Interview by Bernice Wuetrich
Mildred Deel, of Southwestern Virginia, is known throughout this Appalachian region as a photographer and friend to hundreds of coal miners and their families.
Mildred is a postal worker, a mother, and a grandmother. Her son is a miner, and her husband is a retired miner. Mildred’s photographs, taken throughout the 18-month Pittston coal strike, captured the spirit of these coal-mining communities.
Mildred’s strike photographs appeared in Unity, local Appalachian papers, and The New York Times.
How did you first get interested in photography?
My nephew taught a photography class. I always liked taking pictures. And after 10 weeks of the course, I was the only one who still didn’t have a 35 mm. I had a little Sears job. But I followed through. My son started a darkroom in our basement. I learned the darkroom, that’s what fascinated me. And then I took 2-3 of my prints to a local paper, and they started printing them. On my mail routes, I took pictures of local people, people who never got any recognition or respect, hardworking people. After a while, if I didn’t send any in for a few weeks, people would call and ask for them. Then the strike came, and I really got carried away.
What happened next?
All my friends, my family were in this (strike). My husband’s a retired miner. We lost our benefits. My sister and my brother-in-law, chances are they’ll lose their home. Everyone in this community is associated with the coal industry. They’re my friends, my family, over 1,600 people on my mail route, 75 miles. I’d like for people to know just how the strike affected people in this area. I want to show how these people feel, their expression. I took all my annual leave and spent it on the picket line. And I have made so many friends.
Working full-time how do you fit in photography?
I’ve been carrying 15-17 feet of mail a day. I’m putting in so much time at the post office. I get up around 5:40 am, and get to bed anywhere between 12-2:00 am. I’ll be down in my darkroom tonight until 2. Then maybe I’ll have a lull for a day or two. I shoot after work and on the weekends. And I do sports, I’ve got six grandchildren. The two boys play basketball, and I cover all their games. If you’re like me and do photography for a hobby, you have to work, because it’s an expensive hobby. People around here aren’t well-to-do. So many are on welfare, food-stamps, and disabled, it’s sad.
What were your most moving experiences in covering the strike?
The Bold 99 (98 miners and one priest who took over the Moss #3 coal processing plant for four days during the Pittston strike – ed.). I can’t even explain it, we were so proud that night, and watching these gentlemen take their mining lights and spell out “UMWA” on the side of that building. This cheer went out. Many were choking back the tears. My brother-in-law was one of them that went in. It’s hard to take pictures when you’re crying. When my brother-in-law was praying, I got that shot. But when they arrested him, all I got in the picture was his shoes, I was so keyed up wondering if he was going to come unglued and try to resist. I knew I’d have to get into it.
How did you get in contact with Unity?
I got a phone call from Peter Shapiro. Cosby Totten had given him my name. I love Unity, I look forward it, and I wish I could read Spanish. I pass Unity out, and these people are real pleased to get it, they pass it out. And I enjoyed reading the articles about the mayor in New York.
What do you want to do with your photography after the strike?
I would like to be able to have some time to get out and do macro work, and some portraiture, a few scenic shots. But in general, what I’m doing, the ordinary, everyday people, and then I always give it to them. I give it to them in color and it tickles them to death. Some of the older people will say, “He hasn’t had his picture taken in 20 years.” He wouldn’t let anyone take it. And then they let me.