A few miles south of Charleston, W.Va., in Chapmanville and Madison, the decline of the coal industry in the last decades has been particularly hard felt. Yet optimism is on the rise, as TIME’s Justin Worland reports in this week’s issue.
The state elected Jim Justice, a billionaire coal baron, as Governor, and the nation installed Donald Trump as President. Both men wooed West Virginia voters with the promise of more mining jobs and fewer regulations.
Peter van Agtmael, a Magnum photographer, visited both towns last month, shooting the photos featured here. In Monroe County, he also toured one of Southern Coal Corporation’s mines, descending below the earth’s surface with dozens of miners who continue to live off coal. “I was struck by how mechanized everything was,” he told TIME of his experience inside the mine. “With all the talk about bringing back jobs for miners, it’s a point that’s not often made.”
Perhaps more important, though, is the complexity of the subjects he encountered. “What I learned is that there’s danger in how we portray this issue,” van Agtmael says. During the course of the polarized debate over what the U.S. should do about the future of coal, he believes that some people — the miners and their families, often — can become scapegoats, and symbols of the “desperation” of rural, working class voters, who are dependent on a technology that is being replaced. That symbolism, he says, was not reflected in the real lives of the miners as he saw them.
“When I was in West Virginia, what struck me was the range and complexity of the encounters I had with people,” he says. “They are not as simple as they are presented by politicians and media outlets.”