Turning Point Images: The Girl in the Bathtub

Via EPA.gov

Since the invention of the camera, human beings have known turning point images.

These images capture moments denied to the outside world, but intimately connected to the realities of specific scenes of human suffering. Most often those scenes take place where no one wants to go. Photographers who document these places take great personal risk to bring remote, hidden pockets of pain into the daylight where we all can see.

And once you’ve seen, you can’t go back.

Consider the Vietnam conflict’s “Napalm Girl.” The iconic image turned 40 years old this week, and you can see the picture and read an interview with the woman who was that child in the photograph here.

(Nick) Ut’s editors made an exception to a policy preventing frontal nudity in photos and went ahead and published it. Known simply as “napalm girl”, the photo transcended the divisive debate about the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War and crystallized the barbarity of war.

Also in the news this week, a photograph of a five-year-old Kentucky girl made national headlines when it almost appeared in a U.S. Congressional hearing about mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining practices. The photograph shows the child sitting naked in bath water that appears to be contaminated with toxins and heavy metals from mining runoff. (Click here to view the photograph on Katie Falkenberg’s website: The Human Toll: Mountaintop Removal Mining.)

Note: The photographer removed the photo of the girl in the bathtub due to the controversy, but other powerful photos remain on this link.)

There is a lot going on in this news story, and it continues to evolve. There are accusations of child pornography, sham hearings, sleazy politics, and emotional manipulation. I’m not sure where it will end, but I feel confident we have reached our turning point image.

The girl is not running and screaming, like Kim Phuc in the napalm attack on her village. She sits still as a stone, her arms wrapped under her legs. Her head is down. She is a portrait of submission and vulnerability, and any adult looking at her knows she has no real knowledge of the insidious presence in her bath. She probably knows water is supposed to be clear, but she has no choice but to trust those who care for her and accept her surroundings.

We Appalachian people like to think ourselves hard to tame. The Hatfield McCoy feud movie was on The History Channel last week, and there was plenty of armchair whoopin’ and hollerin’ about how fierce our people can be. Big men, big guns, lots of chest puffing and tough talk. I wonder this week, as a little child shows who we really are in 2012, if we will own the truth.

We are vulnerable. We are alone. We have trusted and we have hoped for the best. In many ways, I think we have remained deliberately ignorant about what is all around us.

Will we ever get up and run? And if we do, is it too late?

You can read the testimony by Boone County WV resident Maria Gunnoe on June 1, 2012, at the hearing titled “Obama Administrations Actions Against the Spruce Coal Mines: Canceled Permits, Lawsuits and Lost jobs” (sic) by clicking here.

Truman and Me (epilogue) by Julian Martin

The big old wonderful house burned to the ground. Uncle Kin died while I was a student at West Virginia University, and Charlie died a few years later when I was in San Francisco being mistaken for what Time magazine designated as a “hippie.” I hitchhiked home from San Francisco via Canada and made it to Grandma’s one day after she spent her first night ever alone.

This was me shortly after hitchhiking home from San Francisco in 1971.

Grandma and I lived together for a year. She helped me tame my mule, taught me family history, gardening, and the names and uses of wild plants. By example she taught kindness. I gleaned all the family history I could. I put new tar paper on the leaking cupola roof and replaced the rotting boards in the hay loft and cleared out the decades of manure that was causing rot in the big foundation logs. During that one summer with Grandma, my girlfriend  raised hogs and two so-called hippies from Iowa raised an organic garden with 1500 tomato plants. A blight made sure we didn’t get rich on tomatoes.

Grandma died and I sobbed as I testified graveside that she was special, that without reservation she loved us all. She was our saint, our rock. Grandma Ethyl Atkins Barker and Uncle Kin Barker were saints who smiled into our lives. They both unconditionally loved us all, and for Grandma that even included one of our cousins who stole her pain pills.

Some of Grandma and Charlie's progeny. Uncle Truman is in the back row beside Grandma who is beside Charlie. My mother is next to Charlie and Dad is holding the baseball bat. That is the Kanawha River in the background.

Uncle Truman in front of the barn, spoofing us, pretending to be a farmer.

Our home place is now under siege. Bull Creek is devoid of people, hardwood trees, ginseng, yellow root, and most other native plant and animal species. It is empty. The mountains above it have been strip mined along with my memories of Uncle Kin’s cabin and huckleberry picking. Ashford Ridge running from Ashford to Bull Creek has been scalped by mountain top removal strip mining. Behind our homeplace and just over the mountain on Fork Creek, mountain top removal strip mining is closing in on us.

Ashford Ridge, decaptitated

A distant cousin sold the mountain across the river from our homeplace to a coal company. It is probably too much hope to expect that it won’t be destroyed like Ashford Ridge and Bull Creek.

When Truman and I are gone, I hope the heirs love the homeplace like we do and resist the coal companies when they come with offers of money in exchange for Grandma’s farm. I hope they follow the example of our progenitor Isaac Barker, who told the man buying up mineral rights on Coal River: “You are Skinner by name, and skinner by trade, but you will not skin old Isaac Barker.”

Isaac spoke truth to power and refused to sell his mineral rights.  My hope is that my stories and my family history will keep that truth-telling alive in future generations.

Strip mining on Bull Creek

All photo credits: Julian Martin

See A Better West Virginia for more on Blair Mountain and the history of coal mining and labor relations.