Simply Human: The Photographs of Matt Eich
by Cheryl S. White
RVA Magazine, Spring 2011, No.4
by Cheryl S. White
RVA Magazine, Spring 2011, No.4
Named one of Photo District News’ 30 Emerging Photographers to Watch in 2010, Matt Eich’s work explores the subtle and often harsh reality of contemporary American life. The first half of his ongoing project, SIN & SALVATION IN BAPTIST TOWN, is currently on view at Lorrie Saunders ArtGallery in Norfolk, Virginia. These firsthand, frank and intimate images provoke a dialogue about the perpetual divisions of race and class in the south. According to Eich, “In a place like Baptist Town, Mississippi there are two paths you can take in life, but the people I have encountered tread the line between the two, walking both in light and shadow. They are neither good nor evil, they are simply human.”
An award winning photographer, Eich’s work has been exhibited internationally and is in the permanent collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His editorial clients are numerous and include National Geographic, TIME, Newsweek, Mother Jones, The FADER, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and GEO.
CW: Hi Matt. Thanks for talking with us. Tell me how you got started in photography?
ME: I was about 10-years old. I went on a road trip with my grandfather. It was about the time that my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I kind of watched her regress into her childhood over a period of time and watching her lose her memory really kicked off this desire to document life. So I picked up a camera and started making pictures, then it evolved from there. I went to school at Ohio University, studied photojournalism and I moved to Norfolk, VA in 2009.
CW: How did the SIN & SALVATION IN BAPTIST TOWN project come about?
ME: Earlier this year I got an assignment to go to down to Mississippi for AARP, we did a piece about rural health care. So we came into town for a few hours and just started meeting people. I realized how open the community was and that really spurred me to come back on my own a few times after that.
CW: How do you transition between your photojournalist work and actually working on your own projects?
ME: There is a lot of cross over. Whenever I’m doing an assignment, I’m always trying to be aware of what the editors needs are, but also trying for myself to spend time with people. I am always trying to, whether it is an assignment or a personal project, get as close to people as I can.
CW: How big is this town? What’s the population?
ME: Greenwood at large is bigger, but Baptist Town, the neighborhood shown in this exhibition in particular, has about 500 people.
CW: And you documented it over about 9 months?
ME: The project began in April, and this is something I’ll continue into 2011.
CW: Do you have an idea of how many photos you have taken?
ME: Not really (laughs) two thousand probably at this point. It has been about fourteen days over the course of five trips down there.
CW: Do you know pretty much everyone in town?
ME: I think just about everybody knows who I am when I come there now, not everyone of course, but the key players have all kind of encountered me at some point or another. I feel like they have been supportive and very encouraging to come back.
CW: I know a lot of images from the show are quite intimate, familiar scenes inside people’s homes, a series of images revolving around a funeral, how do you engage your subjects? How do you get past the barrier that sometimes gets thrown up around photographers?
ME: I just try to be as vulnerable with people as I hope that they will be with me. I put myself on their turf, and kind of on their terms and just try to get to know who they are. A lot of it has to do with how open you are with them and not just expecting them to open up immediately. The more time I spend with them, and if I bring back photographs that show the way that I see them, then they can really start to understand the nature of the relationship. I’ve found that helps to break down barriers.
CW: You wrote about the project while you were working on your blog In My Backyard, was that always part of the project?
ME: We do that regularly just to keep our viewers up-to-date on things. I’m part of a cooperative of photographers.
ME: Yes, LUCEO. So we are always updating with our projects and assignments and things. That really helped me develop a certain aspect of the work. It gave me time to think about it, to write about it a little bit. That’s how other people engage with the work, which is really important in this stage, before the idea is completely formed. So you get some feedback and thoughts from people about the direction we’ve taken this year.
CW: There are a lot of intimate moments that you share in that blog. Baptist Town has a great deal of drugs and violence that you definitely put yourself in the middle of. Do you have any words of wisdom to photographers venturing into similar situations?
ME: Always trust your gut. And always know if there is a way out whenever you walk into a room. What’s really helped me there is having people that have my back and I know who will look out for me, otherwise I don’t know if I could move as freely as I do in that place.
CW: You share in your blog your concern about being considered “the white boy with a camera,” the population of Baptist Town is predominantly African American. How did your race affect the type of image you were able to get?
ME: I feel like maybe they viewed me as a little bit of a novelty coming in. Originally people would respond, what do you want from us? Well, I don’t want anything from you. I just want to spend time with you. And that helped with the mistrust, I think, and over time they started to look at me more like a community photographer, coming and going. A lot of it is them showing me how they want to be portrayed visually. They might throw up a sign or they’d pose and show me what the picture is like to them. And I am bringing those images back to them, but I am also trying to make other images in between those posed pictures.
CW: Ultimately after having this body of work, you must go through that process of what is good, and what is bad. What is it that you are really hoping to capture both in these images, both for this exhibition and for publication?
ME: Overall, if I can develop this project the way I‘d like, I want to document this community more in depth and, of course, I want to photograph the white side of town. I hope to bring an exhibition to the community in that neighborhood. I also want to show commonalities between the two, that they are maybe not as separate as they might seem even though they are geographically removed from one another, both in the segregation that still stands from what they remember a long time ago and by the barrier of the train tracks between the two places. So that’s the direction it’s heading.
CW: Once you go to the other side of town, which is actually Greenwood, do you have any foresight as to how the project might play out? You came into a very open community in Baptist Town, how do you think it’ll be on the other side of the tracks?
ME: Well it is definitely the south and southern hospitality goes a long way. I am hoping to just treat people with respect and find that they treat me the same way.
CW: Have you ever thought, considering your intention of bringing those communities together for the exhibition, actually photographing them together physically? Have you found any relationships cross those train tracks?
ME: I’m looking for that.
CW: That would be a nice dialogue to show.
ME: I think mostly the crossover happens in work. Very few people in Baptist Town are employed, but the catfish farms and things like that employ some. They’ve got white bosses, so that’s probably where most of that overlap happens. I haven’t accessed that quite yet.
CW: When you initially approach a project—you have done photojournalistic projects such as Carry Me Ohio, which was a four year project, and for this project you have put in about nine months—do you give yourself a cut-off point? How do you know when this is done? Or do you plan on ten years later revisiting it?
ME: I try to set goals for the projects, have an outlet in mind, or kind of an endpoint. For the Carry Me Ohio project, that would be a book. And when I find a home for that, I’ll probably call it a day. For this project it’s going to be a little more in-depth. We are trying to have a multimedia piece with some video aspects. Also there is the exhibition that I want to bring to Greenwood and a dual-sided book. So that is going to take a little longer to pull all the pieces together.
CW: When you look around the exhibition, there are some distinct storylines. There is definitely an over-arching idea, with some images oriented to people and ones that lend themselves to a larger narrative. Others are devoid of humans but contain the weight of human presence, and you have included a video installation. How do you decide which images to show? Which ones you are going to put into a video or in a specific location?
ME: I guess it depends on the outlet. In terms of exhibitions, trying to get to know the space, how you can create a flow or an experience. When it’s the printed page, it is often dictated by an editor. But in book form, it is a little more free-flowing as you try to create this cumulative track of your work. Then the video of course, I’m always looking for pictures that move, it’s sort of what that boils down to.
CW: Was this your first time using video?
ME: It was.
CW: It is a transition you see pretty regularly, photographers moving into new media/video, how did it work out for you?
ME: From the beginning, a fun start, and it has been pretty successful for the exhibition. It was able to show people what it felt like to be there in a way that pictures… well pictures only say so much… but when you see someone move or they look back at you it can really take people there in a different way.
CW: It really does give life to the whole body of work. I have an ongoing debate with photographers about how to stay truthful. Photojournalistic work does have the ability to easily exploit someone. How do you stay true to your subject but also true to what you want to shoot and the story you want to tell? Do you have a way of balancing those two needs?
ME: It is always a question of communicating with people. I try not to walk into situations and say, “I know what the story is. I’m here for this, this, and this,” and check it off the list. I’d rather just sit and talk with people and have them tell what the story is, what is important for them, what they are looking for. It is a very organic process. Truthfulness is something that’s always debated in photography. Especially now, the veracity of the image is always questionable. Photojournalists have certain ethical constraints and guidelines that we work within. But, outside of that is trying to push the boundaries of what has been done, trying to push into an area that might be a little fresher.
CW: Tell me about LUCEO and how that came about.
ME: Well, there are six of us in the group that formed about four years ago and became a business in 2009. We are a cooperative of photographers. It is a photographer-owned and operated business. So we all divvy up the tasks within the group. Everyone’s got their own assignments and roles and are responsible for reporting back to the group about what gets done. We manage to work on our own personal photography projects but we are always collaborating, trying to edit one another’s stuff, and in communication about how we can push the business.
CW: During this project you got to know the very intimate lives of many of Baptist Town residents, sometimes taking multiple images over a period of time. Are there any specific people that you have a special interest in or who helped you out along the way?
ME: There are a few people that are very close to me at this point, and I think about them very fondly. And you get to the point that you miss them when you haven’t seen them in a while. One is Ellen. There is an image of her smoking a cigarette.
CW: Beautiful, beautiful image.
ME: The guy Winky, with the lazy eye, he’s got my back. He’s the reason why I can work there. And Vicki, I’m looking forward to going back and hanging out with her and her kids. And there are all these people I could circulate between, if I’m not hanging out with one, I can go to another person’s house. That makes it a lot easier being there, when you have people that know you.
CW: How long is your typical work trip?
ME: The longest trip I’ve had so far was five days and that was funded by an editorial client. The trips I’ve done on my own are much shorter and more pointed. They’re usually about 48 to 72 hours a piece and I’ll drive from here [Norfolk] to Mississippi and right back. It’s about a day and a half to get there and a day and a half to get back.
CW: What type of advice do you have for young photographers?
ME: Understand the business enough to sustain yourself. If you can’t eat, you can’t make pictures. Aside from that, try and find something that you really care about, run with it and make it yours. It’s really all about larger bodies of work when you are trying to make a statement or an impact. Single images can carry a certain amount of weight, and no one is discounting the weight of a strong photograph, but a series of images together really starts to be something.
CW: So what kind of camera do you use?
ME: Canon digital for the most part. There are certain other projects I shoot film, it depends on the outlet. But this work is all with a Canon 5D Mark II.
CW: Do you take a stand on the digital versus film world?
ME: Not really. For the most part I shoot digital for a time or for certain projects. It is pretty cost-effective and because I’ve managed to get it to a place where I am pretty pleased with colors. I’m trying to work within this color palette that’s actually akin to the film that I shoot. I do want to keep that kind of consistency. But there are certain projects where I need that flawed or human feeling that comes from film when you never know exactly what you are going to get.
CW: You never know. It’s a surprise.
ME: Yeah, but that is what matters.
CW: How much work do you put into the images after the shoot? Any cropping? Color correcting?
ME: Very little. It is all digital darkroom so some dodging, burning, contrasting, things like that. There is a little bit of color correction, just trying to keep it within my palette.
CW: Do you think you have a favorite image, or one of a particular subject that tells the story? I know it’s like asking a parent who your favorite child is?
ME: Right, I’m afraid they can hear (laughs). But, I really don’t know. I think that I’m still looking for the image that is going to define this project. And it changes over time.
CW: Of course over time and the further you go in this story, everything could shift.
ME: Yeah, images that carried a lot of weight in the beginning start to fall down the stack and others come up from behind. It is just an interesting process, the whole evolution that started the body of work. Trying to continue to amass images that say something new without being repetitious and trying to continue to push deeper and deeper into people’s lives until you get to a place where you can see it all come together.
Cheryl White is an art historian and art consultant currently living and working in Norfolk, VA.
SIN & SALVATION IN BAPTIST TOWN – showing through March 10, 2011. Lorrie Saunders ArtGallery, 424 W 21st Street, Norfolk, VA