Scrolling through Instagram for most people is a means of everyday escapism to highly edited snapshots of vacations, parties, and meals. Transient photographer Matt Black is putting a realist spin on this experience during a road trip documenting poor communities across the US. Dubbed the Geography of Poverty, Black combines geo-tagging and census data to each black and white photo along his route (pictured below), adding a sense of depth and scale to poverty in the US. The project is viewable on Instagram and Twitter, as well as on MSNBC.
In an interview with The Guardian, Black explains: “In the mainstream media, poverty is often looked at in isolation, but it is an American problem. It seems to me that it goes unreported because it does not fit the way America sees itself.” This is Black’s second summer trip photographing for this project. Posting updates through Instagram has brought about comments ranging from grief to surprise to recognizing an aspect of one’s own community.
Zooming into the poverty profile infograph on MSNBC.com, it isn’t surprising that 37% of New Yorkers live below the poverty line. A longer report on the North East region written by Trymaine Lee focusing on Flint, MI and other Northeast post-industrial cities, raises alarm to the dire circumstance of areas not normally dubbed as troubled. In Flint General Motors employed more than 80,000 of its 200,000 residents in the 1960s and 70s. Today GM employs around 5,000 workers. The city has never recovered from this massive loss of jobs—poverty and crime are widespread. The loss of power for unions representing manufacturing workers has led to falling average wages. Black’s accompanying photographs depict a school in Detroit, MI, a vacant shopping center in Toledo, Ohio, and train station in Buffalo, NY, all shuttered. Representative of alarming rates of poverty, these photographs of abandoned community centers have a sense of repetition—piles of paint peels; a massive crowd of birds idling—which speaks to systemic downward spiral.
Traveling across the US to capture to photograph poor communities is reminiscent of the goal of Resettlement Association (RA), later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA), photographers during the Great Depression, including James Walker Evans. Walker Evans’ photographs of 1940s Southern sharecroppers accompanied James Agee’s retelling of relentless poverty and consequences in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Other FSA photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, traveled across the US during Roosevelt’s New Deal era producing iconic photos, such as “Migrant Mother,” which rallied the public opinion on the harmful impact of unemployment.
70 years later, Black carries on the tradition of documentary photography as a means of bringing awareness to underrepresented communities. He captures a vast and heavy emptiness in each shot, illustrating a balance of integrity and need in portraits of buildings, field workers, and the homeless. With the help of data journalists, Black attaches each image to interactive data infographics so the viewer sees how a group or individual plugs into larger race, societal, and economic epidemics. His travel route was mapped out using census data so that Black has to drive no more than two hours to reach another affected town.
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