California’s Central Valley—that massive swath of grassland and desert, of cattle and fruits, so diverse it’s like a country within a state—has long been known for its agricultural abundance. Its farms yield more than 230 types of crops, producing $40 billion of food annually. Nearly a third of all produce grown in the United States is grown here, and for good reason, since it possesses some of the best soil on the planet.
But for all its natural wealth, the valley is also home to some of the worst concentrations of poverty in the US, including three of the nation’s five poorest cities—Modesto, Fresno, and Bakersfield. This irony is exacerbated by the fact that, in parts of the valley, one in four households struggle with hunger.
Photographer Matt Black is a son of the valley, raised in Visalia and now hailing from Exeter. For twenty years he’s been documenting this region through long-form photographic essays that provoke questions of social and economic justice. Time and again, he has captured a dispossession almost biblical in its severity, in a style shaped by the climate itself—a high-contrast black-and-white that gives his pictures the muscular tonality you find in Lynd Ward’s Depression-era woodcuts.
For seventeen years, Black stuck with film. Then, in 2012, he threw himself into digital photography. He had been curious about Instagram, especially its potential as a platform for documentary photography. Most intriguing, he says, was the app’s mapping feature, which allowed him “the ability to put images on a path.” It wasn’t long before he realized how to match his commitment to social consciousness with the perfect technological catalyst, in the process transforming an app’s bell-and-whistle perk into a tool for a greater purpose.
Black launched the Geography of Poverty in the winter of 2013 with a photo of a payday lender in Fresno. (You can follow him on Instagram at @MattBlack_BlackMatt). Since then, the series has grown to include various minutiae and moments of economic hardship in Central Valley cities linked by a depressing common denominator—namely that, with few exceptions, more than 20 percent of their residents live below the federal poverty level.
This summer, Black embarks on the next phase of the project, tracing a path of embattled communities across the country that share the same severity of poverty as the Central Valley cities he knows so well. In this way, the Geography of Poverty transcends the regional to become something more alarmingly American. “It felt too easy for people to dismiss these pictures by saying, ‘Well, that’s just some weird place in California,’” he says. “This larger trip is to combat that. These pictures aren’t just of some marginal place. These communities are everywhere. And the fact that I can link them together in this journey that takes me from coast to coast and back again—that says quite a lot.”