For the past three years Matt Eich has made the journey to Greenwood, Mississippi, to document the everyday lives of the local people. Using the Getty Editorial Grant he now plans to develop this into a large-scale participatory project that will bring members of the community together, reports Rachel Segal Hamilton
BJP: You went to Greenwood on an editorial assignment. How did that develop into Sin and Salvation in Baptist Town?
Matt Eich: I was sent there in early 2010 by a publication called the AARP Bulletin. They were doing a piece on an Iranian healthcare system that they were trying to implement in the Mississippi Delta. I went to Baptist Town for three hours at the end of this assignment and it was like a completely different world. When we’d rolled into town, it looked beautiful, very quaint, lots of southern charm, and then suddenly we were in this place that looked like it was straight out of the 1950s.
I realised quickly how open people there were and how badly they wanted to be heard. I went back home and turned in all the pictures the editor wanted and I said, “We’ve got what you need but there’s so much more right below the surface.” He gave me five more days. I spent that time bringing prints back, showing them to people, trying to get to know them, listening to their stories, and it developed from there.
BJP: You’ve since spent about 60 days there. How did you go about building relationships with people?
Matt Eich: I can walk around the neighourhood in 20 minutes and it’s guaranteed that I’m going to bump into somebody because life happens outside -in the street, in the front yard. There are no real barriers between me and the people I want to photograph. I can walk up to them, or they’ll walk up to me because I’m an outsider.
One of the first people I met there was a drug dealer. He’s been in and out of prison for most of his life and we connected because he had a kid about the same age as mine. I started photographing him without knowing who he was or what he did and then when I brought back pictures he was like, “OK let’s hang out”. He dug the way I made him look and wanted more pictures like that and he enjoyed the validation that having a photographer provides.
He was a huge gatekeeper and he was the guy I feel has made it so that I can be there after dark and still be safe. But their lives change quickly and I haven’t been there since December. I don’t know who’s there anymore. I don’t know what their phone numbers are; what’s happening in their lives. I don’t know if people will be on my side or distrustful because I’m coming back into their world after so long.
BJP: Although the project title refers to Baptist Town, you photographed people from elsewhere in Greenwood too. How did you decide who to include?
Matt Eich: It’s this long, slow, delicate dance. The sheriff has been in charge for 34 years so he’s seen an enormous amount of change but he’s always busy so it took me two years before I finally got 10 minutes with him to do a portrait.
Then there are people in the city who I think are fascinating and they like my project, they’ll tell me that, but they don’t want to be photographed because they don’t want to be seen as the rich white woman that doesn’t understand their neighbours. I get their hesitance but I want them to trust me more.
BJP: You say in your project description that you want to “foster understanding”. How will that influence the type of images you shoot?
Matt Eich: It’s about making photographs that are open. Take the drug dealer, say it’s a portrait of him. A 40-year-old white woman with a college degree, a house, a job and a family might say, “I honestly don’t know what his experience is like,” but maybe there’s something about the photograph, whether it’s his shirt or the house he’s in or something about his environment that’s a trigger for them to think, “I can relate”.
That’s what I’m looking for: little places where people can connect to others’ stories, feel they know them better and, as a result, feel more invested in their future.
BJP: Why did you apply for the Getty Editorial Grant?
Matt Eich: I have applied for the Getty grant every single year since I was in college. I’ve got close a couple of times but it didn’t work out. I’m an independent photographer; I don’t have an agent or any syndication. I’m just doing it on my own. I have no idea when work is going to come and when it’s going to stop so all I can do is apply for these grants every time they roll around.
BJP: What does it mean for you to have been awarded the Grant?
Matt Eich: Well I’ve been away for nearly a year and wasn’t sure how I’d get back. And now I know. $10,000 in the world of projects is a good amount; it means I know I can get in probably 30 days solid work on the ground. But I’m also trying to figure out how I can further collaborate with the community. So I’m now writing a proposal to the Impossible Project to see if they’ll give me a bunch of film and then I’m going to see if I can buy some old Polaroid cameras and bring those down and get people photographing themselves. I’m trying to set it up so that even when I’m gone there’s still documentation occurring that can coalesce into this larger statement about the community.