2009 — student winner
Carl Kiilsgaard is a senior at Western Kentucky University and is from Corvallis, Oregon. He has interned at Bucks County (Pa.) Times, the Napa (Calif.) Register, and the Palm Beach Post. Kiilsgaard was one of Getty Images Reportage’s Emerging Talent picks in 2008.
The 2000 census found that nearly 23 percent of families living in Letcher County, Ky. fell below the poverty line. The median household income in most counties is at or below $25,000, with individuals making on average $12,000.
Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, famously declared a "War on Poverty" in 1964. In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy spoke in Whitesburg, Kentucky to examine the outcomes of the first wave of "war on poverty" legislation finding no resolution. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards continued the conversation in 2007 as he toured eastern Kentucky. Despite much attention, little has been done in the past 45 years to bring change to eastern Kentucky.
For more than 3 years I have been documenting rural poverty in eastern Kentucky through the eyes of the Shell family, who have lived in Whitesburg, for generations. The Shell family does their best to hold onto their existing life structure. Cecil Shell, his wife Theresa, their three children, and Cecil's nephew Dusty Shell all live together in a mobile home. The son of a coal miner, Cecil has grown up with and dealt with first hand, the problems that exist in eastern Kentucky.
With the coal industry as the only major source of jobs in the community, Cecil finds its hard to land steady work. Dusty, who is too young to work in the coal mines, helps Cecil make a meager living selling narcotics, doing odd jobs, and exchanging scrap metal at the junkyard. All the family members rely on welfare to make ends meet, like most of the poor families in the region. Despite the negative influences of drugs and a social system built to fail, the family bond is strong, as each member helps each other in any way possible. As each uncertain day unfolds, the one constant is the strength of kin.
I have made the five hour round trip to Whiteburg, Ky., more than a dozen times to visit and document them. This project is important because it puts a face on rural poverty and shows that the poverty line transcends race and location. Since the 1960s, little has changed. The Alexia Foundation grant will allow me to continue to document the families of eastern Kentucky, raising cultural awareness in a region that most Americans have forgotten about.