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On Colette Campbell-Jones. Part One - Stories about "Stories from Underground"

The current exhibit at photo-eye Gallery is Stories from Underground by Colette Campbell-Jones. In the next few weeks we will be publishing an interview with Colette, but in the meantime I have asked her to share a few of the stories behind some of the images ...

Stories -- Colette Campbell-Jones
I wanted to illustrate the sense of the connectedness and how that kind of intimacy provided a measure of protection from the ubiquitous Forest, lurking in the background waiting. I was influenced by a story I heard about how quickly the “news” travels. Everyone one hears about it – family, neighbors and the whole village knows everybody’s business. Other “news” from sports, politics, to anything related to the collieries becomes known very quickly though word of mouth. One man told me that quite often when he took an evening walk to pick up a South Wales paper, there would be no point in buying one once he got there because he had already heard all the news from his neighbors between the time he left his house and reached the corner store. Everyone would be out on the street visiting. The physical closeness of the terraced housing facilitated even more social and emotional closeness.

I also drew upon the stories of childhood freedom. I commonly heard valley people recall that as children they almost “ran wild” through the villages and up in the mountains. However, the community was so vigilant that children were raised by many people beyond one’s own family. Adults would care for any child even if they didn’t know them directly. “If you were doing something you shouldn’t, an adult would find out who you were, who your parents were, sit you down to dinner and return you to your home.”

Family Snapshot
Family Snapshot -- Colette Campbell-Jones
I drew from many stories to make this image. I used the dark trees in the background, imagery that is most developed in the mural The Forest, with its layers of symbolic meanings. The trees emerge throughout Stories from Underground as psychological, economic and physical forces that threaten to overwhelm and even destroy. I heard concerns from both working and retired miners that since life has improved in the valleys people might be lulled into naiveté. They talked about the same economic machinery that had been so blatant in the coal industry and still operates in our post-industrial/postmodern world. The miners then spun off with their ideas about computer technology, and global markets. I visualized that conversation (about the consistency of human nature despite the appearance of change through time and new technologies) as the carnivorous Forest of trees transforming into a just as dangerous “forest” of cables. Like coal, post-modern technologies are revolutionary but the important question is how will they be used. I like suggesting that all this can be happening in the background while we are all oblivious and focused elsewhere.

This image also shows the effects of the end of the coal industry on family and social cohesion in the valleys, combined with the impact of new technologies rapidly making the culture individualistic and indistinguishable from anywhere else. The “family snapshot” on the wall is my husband’s family showing three generations along with the family pets. My father-in-law is just outside of the frame, taking the photograph.

Epilogue -- Colette Campbell-Jones
Coal waste, “tips” or “slag” is the coal extracted that is too small or too finely mixed with other sediment to be sold as fuel. 50% to 70% of what comes out of the ground ends up in these “mountains” of waste. Historically, “tips” have represented foul-smelling terrain piled up haphazardly, in danger of avalanching when wet, giving the valleys their black appearance. But they also had a double meaning. Tips were sites of play for multiple generations of children riding pieces of metal and cardboard like sleds. They were a place for men to practice sports. I heard one story of a group of men who formed a football club called “the mile high club.” They preferred to practice on top of the tip because “the texture was wonderful, better than other surfaces for kicking the ball,” and jokingly added that an additional incentive was that “they got better at not missing the ball… otherwise it was a long way to bottom of the coal tip to get it.”

The tips have recently been identified as an important feature of the world’s industrial heritage and are now under protection. This came up in conversation when the buzzing of dirt bikes hummed all around us. These relatives were very disappointed that the teens in this village no longer had a “proper place” to ride their bikes since they had been banned from playing on the coal tips. They thought this was ironic since “nobody ever cared about the slag, they were always considered to be terrible things, but we learned to live with them and make the most out of them. Now its against the law to do what we’ve always done on them”. It’s as if in preserving one part of history, they are “ending” another part of history that’s still alive.

English Out
English Out -- Colette Campbell-Jones
I tried to construct this image according to the ways my husband, his friends and my father-in-law described this section of the river when they were children. The area has physically changed a lot and today this place does not resemble the image. They described the entire valley being black from coal slag dumped on the sides and tops of the mountain. They said that for stretches of days and weeks it might appear that it there was never any daytime at all. This happened because a huge accumulation of coal smoke from multiple collieries combined with heavy, low-lying clouds. If it also happened to be winter, under perfect conditions the sun may be in the sky for as little as 6 hours. A folk song called “Rhondda Grey” talks about the sky as actually closer to black. So in this image, most everyone assumes its nighttime, but to valleys people, it could be day or night. The river itself ran black from the local colliery washing the coal clean before selling it. Ignoring all that, my husband and his friends would slide down the mountain in pots and on cardboard going so terrifically fast that they couldn’t stop and landed in the river. They would return home covered in black muck, which they tried to hide from their mothers. They laugh hysterically as they tell this story. Also on that river my husband, his father and friends used to “tickle fish,” a very old custom predating the coal. They showed me how to do this. Standing on a rock, you put your hands under the water but near the surface, the fish swim in slowly, and you gently move your fingers underneath their bellies. Apparently this has a tranquilizing effect, making it easier to snatch them up with your hands. Of course, they also used fishing poles, but it was great to catch the fish with bare hands. They told me that the fish had gotten smaller when the river was black from coal, and now with the river clean, the fish are much bigger. Notice the mountains in the background of this image -- the shape gives it away as a severely altered landscape. No mountain has this shape naturally and anyone from a coal region recognizes what it is. The slag was dumped right on top and then flattened out. The EU declared South Wales as one of the most environmentally damaged industrial sites in Europe and have put billions into valley restoration. The slag cannot be removed, so they put chicken wire and manure on top of it to get plants to grow.

I wanted to make this image because all of their stories focus on all the fun that they had – despite living in “one of the most heavily industrialized regions of Europe.” Their remembrances were somewhat idealized with omissions and distortions. The title of this photograph references the centuries old tensions between countries that can be found in graffiti throughout South Wales, although the main political tensions during this period involved labor.

-- Colette Campbell-Jones

More images from Stories from Underground can be viewed here

For more information about Colette Campbell-Jones - or to receive email updates please contact me by email or phone at 505-988-5159 x121

Thank you!

Anne Kelly
Associate Director
photo-eye Gallery

Read Part Two of the Colette Campbell-Jones series here.
Read Part Three here.