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