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Violence, Sex, Pills and Hope Along America’s Rust Belt

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USA, West Virginia, Peach Tree
65 year old Jesse Boggoss poses for a picture by the window in his living room. “I often sit here and shoot animals,” says Jesse. He is a Vietnam veteran and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. “I see Vietnamese soldiers in the forest in my dreams,” Jesse says. He is also a former miner, but he had to give up because of the hardship and poor health conditions in the mines.

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USA, West Virginia, Beckley
Chelse (21) together with her boyfriend Eric and Alvin in her mother’s trailer close to Beckley, West Virginia. They smoke OxyContin before going out for a party on Halloween. With 1.8 million people and more than 500 dying of overdose every year, West Virginia is pill state number one in the U.S.

Coal was once the lifeblood of small towns like Beckley. But now that these industries have ground to a halt, the communities that once thrived on them have lost their major source of income as a result, sending many into poverty and decline, violence and drug-induced escapism.

Travelling to various places along the Rust Belt – once the backbone of American Industry – Norweigan photographer Espen Rasmussen and colleague Roy F. Anderson were driven by the desire to shed light on the issues these communities face today, and to give a voice to the people left behind and spat out by the American Dream. The problems they witnessed also form part of a bigger picture and reflect what is happening not just in the U.S., but in many areas across the globe. Using both stills and video, Rasmussen has compiled a compassionate and candid portrait of these peoples’ lives, young and old, as they continue to push ahead against the current.

You can follow more of the photographer’s work on his Instagram.

USA, West Virginia, Beckley
For more than 150 years, the coal industry was the gold of West Virginia. In the 1970s the U.S. had grown to be the world’s biggest producer of coal, and the mountains in West Virginia bore the fuel that made steel production possible. ‘Coal is King’ was the mantra at the time, but as the ’70s drew to a close the competition from Asia became more intense and the price of steel and coal plunged, marking the beginning of the downturn. New regulations caused hundred of mines in the areas surrounding Beckley and the rest of West Virginia to shut down. In 1940, 130,000 people worked in the mines; today only 15,000 remain. 

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USA, West Virginia, Peach Tree
Party at Bill’s house in Peach Tree, Appalachian Mountains. The area has high unemployment rates after the coal mines closed. New regulations concerning the environment have made it increasingly difficult for the coal mining companies to stay in business.

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USA, West Virginia, Beckley
Branden (29) and Rachel (29) on their ATV close to Beckley. They have started a family together. “We changed our lives to the better. Too many people fall into drugs, crime and alcohol here,” Branden says.

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USA, West Virginia, Beckley
Strong opiate-based painkillers like OxyContin is crushed and heated. The gas is sucked in and gives an intense intoxication, which will last for up to one hour. A pill costs 45 USD.

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USA, West Virginia, Mullans
32 miners work in the coal mine of Kevin Calloway (64 years old) in 8 hour shifts. The working conditions for coal miners are tough, as they constantly breathe in dust and have to crawl through the low tunnels; many end up with disabilities. “Working in the coal mine is a lifestyle. If you manage, you earn good money. But unfortunately, a lot of the mines have closed, so there is a huge lack of jobs in the area,” says owner Kevin Calloway. The mine closed down a few months later.

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USA, West Virginia, Beckley
Eric and Chelsea are back in the trailer after a party in a local bar. They live together with Chelsea’s mother in the trailer.

All images © Espen Rasmussen / Panos Pictures

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