Jonas N.T. Becker

Chicago, Illinois & Waiteville, West Virginia
Photography, Ecological Art

Better or Equal Use is a series of photographs that use coal dust to depict redevelopment projects—including prisons, strip malls, and golf courses—on former mining sites in Appalachia. Rendered using coal drawn from each site, the images highlight cycles of extraction, from mining to incarceration and consumerism.

Each photograph depicts a redevelopment built under the Surface-Mining Control and Reclamation Act. The act mandates that after mining, companies must restore the mountain’s original façade or redevelop the site for “better or equal use,” directly weighing the value of the mountain and surrounding communities against commercial-industrial functions.  The project links different forms of extraction—literal, economic, and cultural—where both land and bodies are exploited, their value taken elsewhere.

Each photograph is printed with coal collected from its site. The coal is finely ground and mixed with chemicals to create photographic paper, then printed using images of each redevelopment. The resulting photographs both depict the site and are made of the site, highlighting a cycle: the redevelopments replace one form of extraction (a mine) with another (a prison or mall).  Exhibited regionally and internationally, the photographs connect rural and urban audiences, amplifying dialogue around extraction and environmental oppression.

Jonas N.T. Becker makes photographs, videos, and performances that explore how systems of power place value on the body and the resource-rich landscape. His practice is research based, excavating layers of mainstream and marginalized histories, particularly in rural America. Each of Becker’s projects focuses on a specific landscape, drawing attention to interrelated histories and human impact. Becker has exhibited internationally, including the MCA Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Photography, ICA LA, and LAXART. Becker works between his home state of West Virginia and Chicago, IL, where he is a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.