Matt Eich is a young American with a passion for photographing the people of the land that he calls home. Having recently exhibited his series, The Invisible Yoke, in New York, Alia Thomas caught up with him to find out more about photographing the American Condition.
AT: What led you towards photojournalism?
ME: I've always been interested in people and social issues for whatever reason. When I was in high school I played a lot of music in different bands but felt pretty unfulfilled. In most art schools you have to spend a couple years on introductory art classes (drawing, painting, etc.) when I just wanted to get my hands on a camera and begin making pictures. Photojournalism seemed like a good fit, and was a great training ground, though I don't call myself a photojournalist these days. While that's certainly my foundation and where I cut my teeth, I don't cover news and I've developed a distaste for the way in which most media organizations report on issues and generally run their business. At this point I just go under the moniker of "photographer" and I keep an open mind.
AT: Can you tell me a little about your most recent project and how it came about?
ME: There isn't one "most recent" project... they all sort of blend together after a while, moving into the forefront and then to the background. For the last few years I have devoted most of my project time to "Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town," an exploration of race and class disparities in Greenwood, Mississippi. It started as an editorial assignment in April of 2010 and has become a bit of an obsession ever since. The work I started in school, "Carry Me Ohio" is something that has been tickling the back of my brain of late as I've considered returning and filling in some of the gaps and flaws in the project. I'm constantly making family photographs and documenting my daily life. I'd really like to be wandering around America with a panoramic camera making images about the American condition, if I had the time and money to float freely.
AT: You mentioned “Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town” as your most worked on project of recent years. What about it drew you in so much to decide to carry it on from an assignment to a project of your own?
ME: Over time one becomes attuned to a certain kind of openness that does not occur everywhere. I like assignment work because it feels good to be paid to work, and doesn't require an enormous emotional investment. That said, everywhere I go, I'm searching for someone or something that interests me. When I arrived in the Baptist Town neighbourhood of Greenwood, Mississippi in April of 2010, I knew immediately that there was something special about the place, but as an outsider, I couldn't put my finger on what it was. It was a combination of things, lots of intersecting issues, but it mostly has to do with the people, and the way that they interact with others. I felt at home there and have grown close to a number of folks in the community.
AT: You say you dip in and out of projects over time, leaving and coming back to them after a while. How do you decide when projects like these are finished?
ME: The projects that I take on are amorphous and shape-shift over time.They could go on without end, so concluding the work is more about the goals I set for myself. The work I was making in Ohio has been "done" for a little while in that I haven't had the time or resources to return, but I've got specific images in my mind that constitute holes in that body of work. Things that I would like to add, to make it more complete. In Mississippi, I tell myself the work will be done when I'm able to bring the work back and display it in the community. Who knows when that will be, but it will require a lot of external support. In Virginia, where I live, I created a massive exhibition and showed the work throughout the region, and yet, I am still making images that build on that series of images.
AT: You mentioned about photographing the American Condition if you had the time and money to. As a young American, how would you describe the American Condition? How does this viewpoint influence your work?
ME: This is a good question, and it is a hard one to answer as our "condition" shifts with the sands of time. As a man in my late 20s with a wife and two children, I can say that I don't feel very optimistic about our future. Making a living and being a present father figure are almost contradictory notions in the world of photography. Our nation is full of contradictions too ... we preach freedom but oppress anyone who might impede our way of life. We are politically polarized, unable to see the commonalities that should bind us together. My generation is disillusioned by the evaporation of the American dream. Was it ever really there, or just a manufactured lie? We profit from war. There is a growing gap between generations in America, as well as a growing gap between rich and poor. The generation before us still believes that anyone can succeed if they "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" but that just isn't the case any more. All of these things collide and certainly affect my work ... there is an element of fear and unknowing that comes with every time I go somewhere with a camera, but I try to temper this with love.
AT: You’ve recently exhibited “The Invisible Yoke” at The Half King in New York. What was the driving force behind this project? Did it start off as an assignment, or was this a personal project?
ME: The Invisible Yoke is a blending of almost a decade worth of work, divided into four chapters. Some of it stemmed from assignment work, but it is all rooted in my insatiable curiosity and my desire to understand where we are headed as a nation.
AT: "The Invisible Yoke" differs from your other work as it’s divided into chapters. Does the separation represent the personal goals you had in mind for the project, or do they each have an underlying significance?
ME: Each chapter is divided by place, and each place has its own historical legacy that shapes our collective memory of that region. Initially, I had envisioned each chapter as a separate body of work, and I have exhibited the projects separately in the past. The more I kept working on it the more useless it felt to compartmentalise these different projects as separate, as I came to realise that the work had been intertwined from the beginning.
— Alia Smallwood Thomas