“I felt like the last thing the world needed was another photographer chasing headlines”

You don’t have to travel far to find a great story –photographer Matt Black is proof. For the past decade, Black has focused his work in the California’s Central Valley, where he was born and raised.

This is part two 0f a conversation with Black:  how he developed his current project, and why he went home to produce it.

Columbia Visuals: Can you talk about how you first reported the “The Black Okies” project?

MATT BLACK: I’ve been photographing the original migrants, their children and grandchildren — everyone, essentially, that’s living in these communities.  When I started, there was quite a few of the original migrants still alive, but now they are mostly gone.  I’ve always carried a tape recorder, so I’ve managed to get a lot of history down.

CV: For the past decade, you’ve focused on the rural Central Valley. What drew you back to there?

MB: I grew up in the Valley, started photography there, and I came to realize pretty early on that circling the globe with nothing really to say about what I was seeing was not going to be my thing. I felt like the last thing the world needed was another photographer chasing headlines, and I knew this other place.

I went to school in San Francisco, but pretty soon I was returning to work in the Valley every chance I got. I was like a homing pigeon. That city was becoming completely disassociated from reality, so full of people totally unaware of their incredible privilege. Some people seem to think what I am showing in my work is exceptional, on the fringes, not normal.  Quite the contrary; I’m showing how most of the world lives, and has lived.  What these folks call normal is the exception, not what I’m photographing.

CV: What’s your creative process? More specifically, how do you look for stories?

MB: I talk to people, and I think about it and I make associations.  I’m bombarded with projects — there are so many places where I want to work, people whose stories I think should be told.  It pains me to have to choose.  There is too much to do.

CV: In regards to your Black Okies project, can you talk about some of the struggles you’re facing?

MB: No struggles, it’s an honor just to be there. Every moment builds the project.

CV: What advice would you give to young visual journalists embarking on a long-term project?

MB: Don’t expect things to appear right away.  The easy stuff is what usually comes first, and don’t let yourself off with that.  It’s a privilege to do the work; keep it holy.

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