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 by: Raymond Thompson Jr.

A statement from the artist:

In the 1930s, migrant laborers came from all over the region to work on the construction of a 3-mile tunnel to divert the New River near Fayetteville, WV. During the process, workers were exposed to pure silica dust due to improper drilling techniques. Many developed a lung disease known as silicosis, which is estimated to have caused the death of nearly 800 workers. Up to two-thirds of those workers were African American. Besides a small plaque at the Hawks Nest State Park, which lists a significantly lower number than the actual number killed, there is very little to mark the site. There is also sparse visual documentation available about the event. There has been an effort to erase this tragic moment in history from the memory of West Virginia.

With this body of work, I explore visual possibilities of what that time and place looked like, using primary-source materials to recreate the workers’ experiences in photographs. I have also recontextualized and re-presented archive photographs, originally made to document the construction of the Hawks Nest Tunnel dam and powerhouse. The few people caught in the photographic archive were often nameless and voiceless workers. Specifically, I’m looking at what has been left out of African-American visual history, which to date has mainly been documented with a colonial gaze. From this standpoint, I have sought to re/create work that has been informed by and made from historical documents and photographs.

My research also focused on working with non-visual resources that inspired the creation of new works. I researched news clips, letters, poetry and other cultural resources looking for information that described the experience of working in the tunnel. I was particularly struck by a poem from Muriel Rukeyser’s book The Book of the Dead, “George Robinson: Blues:”

As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night
with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white.
The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white.
-Muriel Rukeyser “The Book of the Dead”

Rukeyser’s book, along with other primary-source documents, inspired this series of images that focuses on the silica dust that covered everything at the work site.

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In accordance with COVID times, this exhibition is open for limited view:

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About the artist:
Raymond Thompson Jr. is an artist, educator and visual journalist based in Austin, TX. He currently works as an Assistant Professor of Photojournalism at University of Texas at Austin.

He has received an MFA in Photography from West Virginia University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. He also graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a BA is American Studies. He has worked as a freelance photographer for The New York Times, The Intercept, NBC News, NPR, Politico, Propublica, The Nature Conservancy, ACLU, WBEZ, Google, Merrell and the Associated Press.

Support provided by FotoFocus, ArtsWave, and frameshop.

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