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A Photographer Instagrams the Poorest Places in the US

Warehouse district. El Paso, Texas (photo by Matt Black)
Warehouse district, El Paso, Texas (photo by Matt Black)

This past summer photographer Matt Black covered 18,000 miles of the poorest places in the United States. His Geography of Poverty project was presented in two main ways: a multimedia feature on on MSNBC and a real-time Instagram feed that harnessed the geotagging features of the social media platform to map the country’s marginalized corners.

'Geography of Poverty' on MSNBC (screenshot via msnbc.com)
‘Geography of Poverty’ on MSNBC (screenshot via msnbc.com)

Currently his Geography of Poverty photographs are on view at Anastasia Photo on the Lower East Side. Black’s journey, honored this year by Magnum, which named him one of their nominees, was also presented at last month’s Photoville in Brooklyn Bridge Park, where a huge map displayed selected photographs accompanied by census data. The series is simultaneously a traditional documentary photography project in the black-and-white style of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era work, in which no detail is too small to reveal the trials of daily life, and an experiment in data visualization. Black recently posted a map based on the geotagged data chronicling the whole route. Each place he visited has a poverty rate above 20%, and these statistics are starkly presented beneath each photograph on his Instagram (@mattblack_blackmatt).

Some photographs are direct, like a man searching for scrap metal in the debris of Flint, Michigan, where 41.5% of its population lives below the poverty level. In another a man in Kern County, California — where 22% of the population lives below the poverty level — reveals a bandage on his arm; Black notes that “those with low incomes are up to twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.” Others are close portraits of faces framed by inky darkness, while many are more ambiguous. In Syracuse, New York, where in a population of 145,170 the poverty level is 34.6%, a man in a suit walks through the shadowy contrast of giant classical columns, and in Tulare, California, where 21.4% of its 59,278 citizens are below the poverty level, an ominous crowd of birds perches on power lines.

Photograph from Hosmer, South Dakota, on Matt Black's Instagram (screenshot via Instagram)
Photograph from Hosmer, South Dakota, on Matt Black’s Instagram (screenshot via Instagram)
'Geography of Poverty' on MSNBC (screenshot via msnbc.com)
‘Geography of Poverty’ on MSNBC (screenshot via msnbc.com)

In an essay accompanying the feature component on MSNBC, Pulitzer-winner Trymaine Lee writes:

From border to border, high-poverty rates have crippled entire communities, leaving bellies burning with hunger and hope of better days dwindling. Income inequality has widened in recent decades while upward mobility has declined. A tiny percentage of high income Americans hold the majority of the wealth in this country.

Lee adds that the “poverty rate for African Americans and Hispanics is particularly stark, with 27% and 23.5% respectively falling below the poverty line.” For two decades prior to the Geography of Poverty project, Black photographed the economic hardships of Central Valley in his home state of California. However, he wanted to emphasize that poverty was not just a rural problem, that it is everywhere in the country, and it’s possible to circle the whole United States by only passing through these impoverished areas. The Geography of Poverty is in this way a portraiture project, where near and far the data of inequality is mirrored by powerful, first-hand visuals.

Fence post. Allensworth, California (photo by Matt Black)
Fence post. Allensworth, California (photo by Matt Black)
Photographs from 'Geography of Poverty' installed at Photoville in Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Photographs from ‘Geography of Poverty’ installed at Photoville in Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Burning tires. Corcoran, California (photo by Matt Black)
Burning tires. Corcoran, California (photo by Matt Black)
A map of 'Geography of Poverty' installed at Photoville in Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A map of ‘Geography of Poverty’ installed at Photoville in Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Matt Black: The Geography of Poverty continues at Anastasia Photo (143 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 1.

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