'America From The Bottom': Documenting Poverty Across The Country

Jan 27, 2018
Originally published on March 27, 2018 10:18 am

For the past four years, Matt Black has tried to document poverty in the U.S. He's traveled to places where it's both very common and often overlooked, trying to make poverty more visible to America.

Black, who is an associate member of Magnum Photos, has been working on a project called The Geography of Poverty. He's traveled about 100,000 miles across 46 states, and some of his photos appear in the current issue of Time magazine.

Black spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about the project and what he's learned about poverty in the U.S.


Interview Highlights

On what he sees across the country's landscape

What I see is this wide gap, this perception gap between, you know, these mythologies of America that we like to tell ourselves, that it's a land of opportunity and so on, and the lived experiences in so many communities, you know, across the country. I mean the fact of the matter is, the growing gap between rich and poor in this country is consigning people to a fate that is largely inescapable. If you are born poor in America today you are likely to die poor. If you are born rich, the same.

On reflecting on the photo he took of a man in his home in Sunflower County, Miss.

You know, one of the things I heard repeatedly on the section of this trip that took me through the South was that, you know, these communities really were the front line during the Civil Rights Movement 50 years ago, but many of the benefits of that era and of that movement went elsewhere.

On what he's learned about what it means to be poor in the U.S.

You know, to me in the end poverty is not really an economic question. It's a question of power: Who gets their needs met, which communities get their needs met and which communities don't. And that's what I'm attempting to photograph here — it's not poverty in an objectified sense, but poverty in the sense of a lived experience. OK, what is it like to be here? What is it like to have your reality surrounded by these certain totems of power, social power? Is your street paved or is it not? Do the street lights work or do they not? When you go downtown are four of the five businesses on a certain block, are they shuttered and closed? What is the effect upon people's sense of self? A community sense of self? And so on. All of these glimpses that you catch out of the corner of your eye but that form the environment of living or growing up or, you know, experiencing America from the bottom. From the most brutal bottom.

NPR's Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the Web.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We turn now to a photojournalist who is trying to make poverty more visible to America, where it's both very common and often overlooked. The last four years Matt Black who is an associate member of Magnum Photos has been working on a project called "The Geography Of Poverty." He's traveled about a hundred thousand miles across 46 states. Some of his photos appear in the current issue of Time magazine. Matt Black joins us now from Valley Public Radio in Clovis, Calif.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MATT BLACK: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: What do you see in the landscape of America that sometimes calls out to you?

BLACK: What I see is this wide gap, this perception gap between, you know, these mythologies of America that we like to tell ourselves, that it's a land of opportunity and so on and, you know, the lived experiences in so many communities, you know, across the - across the country. I mean, the fact of the matter is in the growing gap between rich and poor in this country is consigning people to a fate that is largely inescapable. If you are born poor in America today, you are likely to die poor. If you are born rich, the same.

SIMON: I'm going to ask you about a couple of images, if I could - try and describe them as best I can. A snowy landscape, a tattered fence, a very sparse tree, a man in a snow jacket and then a dog who looks very hungry. And it makes you wonder if the man in the snowsuit isn't hungry, too.

BLACK: Yeah, I took that photograph on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation just south of Standing Rock as I was following a horseback commemoration of the Wounded Knee Massacre. It takes place over the course of several weeks in December in the height of, you know, the freezing temperatures across the Dakotas. You know, again it's these pockets of America that are left out of the narrative, are left out of the stories that we like to tell ourselves about our country.

SIMON: Let me ask about another image in here. Two, four, six, eight - looks like - old, beaten cast iron pans against a weathered wall. Are they open paint cans? And everything in the picture just looks weary. Do you remember that?

BLACK: I do. That's in Rome, Miss., a few miles up the road from Drew in Sunflower County in the delta. And, you know, one of the things I heard repeatedly on the section of this trip that took me through the South was that, you know, these communities really were kind of the front line during the civil rights movement 50 years ago. But many of the benefits of that era and of that movement went elsewhere.

SIMON: You know, I went through your images Mr. Black. And - I say this with great respect for your artistry - they reminded me of the ones you can see from James Agee's and Walker Evans' "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," which is considered one of the great works of American nonfiction. But of course they took those pictures during the Depression. You are taking your photos in the midst of what's supposed to be a great economic success story and recovery.

BLACK: Well, the recovery is not, you know, evenly distributed across the country. There still remains, you know, large swaths of America where, you know, opportunities do not exist.

SIMON: What have you learned in this project about what it means to be poor in the United States?

BLACK: You know, to me in the end, poverty is not really an economic question. It's a question of power. Who gets their needs met? Which communities get their needs met, and which communities don't? And that's what I'm attempting to photograph here - is not poverty in an objectified sense but poverty in the sense of a lived experience. OK, what is it like to be here? What is it like to have your reality surrounded by these certain kind of totems of power, social power. Is your street paved, or is it not? Do the streetlights work, or do they not? When you go downtown, are four of the five businesses on a certain block - are they shuttered and closed? What is the effect upon people's sense of self, a community's sense of self and so on? All these glimpses kind of - that you catch out of the corner of your eye but that form the environment of living or growing up or, you know, experiencing America from the bottom, from the most brutal bottom.

SIMON: Matt Black - his project is called "The Geography Of Poverty." Some photos appear in the current issue of Time magazine.

Mr. Black, thanks so much for being with us.

BLACK: No, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.