In the spring of 2011, I traveled with the Emerson Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program as the student filmmaker to document their service along the Gulf Coast in Pensacola, FL. When I embarked on the trip, I expected to have a challenging shooting experience, but never anticipated my goals and worldview as a documentarian to transform. After being on the trip for a few days, my interest to use the medium of film to create social change and improvements within our contemporary lives was heightened. I always knew I was interested in social and cultural issues, but what the ASB trip taught me was how powerful storytelling could be in empowering citizens and creating social capital, trust, and collective efficacy.
This summer I will begin production of “Hollow: An Interactive Documentary” a community participatory project that was directly inspired by my experience with ASB. The goal of “Hollow” is to amplify the voices of McDowell County, West Virginia and to provide ideas for future improvement. By the mid-20th century, McDowell County was one of the richest counties in the United States and was known as “the nation’s coal bin.” Immigrants flooded in from overseas and African Americans came from the South to work in the booming mines. The population of McDowell County soared to 100,000 people, but after the production boom of WWII, a combination of decreased demand for coal and mechanization of mining minimized the number of jobs. Today, only 22,000 people remain. Overall, the state of West Virginia suffers from steady population loss; statewide West Virginia has lost 200,000 in the past 60 years. The most serious loss is that of young people, like myself, leaving the county and state with an aging population. The issues in McDowell County can be seen across towns in the United States. No matter what business–whether timber, farming, coal or manufacturing–when industry leaves a community it has a huge effect. Especially when that community relied solely on the industry and didn’t have a back-up plan. Sure, the landscapes are very different in Iowa than in West Virginia, but I believe that resident’s narratives and their feelings of “place” and “community” are very similar. I believe that “Hollow” will provide a story that will resonant with many.
From May to September, a small crew and I will work with the community to uncover the stories that they feel have a direct impact on their daily lives and future. We think of this project as a human-focused approach to addressing issues. For example, we are not going in with an agenda of what we want people to say; instead we are asking them questions like, “What are the challenges of living here?” and “What do you want to see change in five years?” Throughout the summer we will hold three workshops where we train residents how to use small handheld cameras. The community will create 20 of the 50 portraits featured on the final website. Through the creation of new images of “self” and “environment” we hope the residents of McDowell County will begin to work together to create changes within their local community. “Hollow” will provide the platform for engagement and decision-making, while giving Southern West Virginia a chance to share their ideas of “home” beyond the stereotypes so often used by the media to represent Appalachia.
I feel very fortunate that I was chosen to document the 2011 ASB Florida trip. The experience opened my eyes to new ways of using media for social action and changed my goals for the better as a filmmaker and media artist.