Muckraking: Photo documentary hands North Carolina a mirror

by Anna Warner

Award-winning photographer, Carl Galie, and North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti, have joined together to create a literary and artistic coalition of Galie’s photo documentary, “Lost on the Road to Oblivion: The Vanishing Beauty of Coal Country.” Galie longs for the viewer’s focus to be aimed on mountaintop removal through the Southern Appalachians and the irreversible destruction it has caused to communities of people, scenic views of beauty, and even the sacredness of headstones. The work is on display at Sechrest Art Gallery at High Point University.

Galie utilizes a psychological progression through his pieces that the viewer must look at in a specific order. When you walk in, you might be taken aback by the excitement the gallery assistant has as she jumps out of her chair to chase you down and tell you which pictures to view first and which you should view last. She’s not being bossy or over zealous, she is simply guiding you through the genius of Galie’s creation.

The first picture is the most prevalent of the collection because the tag offers the viewer a definition of the word “Oblivion.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, oblivion is “the state of being unconscious or unaware: the state of not knowing what is going on around you.” This word could not have explained the essence of this exhibit any better. The viewer might look at the picture and admire the beauty of nature. Once you read the tag, you start to wonder exactly what is occurring in our environment that we are so oblivious about. Galie answers through a series of pictures that make the viewer feel a sense of serenity. As you progress through the gallery, this beauty only becomes haunting when you learn about its potential to be obliterated by the spread of mountaintop removal.

The bulk of the exhibition tells of the rivers and lands that are turning into collateral damage from mountain top removal. For example, New River, WV provides drinking water to thousands of residents and gives people recreational opportunities such as white water paddling, all of which could be destroyed by acid mine drainage. You don’t have to be an environmental scientist to comprehend the impact of that phrase. Attempting to go through all the examples of destructed lands and rivers would take me all day. As you look through the gallery, it only gets worse.

After admiring the beauty of nature, then seeing it become a stomping ground for coal mining, Galie takes it to the next level … a personal level. The gallery assistant will probably tell you to look at the pictures on the second level last. Most of these pictures revolve around the towns that have become barren from mountain top removal. A picture of Brownsville, PA is seen stripped of life. Gilbert, WV is seen destroyed by floods. Homes in Taylorville, WV are seen eaten by flooding and debris.

You are probably wondering where Bathanti comes into all of this. Bathanti’s poems are placed in correlation with the pictures. He doesn’t write about all of the pictures, just the ones that are so horrifying, they must be pushed in the viewer’s face even more. “No Rest.” If there were one picture in the gallery that sent chills down my spine, this one would be it. Family cemeteries filled with headstones have reportedly been “desecrated by mountain top mine sites.”

Now you reach the end of the artistic journey that moved from beauty to destruction. The final picture shows a land that might look familiar to anyone reading this paper. It is a picture of land in North Carolina. The tag below says that North Carolina is the number one user of mountain top removal coal in the nation.

Galie ends his work by handing us a mirror and suggests that the problem is us and the solution is our will power to find another way to build the economy. Galie’s goal is not to shove environmental regulations down your throat. He longs to pose one question.

Will you choose to dissolve into oblivion? !