I have a love and fascination for West Virginia, especially coal country, ever since my first visit there a couple of years ago. West Virginia and the Appalachian Mountains are just magically beautiful. McDowell County is the center of coal country but sadly is only a shell of its former self. It can be sad and depressing to see but yet amazing at the same time. The historical significance and coal mining in the area is a large part of our national history. Ever since my first trip to the area, I have been researching the area and learning as much as I can. On my last trip there I read that the dialect of Appalachians is the closest version of our original English language that exists today which is pretty much the opposite of what I would have thought. Last year during my research I came across the Hollow Project led by Elaine McMillion. I contacted Elaine and conducted a short interview with her about this amazing project.
1. What is the Hollow project about?
Hollow is an interactive documentary and community participatory project that focuses on the residents in McDowell County, West Virginia. When it launches in late May, Hollow will combine short documentary videos, photography, interactive data, soundscapes and user-generated content on a HTML5 website. Hollow strives to bring attention to rural issues, encourage trust among the community and become a place where they can share ideas for the future.
2. How did this projects start and what is the goal?
I came up with the idea of Hollow in 2009 after reading the book “Hollowing Out the Middle,” an account of a midwestern town experiencing rural brain drain and youth exodus. I related to the stories and case studies in the book and started looking at out-migration numbers in my home state of West Virginia. I came across a list of dying and revived towns throughout the state and found it alarming that the 10 incorporated towns in McDowell were all on the dying list. Over the past six decades, the county has witnessed a steady out-migration with the loss of nearly 80,000 residents. I also felt that McDowell County had been unfairly portrayed by the state, national and international media. Yes, they are facing some very serious issues–high teen pregnancy rates, generational poverty, unemployment and prescription pill overdose–but I knew there was more to the story. I knew that there were residents behind the scenes that felt they had no way to get their story out there with all the negative press that dominates headlines. I moved to McDowell last summer and worked with the individuals who are trying to make an impact. I focused on the people trying to solve the problems, rather than further exploiting the issues. I interviewed nearly 70 individuals and trained over 20 people on how to shoot their own stories. It was important to me that the community claim ownership of Hollow and see it as an outlet to share their story. Even though we collected nearly a hundred stories, one project can’t fully detail the complex past and present of McDowell County. The project was named Hollow because it is a word many Appalachians relate to as being “home.” We pronounce it “holler” but many people live up a hollow, also known as a valley between two mountains. I wanted to explore the idea of the hollers hollowing out; or the hollowing out of “home.”
3. Are you from West Virginia yourself, if so what part?
My childhood and early middle school days were spent living in Logan, West Virginia and Abingdon, Virginia. My family then relocated to Elkview, West Virginia and that’s where I go “home” to now.
4. How many others are part of this project?
There were about six West Virginia natives on the ground working with me this summer. The post-production team is made up of two assistant editors, two web developers, a designer and user experience architect, a sound designer, a community outreach coordinator, a researcher, a production manager and myself, the project director and editor.
5. Who does most of the photography? any formal training? It is really good.
I shot most of the content that you will find on the temporary site www.hollowthefilm.com and Facebook page. If a community member shot it we give them credit. I went to school for journalism and am a self-taught filmmaker and photographer. I have been making short and feature-length films since 2009.
6. How have the people in your project taken it so far? Has there been anyone that did not want to participate or have you received any negative feedback.
I am very grateful that the community has embraced the project. We haven’t received any negative feedback, at this point, from residents.
You can see many of my own images from my 4 part series on McDowell County here.
YOUR LIFE. YOUR STORY. YOUR PORTRAIT. CLEARLY UNIQUE.