American culture promotes the long-standing belief that this country is the land of opportunity — that if you try hard enough, you can build the life you want. But that belief has been severely tested, especially recently, with rising income inequality, skyrocketing housing, healthcare and education costs, and the long-term effects of redlining and other exclusionary practices being laid bare. Nonetheless, the myth persists, at least until you look at photographer Matt Black’s first book, American Geography.
Black is from the Central Valley in California, which has been one of the poorest regions in the country for the past century. He has spent almost three decades documenting the area, inspired by author John Steinbeck and photographer Dorothea Lange. His images, which are known for their high-contrast, almost cinematic aesthetic, deal with farming, poverty, and the social condition, topics that are easy to sideline as not being relevant to other, wealthier areas.
To challenge this assumption, Black crisscrossed the country by mapping out a route of towns and cities that had poverty rates above 20%. Shockingly, every place he visited was within two hours driving distance of another, indicating that the vast majority of the country is dealing with chronic poverty.
What he found over the course of five trips and the span of nine years belies the idea of opportunity and reveals the structural obstacles to success, from a lack of basic infrastructure to a long history of broken or unfulfilled promises. Although his pictures of people and places on the margins are singular, they call to mind the work of earlier documentarians who looked critically at American society, such as Robert Frank.
Black wants the viewer to realize that this is what the details of inequality look like on the ground, and that it is the norm, not the exception, for a large swath of citizens. His book also has a companion site that provides additional details and context about his journey. He spoke with BuzzFeed News about the importance of visibility and what it’s like to spend weeks on a bus.
I know it's something that you've talked about before, but let's start at the beginning. You were a journalist in the Central Valley for about two decades, right?
Yes. Starting actually in 1987, my junior year in high school at the local newspaper. I did that for a few years, went to school and then came back to start these photojournalistic projects focused on this place, and I did that for 20 years basically, which really kind of ties directly to the instigation of this book.
I work on these stories here, but they spoke to these universal themes. I felt like I was constantly hitting a wall in that regard, and that my work was being dismissed because of geography, because it's this place in the middle of nowhere.
You stopped traveling for this project about a year ago now. In some ways, this is a pretty volatile point in America. Why did you choose to produce the book now?
Well, so much changed from the time I started. When I started Obama was the president.
The stories that I've done in the past and the stories I was doing here take this idea that you're uncovering things, or you're looking backwards at things that have been forgotten, things that have been overlooked.
There is an assumption that there was a pool of goodwill to just see issues get fixed, and that this visibility is the mechanism by which change comes in America. But all of a sudden, all those things started to be questioned.
So instead of looking backwards or bringing things to light that were inadvertently overlooked, it started to feel more like prognostications, like, Oh my god, we're not coming from this and going to someplace better. We're going backwards.
It didn't make me question the validity of the photos or the outcome of doing this work, but it changed the context around it.
You mentioned that you are really influenced by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and by some of the journalists and photographers who were working in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Some of the images that you're making feel like they could still be of that time — you have an interview with a man in Kentucky who references Johnson, and I had to double-check that he was talking recently. Can you talk about the timeless sense of this work?
That's interesting to bring up the Kentucky thing. There's this different kind of time we're talking about, particularly of places like here in the Central Valley. To me, those pictures from the FSA are not just examples of good photography. It's part of the history, of the texture of this place. It is what shaped us. The Dust Bowl here completely transformed this place, and it's part of the local language, it's part of the music you hear on the radio, it's part of everything.
That history is much closer. The same is true in Kentucky. It's a commonality between places like this. Johnson and the change that was promised during that time is still very much part of the identity. It's a really important thing to that part of Kentucky, Martin County, that the president of the United States came and stood on Harold's porch.
I'm very sensitive about the FSA thing. I'm trying to make a subtlety, but talking about it. I don't feel I'm working in that same way at all. I'm working from a completely different kind of perspective and a completely different time. But it is part of the reality that shaped me, both the place I'm from, the actual events, and those photographs. They exist on a continuum. If you go into Mississippi, how do you get away from Faulkner? You're not. It's the same idea.
Can you talk a little bit about how you mapped this and how you went about visiting each of these places?
There's this concept called concentrated poverty, when a community has a poverty rate of above 20%, that's a threshold number. I decided to map all of these areas of concentrated poverty in the Central Valley. and then this idea and opportunity came up to do a trip to take it beyond the Central Valley.
It sounds kind of strange, but I had no idea if I'd be able to find enough places with 20% or higher poverty that could make a route that would make any sense. I literally took a map and census data and was putting dots on the map. Before I even started the trip or traveling, it blew my mind that you could actually find enough of these areas to be able to cross the whole country, and back. I felt like I'd already made this discovery, and that just set me on fire.
This is no longer about the place, this is everywhere. This challenges some pretty profound assumptions about how we look at the country. I was publishing the trips as journalistic pieces, and then within each trip there would be areas of focus.
Driving was a big part of it, exploring and getting to a place and just walking and looking and trying to kind of stitch together this visual narrative. There was also a lot of journalism involved. During the first trip, somewhat by chance, I went to Flint. I was looking for an example of a Rust Belt city, where I could stay a few weeks and concentrate on the issues of unemployment. People were talking about [the water] in town, but it hadn't become a story yet.
Relatedly, I somewhat by chance chose Standing Rock as a way to look at natural resources. The dam that's on the river there, when they built it, they flooded the historical community. When I was there people, same thing as in Flint, they're talking about, Oh, there's this pipeline they want to do. We should really do something about that. And then the next year, both of those things exploded.
Honestly, it did feel strange because my whole identity as a photographer and as a person is like, I'm going to focus on my corner. I didn't like the idea of being some journalist that has no stake in the stories that they're telling and all that. I rejected that whole concept, but this felt legitimate because when I was building this story. I was telling the story of my place basically through all of these other places and looking for these commonalities. I feel like I inadvertently put my finger on this kind of live wire.
You reference that you're traveling to a lot of these places by train or by bus. Can you talk a little bit about that and the choice to do that?
The second trip I did, in 2016 or the end of 2015, was by Greyhound. I went from Calexico, California, on the border to Maine and back.
That's a long journey on a bus.
It was very long. I was utterly tired of driving after that first trip, and then [the bus] just felt like the proper place to be sitting. A lot of the material that has to do with the bus and [being] so uncomfortable that one trip. It's so limiting though, on a bus. Buses have really changed in America, I learned.
Well, you don't have bus stations anymore. On the East Coast, you do, but in the rest of the country, you don't. So a bus station will be like, the parking lot of a convenience store, oftentimes next to the highway. One example, this is the second or third stop on that trip was in Gallup, New Mexico, in the middle of winter. It was January, and I got dropped off at the bus stop. It's 6 miles to town.
That's what this whole thing is talking about. Just the grinding wheels of America on top of people who take the bus, on top of people who don't have money. Basically I just got a huge dose of that on that trip, and I'm glad I did it. I had to go back to driving for the other ones, but there's something so powerful about that bus trip.
At some point, I'm not sure if it made it into the book or not, but in one of the notebook entries I had dealt with trying to wash your clothes without a car and without a laundry machine, without like just going to the laundromat and back. It's all day, right? By the time you get over there and the machine's broken and eats your quarters and you know — there's the saying, I didn't coin it, but there's this saying is, “It's expensive to be poor.” And it's expensive in time too. Everything takes multiple steps, multiple trips. One misstep and you're completely shattered, right? Broken taillight. There's a $300 ticket that you can't afford. And there goes your car. All those kinds of things.
What do you want to make sure that viewers see when they look at this book?
I'm trying to show that the country actually is from the ground level. It's not something that was invented. This was: You get in the car, you drive, you don't just go to the usual locations. You actually cover the ground. This is what you see.
I went into this with the idea that I would have to look, that this would be difficult to find. It's not. It's not difficult to find these stories. I think it's back to this idea of how we regard poverty in this country. We still cling to these ideas of the land of opportunity, bootstraps, all these things, and they are not applicable. It does not work anymore — and the people are the victims, who walk around and live their lives feeling as if their circumstance is their fault, an example of their own personal failings. So I want to challenge the entire ideology. It's not accurate. It's not based on the actual reality of this country.
Have things changed in the Central Valley over the course of your reporting there?
It depends on how you define change. It still remains one of the poorest regions in the country. There have been improvements. A lot of those improvements were the result of these social movements, hand in hand with photography and journalism. Just down from where I live is farmworker housing that was built back in the ‘30s. Eleanor Roosevelt came to the ribbon cutting, and it was built in direct response to the pictures of Dorothea Lange and the other FSA people that were coming here at that time.
People got tired of seeing those pictures of people living on the side of roads, and that's what drove the public will. There's other examples of things like that — does that mean that everybody here now has great housing? No, but it does mean that some do. Bathrooms are now required in the fields, shade, and drinking water for people who are working in the fields. That was not the case before the farm workers union, and they worked hand in hand with reporters and photographers to push those changes.
We've gotten so cynical now about the role of documentary, which I understand. I fell completely out of love with how journalism is practiced in this country. However, that does not mean that these roles of communication about social issues are not crucially important because if they are, that's how change actually occurs.
I'm not going anywhere. I'm back in the Central Valley, and I'm starting to reconnect with stories here, focusing locally again. I'm not going to rule out the idea that I'm going to begin traveling again, but for right now, I want to still maintain these roots. It's just what feels right. That makes sense.
Any final things about this book that I didn't talk about that you want to address?
There's a history of poverty that I really want to convey, and I want to make it clear that this does not occur kind of in a vacuum. And it does not occur by someone coming in from outside. This is coming from someone who's been on the inside of these communities for a long time. I kind of dedicated my life to doing that here.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.