Matt Black: A Commitment to Truth
Freelance photographer Matt Black is a native of rural California, and grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, a rich agricultural region that, ironically, is also home to a number of impoverished ethnic communities, among them immigrants from Mexico, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, as well as a dwindling population of black sharecroppers that migrated to California during the Dust Bowl era. Since 1998 he has been documenting such communities through the interrelated thematic prisms of migration, agriculture and rural poverty. Inspired by the socially committed photographers of the 1930s, Black specializes in the extended photo essay, spending months, sometimes years photographing a particular place or community. His powerful, dreamlike and unflinching images serve to raise awareness of overlooked and marginalized populations for whom the American Dream is on permanent deferral.
Where did you grow up?
In the town of Visalia. I live nearby now, in a town called Lemon Cove.
Were you visually oriented as a child?
I may have been. But the arts weren’t really part of my family’s history, and photography is something I came to later, on my own.
What started you off on photography?
I discovered it in high school and learned enough to get a night job at a local newspaper. The darkroom became my second home.
Did the environment in which you were raised help shape your photographic concerns?
I don’t know. I think that we all come pretty much pre-programmed with a certain way of seeing the world, and engaging with it. On the issue of why I am doing this in the first place, or why here, it became a question of: Why go traipsing halfway around the world, when the thing I want to explore is right around the corner? It’s that simple, really, and to a certain extent I felt duty bound to begin this work here.
Saint's Day celebration. Oaxaca, Mexico
How do you choose your projects? Are they all self-assigned?
Yes. I have a place or a group of people that I want to explore and I get started.
Why do you focus so intently on immigrant populations, small towns and rural environments?
It’s a world that attracts me, both as a photographer and as a person. These people and places resonate with me, and I’m fascinated by all of it. Also, I think it’s important that they be paid attention to. But I’m not driven by some sort of activist or political agenda, other than an attempt to engage and address what I see.
Your work exhibits a strong concern for people who are generally ignored by the media except in ways that are stereotyped and condescending. This lends your photographs a political component, albeit one organically embedded in the visual narrative. How important is the need to instill a sociopolitical message in your photographs, and why is photography the best medium with which to do so?
I simply try to show the thing I am photographing as honestly as I can, being true to what’s there and to my own feelings as an observer. I think of it as emotional honesty. To try to turn everything into symbols or to have some sort of overarching message is too simple for me. If there is a guiding message, it’s right there in the images: that paying attention to these sorts of places is worthwhile. The process of photography continues to fascinate me, but it’s really more a means of addressing things, a way of engaging. I rarely think about it outside of that, in any kind of abstract terms. I just try to keep focused on sharpening it, on strengthening the acuity of the portrayal.
Where does your empathy for disadvantaged populations come from?
I’m not really sure. I like and deeply respect the people I photograph. There’s a real affinity that is a part of me and which I can’t fake, and I want the pictures to reflect that. I understand the rules of the world that they are coming from, and respect them. I also have lots of respect for hard work, which is kind of the prime factor in these sorts of places.
Texas migrant at home. Allensworth, California
You depict these subjects with dignity, but also honesty, showing their faults as well as their virtues. In other words, you present them as individuals, not nameless statistics. This, of course, is a fundamental tenet of good photojournalism, but one that’s perhaps not adhered to as often as it once was. Is this something you’ve thought about much, or is it more intuitive?
I just try to stay focused on producing something that rings true, that doesn’t pander. There are an untold number of photographs taken in rural places in which it’s obvious that someone has swooped in with the sole purpose of propagandizing some cause or another. Sometimes that’s all well and good, but I think ultimately that kind of approach leads to shallow, clichéd and unconvincing work. The cause might be a worthy one—and might even be one that I sympathize with—but that is not the role of my work. I take things as they are, and work to put the photographs in the service of stating that as strongly as possible.
The photograph of the cotton migrant at home is a beautiful example of utilizing environment as metaphor to comment on your subject’s circumstances. Do you consciously look for metaphor, or do you channel it intuitively?
I think all that comes later and I think that’s more for the viewer to say than for me. I go there and I react and I hope that I’m being sensitive and perceptive, and that what I’m producing rings true. The pictures are just the result of that process. Of course, I have certain goals in my mind while I’m working, but they tend to be broader, more cumulative.
One of the recurring themes in your work seems to be the attempt to retain a sense of community in spite of crumbling infrastructures and lack of opportunities—employment, cultural and social—even if that sense of community is limited to one’s immediate family. Any comment?
Frankly, I haven’t thought of it like that before. It’s just a different world with a different set of rules and different ways of doing things.
Is it fair to say that yours is a vision of America most people are unaware of, or don’t want to know about?
Mostly, I think they are unaware.
Louisiana migrant. Teviston, California
Your pictures seem to emphasize the traits we all have in common rather than those that set us apart.
I am a believer in the idea that all people are essentially the same; it is circumstance that determines the rest.
How important is it to get the general public to pay attention to these overlooked corners of the country?
It’s quite important. I think that the collective understanding of this country is very superficial, and big parts of it are just left out, deemed unimportant. It’s not just about being unfair; it’s something that makes for the kind of places where things are allowed to fester. It’s a whole other world, an alternate America. To the extent that my photographs can play a part in addressing some of that, I’m more than proud.
Do you think it’s possible to break through the wall of inertia and ignorance with which we insulate ourselves from unpleasant truths?
I believe that when you present something that’s real, that’s well done, and told in an honest way, people are moved. I think the bemoaning that this has been lost is more often used as an excuse for not doing the work, or for excusing poor quality: “Oh we can’t do this because no one cares anymore.” I think that’s too simplistic, too easy a way out.
Does photography retains its power to move people today, considering how many images confront us daily?
Yes, I do. I think people can tell when something is real, and done honestly. Maybe the proliferation of images can help to set serious work apart, because it so obviously stands out from the rest.
Three Rocks, California
I was intrigued by your statement in another interview that it’s not necessarily important to understand why you are drawn to photographing a particular subject.
We all have a particular place, thing or idea that resonates with us, and to which we are drawn, because it just feels right. It’s the same with taking photographs. The strength of photography is based on spontaneity and intuitiveness, and going in laden with preconceptions or formulaic approaches can get in the way of that. I try to simply absorb as much of a particular place as I can—all the little things that maybe can’t be photographed—internalize them, and let that feeling guide me. Ultimately, it’s the degree of affinity for what’s in front of you that determines the quality of your work: how in tune you are, and how deeply it moves you. I think the pictures reveal all of that.
How much time do you generally spend on a particular project?
The beginning and ending dates get kind of fuzzy for me. I go to these places regularly, but generally, I’ve spent anywhere from six months to a couple of years working in some of these towns. Sometimes things come quickly, and sometimes they don’t. I try to be open and just show up.
How does the work you’ve done in Mexico, Guatemala and Bolivia intersect with your San Joaquin Valley projects?
Latin America has always held a fascination for me, particularly Mexico, where I have spent the most time, because of the obvious links between here and there. It feels like a direct connection, a continuation of the same world. Working there is for me the exact same thing, addressing the same concerns.
Who are some of your photographic influences? I ask because your pictures remind me a bit of Josef Koudelka’s gypsy photographs. There are visual parallels in terms of how you both group people within the frame, push grain to the extreme, and impart a mood of mystery and ambiguity. His work also had a strong yet discreet political edge.
Well, that’s very flattering. I have to say, though, the amount of time I spend thinking about the mechanics of photography, how pictures are put together, is very small. It’s more general than that; I just have an itching notion of the world I’m trying to represent and I try to be attuned to that, rather than try to impose some sort of “photographic” approach on the situation. To me, a picture is something that happens, and my part in the process is simply to be receptive, to be open. I don’t think you can force things. All of the photographic aspects—camera, lens, film—are pretty much settled for me. Now, it’s just about using it as a kind of language, of sharpening the portrayal.
Dawn. Firebaugh, California
Some of your images seem to flirt with a subtle visual surrealism, which makes me wonder if you’re open to introducing subject elements to what is essentially documentary photography.
If certain images register as surreal it’s because surrealism is part of that world, and represents a part of life there that I want to convey. I’m not injecting anything; I’m pointing out what’s there, hopefully in a strong way. In other words, I’m trying to build a world in the photographs, and subjectivity is part of that process, I suppose, but I don’t use that as a license to turn everything into something about me. That’s a bit too simple, an excuse people use when their portrayal is out of tune. For me, it’s about confronting my subjects with a camera and them confronting me with their reality. That puts things on an equal footing, and lets them establish the rules of their world. Because it’s clearly their world, not mine.
Speaking of grain, do you push your film to enhance the mood of the images?
I don’t think about it that much. Like I said, I have been using the same film and everything for a fair amount of time. To me, it just looks right. It’s just how photographs should look.
W. Eugene Smith felt that to be a successful photographer, one had to have conviction that nothing was more important than photography. Do you also feel that way?
God, I understand. All that I can say is that I think you get to a point where you know what you want out of your work, and it’s hard to let something go until you think you’ve accomplished it, until it satisfies that initial ambition you had. That can lead to all sorts of complications, but I think if you stop doing that, stop the pursuit, you’re done.
(Visit www.mattblack.com to expand your perceptions of an America largely hidden from view. An abridged version of this interview appeared in the September 2008 issue of B&W magazine.)