant it in the way he treated the people he encountered. He had an air of calm about him, smiled a lot, laughed a lot, showed intuitive people skills and was a good judge of character. It’s obvious he loves what he does and is comfortable with who he is. He told me most cops really don’t like having passengers, but he likes the company. At one point he asked me if I was cold, explaining the he wears a bullet proof vest at all times and it’s hot, so he cranks up the AC in his car. As one of his fellow officers said to him once “I’d rather sweat than bleed.” His car (a Dodge Charger) is really his office, with weapons, phone, computer, printer (traffic tickets on the spot), “desk” light, etc. He showed considerable skill at typing in license numbers while driving at high speed. He tells me in some detail about the one time he had to kill someone. Any time a state officer kills someone they are required to take at least 2 weeks off – Jody took 3. He recounts how another officer killed someone and could never returned to the force. He calls himself a “shit magnet” because he feels like when something happens, he’s always close by. He doesn’t pull people over for speeding unless the are going at least 10 mph over the limit on smaller roads, and 15 over on highways –- very generous I told him. He tells me how he questions people to see if they are lying. He recounts the following exchange with a suspected drug dealer: “Do you live here?” “No.” “Did you spend last night here?” “Yes.” “Was last night the only night you’ve spent here?” “Yes sir, last night was the only night I’ve ever spent here.” Then he bursts out laughing and says “if only you knew how long I’ve been watching you.” Jody is an amazing man, and like Kelly, belies the myth of corrupt and abusive cops.
Juneteenth. June 19, 2020. Demonstrators in Louisville march to both commemorate the day and to call out the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and a list of others who had been killed by the police. The march left Liberty Square and proceeded to the site of Roots 101 African American Museum on West Main Street, Museum Row.
The museum’s founder, Lamont Collins, came out to speak. He told the story of the Museum, why it needed to be, and asked the marchers to help with its creation. Then he brought out artifacts that will be on display at the museum: a set of shackles with chains, and a slave collar. I had never seen anything so horrific as that slave collar. The collar was put around an enslaved person’s neck, with the purpose of impeding, or making it impossible to escape. You couldn’t run and hide if that was locked on your neck.
Days later I made contact with Mr. Collins and told him I’d like to photograph him with the slave collar. He readily agreed.
Several years ago, Mr. Collins was listening to NPR and heard a story about Oran Z. Belgrave, a man in California who had a museum filled with African American artifacts. Urban renewal took the museum, and the man placed his entire collection in 12 shipping containers that he stored in the Mojave Desert. Lamont heard the story and called the Mr. Belgrave. Lamont told him that he had always wanted to start an African American museum, and that he would take the collector’s collection and start a museum in Louisville. On the phone, Mr. Belgrave began crying and told Lamont that this was the answer to his prayers.
Mr. Collins has been a collector since he was 10. His father owned a construction company and his mother worked in the Federal Building in Louisville. She witnessed men coming in for their draft physicals during the 60s. Mrs. Collins sought out Louisville’s athletes reporting for their physicals: Wesley Unseld, Cassius Clay, and got their autographs. This was the start of Mr. Collins’ collection.
Over the years he collected more and more, always housed in his home. He felt it was his mission to explain the African American story to his visitors. To tell “the other half of the story.” Items in his personal collection became the talking points for the African American experience.
Lamont’s phone call to Mr. Belgrave was a godsend for both. Lamont started Roots 101 a year ago, housed in three floors on West Main Street. The museum’s planned opening this year has been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Having studied photography, pictures like these orbit my mind on a constant loop whether I am conscious of them or not, reminding me of the power of photography and the significance of the past. On the days when I am presumed a DEA agent, these are the apparitions that coax me onward. These golden messengers from the past remind me of my own intentions in the present. As a member of the KDPP team, it is my great honor to record our present in order to contribute to this canon of visual history that I so revere. It is this very conviction that keeps me going.
Some days are slow, and it’s just going to be that way. This photographic art is a kind of magic that requires collaboration with the world and those who inhabit it. Serendipity comes in fleeting dashes, restoring faith and generating excitement, but it also gives way to the longer pause: those moments when everyone thinks you are a DEA agent and you feel ill-equipped to convince them otherwise because the truth – well, the truth simply isn’t as convincing. The truth is that I just really like to take pictures, more than anything in the world. Let’s face it: it’s hardly competes as a story.
My first day of work reminded me of all that, but it also revealed new realities, namely how deeply entrenched the opioid epidemic is in rural Kentucky. It seemed that there could be no greater threat, presumed or otherwise, than a DEA agent in the community of Sawyer. Before long, locals opened up to me, explaining rather frankly how drugs have remodeled the landscape of their home. Pills have been engineered as part of the new social fabric, and it hardly ends there.
I myself have no thoughts or notions as to how this might be resolved. That’s not my role. All I have are observations. And I wish for nothing more than to keep bearing witness, to continue fixing images for the future. It is my belief that the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project will constitute a powerful archive, one that will inform the ages. My greatest, most powerful response to all those questions that seem unanswerable now is to keep working.
For more about Rachel, go to rachelboillot.com
At 351 feet, it towers over the Todd County landscape, the fifth tallest monument in the United States. Driving west on US 68 from Elkton, it immediately comes into view: the Jefferson Davis Monument, sited in the small town of Fairview, Davis’s birthplace.
Construction started on the Davis Monument in 1917 and was completed in 1924. This was during the Lost Cause movement, the reinvention of the Confederacy as the protector of states’ rights, southern virtues, and the nobility of the antebellum South. Concurrently, Confederate statuary was erected throughout the South. To the Lost Cause, slavery was a just, biblically sanctioned institution presided over by chivalrous masters.
The Lost Cause did its best to ignore that the founding principle of the Confederacy was the defense of slavery and the economy that it supported. Figures of the Confederacy were turned into saints.
History tells us that Davis partnered with his brother on a plantation in Mississippi and owned 113 slaves in 1860. He had served in the Mexican American War, was a US Congressman, Senator and Secretary of War. As a Senator and Secretary of War he advocated the annexation of northeast Mexico and Cuba to “increase the number of slaveholding constituencies.” Elected president of the Confederacy, Davis was ineffective at coordinating the Confederate states’ generals, did not identify with the common people and failed to harness Confederate nationalism.
Kentucky just removed the Jefferson Davis statue from the State Capitol Building, relocating one element of the Lost Cause to the Jefferson Davis Monument in Fairview, where the Lost Cause remains visible from miles away.
I’d just spent a wonderful weekend with Pine Mountain Collective, and informal group of artists convened by the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust (KNLT). The KNLT has the vision of purchasing all of the available lands on Pine Mountain and putting them in nature preserves. Pine Mountain is Kentucky’s only true ridge mountain, running 113 miles plus from Tennessee to West Virginia. It’s a unique biosphere with a number of endangered species unique to Pine Mountain. Pine Mountain has been blessed with the absence of coal, unlike the surrounding mountains and Cumberland Plateau. The only extractions from Pine Mountain have been timber and several limestone quarries. For the most part, it is a natural seemingly unexploited ridge.
Leaving Pine Mountain I traveled north in Harlan County on SR 221. The road rises from the valley ascending a ridge. Topping out the ridge there are two black bears playing in the middle of the road. They hear my car and scamper into the woods. I turn into a gravel-mining road adjacent to the woods and stop my car. One of the bears has stopped and is looking through the trees to see what I’m going to do. I continue on the mining road until it does a rocky descent, turn around and head back to SR 221. No bears to be seen.
Kentucky counties are separated by natural boundaries: creeks, rivers, ridge tops, mountains. Folklore has it that counties were originally set up so that one could ride by horseback to the county seat in a day. I’m sure that there’s some truth to that. The county line between Harlan and Leslie is the crest of the ridge.
The road descends into Leslie County. I see the turnoff for Leatherwood, and proceed northward to Yeadiss. North of Yeadiss there’s a gradual rise then as the road descends I see what appears to be a school or a minimum security prison in the valley below. First impressions. It’s a school, it has playing fields. I think about taking a picture from the elevated point I’m on. A photo that would show how the school sits in the valley with the mountains rising all around it. I take the easy way out and rationalize myself out of stopping for the photo, and drive on.
I pass the school. The valley is narrow; the school’s parking lot hugs the road, and is separated from the road by a chain link fence. The links of the fence have been embroidered with vinyl making a sign reading “WOLVERINES DON’T DO DRUGS”. This is the photograph to be made.
Now to find a place to park my car. I don’t want it in the school’s parking lot, because it might appear in one of my pictures. I drive back south to where I saw the school originally and find a flat spot on the side of the road to park. I take out my camera and take the original photo I’d thought about taking, then walk down the road toward the school. The school grounds are on the left as I walk. On the right is a steep hill with two houses about 70-80 feet up the embankment. I can see a Camaro parked in the carport of the house closest to the school. There’s a man with a bandana on his head moving about near that house and Camaro.
Further down the road also in the right side embankment are the remains of a Chevy Biscayne. I think about making a photo there, but proceed on to my destination.
The school is the Hayes Lewis Elementary School. The “WOLVERINES DON’T DO DRUGS” signage extends at least 50 feet opposite of the main entrance to the school. It also has a cartoon likeness of a wolverine. Drugs are a serious problem in Kentucky, and more so in Appalachia. The school board is trying to be preemptive in their messaging. Get them while they’re young. I saw a similar message on another school in Leslie County.
I take my pictures, then start walking back to my car. I eye the embedded Biscayne, and decide there really isn’t a picture there, and continue my walk back to my car.
Once at my car the man I’d seen up the hillside near the Camaro came riding down toward me on his 4 wheeler.
I figured that I was probably parked on his property. I greeted him and told him was taking photographs of the school, and this was the only place I could find to park. He was quite nice, and said that he thought I might be taking pictures of the property below his house. It seems that he and his father are in a legal dispute with his aunt, who claims the land immediately below his house is hers. She wants to excavate it and put in another house. The land is so steep that if she excavates, his house will slide down the hill into hers. I assure him that was only taking pictures of the school.
We start to talk. He has a Marine Corps tattoo on one arm and a skull and crossed rifles on the other. As we’re talking his father walks down from the other house . . . the one without the Camaro. The father has a labored walk. He comes to the 4 wheeler and we talk. I tell him what I’m doing, making a documentary on our state. I like the looks of the father and son and ask if I can take their pictures. They’re fine with it and I commence working.
After I’ve finished the father, Joe Adams, says I should go up the hillside and take photos of the signage over the family graveyard.
We go up. The graveyard is and excavated ledge in the hillside. The entrance has an arched sign over the walkway reading, “Kenny Joe Adams Memorial Family Cemetery”. Kenny is the only person buried in the cemetery. They are awaiting his headstone that’s coming from Georgia.
Ronnie, the son tells me about his brother. Kenny broke a lot of bones. When he was 5 or 6 he rode his Bigwheel over the side of the hill and broke a leg. Other bones were broken playing football. In his 20’s, weighing 400 pounds, he jumped off a fence and destroyed his knee. Also in his 20’s he developed esophageal cancer. The cancer treatments left him with a damaged esophagus, and he was prone to choking.
Last year, in a restaurant, he choked on a bacon cheeseburger. He went into the restroom attempting to cough it up, and burst his esophagus. Ronnie was taken to the hospital and eventually died of sepsis.
Kenny’s grave is raised concrete, awaiting its headstone from Georgia. It’s surrounded by plastic floral displays and solar powered lights. It’s lit up at night.
Ronnie says he goes to his brother’s grave almost every night and talks to him. “I tell him I know he’s in a better place, and I hope they gave him a new body.”
I went fishing one night for Asian Carp with Ronnie Hopkins near Kentucky Lake Dam. When I called him to set things up and asked him how he was, he answered “not fit to kill” (meaning not worth the price of the bullet it would take to kill him as he later explained to me). He’s a gregarious and funny man, never with out a cigar in his mouth. He smokes Backwoods cigars which are (according to their website) “a popular domestic machine-made cigar. Not commonly smoked by those who are seeking high-end premiums, the Backwoods are an infusion of natural and homogenized tobacco with additive flavoring that is aimed at smokers who are looking for more than just the taste of tobacco in their cigars.” He calls them his “pollution filters” joking that they filter out all the air pollution before it can get to his lungs. Ronnie is tough and hard working, always busy. His resumé, if you can believe what he says, includes work on Hollywood movie sets rigging explosives, and a stint at Gilley’s bar in Texas as a “rodeo clown.” He’s been divorced 7 times and has numerous children both natural and adopted. He sang me a song he wrote that begins: “Livin’ on the river is a mighty good life, but it’s kind of hard to keep a wife…” He’s been a fisherman all his life and tells me he was conceived in a fishing boat. His “office” is in a shed, and sports half a dozen or so deer heads hanging from unfinished particle board walls. There’s a small refrigerator with a microwave balanced on top, boxes of fishing and hunting equipment, an old arm-chair, a small TV and various other forms of useful clutter. He fishes from a very beaten-up Jon boat, maybe 24 feet, pulled by an equally beaten up Ford box-truck with the box part removed so as to convert it to a very long flat bed. On the lake he fishes at night because daytime recreational boaters could get their boat motors tangled in the nets he uses. If he fishes the Ohio River, he goes during daylight, as he does during the winter. What with all the loading of nets, gear, ice, and other stuff, we didn’t leave his office until after dark. His first mate as it were, is a 21 year old kid named “JD,” an unmarried father of 2, separated from the mother of his kids who got bored because he was working so much and met someone else on facebook. Like Ronnie, JD is a hard worker, with very good people skills, just out of rehab with at best a high school education. He’d been fired from the fish processing plant recently but Ronnie told him not to worry about it and that he could just come work for him. We set our nets, a total of maybe 17, stringing 3 or 4 together at a time and floating them in an open box configuration. Then we motored back to shore and JD set out to gather drift wood and build a big fire while Ronnie set up a gas grill on the bow of the boat and cooked minute steaks he bought from the Dollar Store. These are served on cold hamburger buns. They taste quite good. They had brought a cot and a sleeping bag for me and I lay there for a long time looking at the stars and listening to the fire crackle and the sound of diesel engines roaring back and forth in the distance. It was cold, and I sleep fitfully but I’m happy to be there and can’t remember the last time I went to sleep looking at the stars. The alarm goes off at 2:30, we climb aboard and go out to collect our catch. All night long JD pulls the nets into the boat and Ronnie extracts the fish using a big hook, and then slides them into the big metal box at the stern of the boat. The fish are big (the ones we were catching averaged 15–20 lbs) strong and can be violent. Ronnie tells me he’d been hit by one that drove his dentures up into his gums and when it was all over he was bleeding out of his mouth, his nose and his ears. The night I was with them Ronnie took some hard blows to one of his feet and yelled in pain, but was soon back to work as if nothing had happened. Periodically JD shovels chipped ice over the fish in the box. The bottom of the boat was very soon covered with fish slime, blood and water. We didn’t finish until dawn.
Perhaps the best way to describe my thoughts about the “new” Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project is to tell a few stories from my journey so far that illustrate some of the things I’m interested in covering. I’ve spent 3 weeks on the road so far, 2 around Paducah in Western KY, and one in Perry County in the Appalachian Mountains. Hitting the road again after 40 years was daunting, but it soon felt absolutely right. I texted Ted and Bill one night as I was photographing a bridge outside Paducah – site of one of my 1977 photographs – “this is what god put me on earth to do.” The photographs shown here are not necessarily images I consider exhibit pieces, just illustrations of where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing… and the subject matter noted here is but the beginning, a mere scratching of the surface, of our quest to tell as much of the story of this State in the early 21st Century as possible.
On my first day of work everyone in Sawyer thought I was a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent.
As a photographer I have had the law called on me countless times – but never before have I been presumed to be the law. I was pretty mystified, and more than a little amused. At 4’10 ½”, my slight stature hardly makes me an intimidating presence. On good days I look my age; all the rest I can pass for a teenager. Yet here I was, a high-ranking DEA agent sent to infiltrate this community.
Amusement gave way to frustration as the day wore on. Nothing I could say seemed convincing enough. The Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project was assumed to be a front for more sinister intentions, and, as such, I was getting nowhere with the pictures. What was good for a chuckle in the morning was but a grimace by noon.
A large format camera was my saving grace that day. The bulky, antiquated rig was what it finally took to convince locals that I wasn’t a spy for the feds. Surely a DEA agent would have something more efficient. And the childlike delight that the camera tends to elicit in me was apparently endearing. If I was crazy enough to run around rural Kentucky trying to make pictures with that thing, well, bless my heart. Before long I had people approaching me to have their picture made. I felt a bit like an entertainer, a traveling salesman or a performer of sorts, a notion that tends to flood my brain with images I have seen.
Image credits: The Old Sawyer Post Office, Sawyer, McCreary County, Kentucky. © 2019 Rachel Boillot/Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project.
For more about Rachel, go to rachelboillot.com