Overview: An epic journey along the poverty line in the United States | Photography

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In 2015, photographer Matt Black left his home in Central Valley, California to explore and record the realities of American life in communities below the poverty line. Over the next six years, he crisscrossed the country from coast to coast, visiting the hundreds of places below this federally defined division in which more than one in five Americans live in the poverty. None of these places were separated by more than two hours of driving. Black has traveled over 100,000 miles without ever visiting this other more familiar country where the life expectancy was 20 years longer and the earnings several zeros larger.

Part of her inspiration for this trip came from Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the Depression and the writings of John Steinbeck. Almost a century later, he found countless stories that shared the lineaments of that despair. Young men in dusty cabins and characterless trailer parks who sell their blood for a living; families unable to obtain clean water, which is kept alive by food stamps. Speaking to Observer, at the start of his journey, Black said, “All of these diverse communities are connected, especially in their helplessness. In the mainstream media, poverty is often viewed in isolation, but it is an American problem. It seems to me that this is not reported because it does not match the way America sees itself. “

Black’s epic book of photographs from his journey, American geography, is a humiliating and powerful correction to this myopia. He notes how the quest has continually challenged both “my faith in my country and my own role”. This photograph was taken in Lindsay, California (population 11,768, 35.8% of whom live in poverty). Winding road markings on a dark plain seem somehow emblematic of its historical quest, in which lights of direction and hope are scarce.

  • An exhibition of works by American Geography is at the Magnum Gallery, London EC1V through December 17. Matt Black is also leading Magnum’s latest online course, The Documentary Commitment.


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