Matt Black’s ‘moral’ photography of America’s sprawling poverty

“It’s a very simple idea: to say no, this is not isolated, it’s literally everywhere and it’s something we all need to address squarely,” says Matt Black. 

For newly appointed Magnum nominee Black, photography is as much an exercise in morality as it is one in aesthetics and artistry.

That high-minded idea has been put, steadily and consistently into practice, evidenced by the two decades he’s spent exploring the rural United States, meeting communities that have been excluded and neglected.

His work caught the attention of Magnum Photos, who named him as a Magnum Nominee this year alongside Carolyn Drake, Lorenzo Meloni, Richard Mosse, Max Pinckers and Newsha Tavakolian (featured in our September 2015 issue.)

Black’s current ongoing project, The Geography of Poverty, is perhaps his deepest foray into these strongly-felt concerns. He’s travelling across the United States photographing communities with poverty rates of over 20 per cent, the official level for a ‘poverty area’.

There are over 70 towns that meet the ’20 per cent’ standard and this in itself, Black finds appalling:

“I think it’s incredible that this route is even possible. That you can literally cross the country, travelling from coast to coast, stopping only in these ‘poverty areas’, they’re just everywhere.”

As Black explains, he decided to chart his movement in a thoroughly modern and accessible way:

“Over a year and a half ago I looked at Instagram for the first time,” he says. “It was becoming a ‘thing’ in the photography world [though] I always dismissed it as something that seemed frivolous and light.

“One thing that stood out to me right off the bat was this ‘mapping’ feature they have. My work is about trying to put these forgotten, marginalised communities in the spotlight, and, not to stretch the metaphor too far, literally on the map.

“That naturally led to this idea of documenting these communities from a perspective of poverty, and then literally attaching them to the map.”

The result is exhaustive and empathetic; a prime example of the possibilities that digital photography allows, bringing together imagery, geo-data and mapping to create an unassailable narrative.

Black’s previous work, including Face of the Mountain (shooting deserted Mexican villages) and The Black Okies (images of black sharecroppers redolent of Dorothea Lange) confirm his immersion into the intersection of migration, agriculture and poverty in North America. Do Americans respond to images of American poverty differently than they do to Third World hardship?

“That’s the comfort zone. ‘There’s poverty but it’s elsewhere’, either it’s not in their community, or neighbourhood, or state, and it keeps growing until it’s not in their country. It’s a huge blind spot that some people have. It’s not just an individual perspective, it’s a collective thing that colours the way people think of their society. It’s a way of excluding.

“This project, my work in general, and I think the broader role that documentary photography should play, is in pointing out those uncomfortable realities.”

While the Great Recession kicked off levels of economic waning unseen since World War II, for most of the towns depicted in Black’s series, poverty has been a fact of life for generations.

As heavy industry in America slows to a trudge, these areas have been left to rust – afflicted with de facto racial segregation, poor schooling and crumbling infrastructure.

While inequality has become a buzzword globally in recent years, the subjects Black photographs aren’t attending Bernie Sanders’ rallies or Occupy Wall Street sit-ins – they have truly been left behind.

“There is a broad feeling across the US that there are huge portions of the country that are just ignored from the whole concept of what America’s supposed to be. We don’t allow those folks to talk to us, to share that feeling. Their communities are like my community back in California, it’s not on an even playing field with these higher ideals of where democracy is supposed to be and how an open society is supposed to function. There’s a consensus that there are things wrong.”

Black grew up in California’s Central Valley, an agricultural region a far cry from the sleek avenues of Los Angeles or the rolling hills of San Francisco. His familiarity with these neighbourhoods, with these people, has brought him closer to the story.

“You do experience things differently as a photographer. You experience things more viscerally and directly, you go places that other people don’t go. That’s what it does, it immerses you even more deeply in an environment and you tend to form even stronger opinions based on that. To me thats one of the great rewards of doing this work, you get to see things on this basic, human, observational level, and it informs who you are as a person.”

Despite having his work recognised both nationally (he is working with MSNBC to continue the work) and internationally (his Magnum nomination), Black doesn’t seem easily swayed by acclaim or awards. For him, the work is the thing. But with his sense of fairness and equality, public policy or activism might’ve been more obvious avenues. So why take photos?

“Photography is the voice I have and when you accept a voice or you accept a medium to work in you also inherently accept its limitations. So I focus on what I can do best, which is the production of this work and trying to make the strongest possible statement I can.”

See more of Matt’s photography here.