When you ask documentary photographers how they go about embedding themselves in a culture that’s foreign to their own experience, you often hear, “I gained their trust.” Some younger photographers might be curious about how, exactly, one does that.
Well, if you want to gain somebody’s trust, don’t bullshit them about why you’re there or what you want to gain.
Beyond that, is it what you decide to shoot, what you don’t shoot, helping to clear the table at dinner, something else entirely?
All of those things. And being a recurring presence in the neighborhood. I can’t say that what works for me will work for anybody else, but I’m a small soft-spoken person, and I tend to call as little attention to myself as possible. You know, I think about that [Garry] Winogrand quote where he says something like, “Photographing is the closest I come to not existing—and that’s appealing to me.” I love the feeling of being able to disappear into a scene when I’m working.
How do you “disappear”?
I don’t dress loud, I don’t walk loud, I don’t talk loud. I’m not rolling deep with gear; I don’t have a photo vest. I usually just carry a camera around my neck. I try to be as low-profile as possible and to meet people where they are. And by that I mean we’ve all got deeply rooted, often-unidentified, uninspected biases that we carry around with us, and I do my best to dispel those.
You’ve received quite a bit of recognition for the stories you’ve told about the Sellers, an Ohio family you’ve followed for 13 years. You once described the work as “how hardscrabble people will cling to home even though there is nothing there for them.” How did you meet them?
I was an undergraduate student in Ohio, trying to produce pictures for class assignments, so I was knocking on doors and unsuccessfully explaining myself to people, putting my foot in my mouth, getting turned away. I’m pretty shy and introverted; I can flip a switch when I have to and force myself out of my shell, but it’s not a comfortable thing for me.
The Sellers were the first family that really let me into their lives. I met the dad at a car wash—he was washing his boys’ dirt bikes —and he invited me to hop in the back of his truck. He took me home to his family, and that led to a friendship. Eventually they introduced me to other people, and it sort of spider-webbed out from there.
Do you show your subjects the pictures you’ve made of them or does that get tricky?
As a medium, photography is kind of intrinsically selfish. So I bring prints to people as a way of hopefully giving a small thing back in exchange for the trust and time that they’ve given to me. But it also shows them how I see them, and that’s important because sometimes there’s a dissonance in how somebody sees themself compared to how an outsider might view them. Sometimes people will get a picture and we’ll have a conversation about whether or not it aligns with their self-image, and I think that’s kind of interesting to wrestle with as a photographer.
So you don’t wait until the project is complete to give your pictures to the people you’re photographing?
That’s right. In Baptist Town [the subject of Eich’s 2018 book Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town], I’d put photos up on Facebook so people in the community could tag one another and use the pictures in their own way. Later, I’d turn up and find pictures I’d made tucked into frames in people’s bedrooms or on the dashboard of a car. One time, I came into town and found that one of my pictures had been taken off of Facebook and turned into a T-shirt [to memorialize] one of the kids in the neighborhood who had been murdered. It’s interesting to see how the work can get recontextualized within the community fabric.
You’ve written about the limits of documentary photography, saying that photographs are “reductions, distillations, half-truths and complete fabrications. They can only describe the surface of things.” So what’s documentary photography good for?
There are certainly powerful individuals and institutions that I feel need to be held accountable, and photography is capable of doing that. But I’m more interested in our collective consciousness as Americans and how that shapes the way we interact with one another. I find myself looking for the things that connect us over the things that separate us.
How does that translate into what you look for in your stories?
We have an amnesia problem where we like to forget the inconvenient things and remember the things that make us look good and feel good. One of the roles of documentary photography is to remind us that we’re not as good as we think we are, and that as a society there’s always room to grow. If we’re not doing that, we’re just sliding backwards. So in some ways, it’s about memory.
Have you been interested in memory and amnesia for a long time?
Actually, my obsession with memory goes back to how I found photography, which was through my grandfather. He wasn’t a photographer, but he put a camera in my hands when I was about 10. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s then; I have memories of her calling the house but not remembering who I was, and of seeing the toll the disease took on her loved ones as her identity was erased. So I always thought of photography as a tool to access memory and emotional resonance.
With respect to capturing a sense of memory, is there a picture where you feel you succeeded?
There’s this one image I made in my backyard on my sister’s birthday. My parents, who had recently separated, are seated on a bench next to one another. But my mom’s on the phone, leaning away from my dad, and there’s kind of a visible emotional distance between them. Just as I was about to push the shutter, my brother-in-law decided to fuck with me and he put a bubble blower right in front of the camera. By complete serendipity, a bubble encased my parents in this strange little world, and to me, it spoke to the fragility of love and relationships and how it can all kind of burst at any moment. It spoke to what I was feeling at exactly that moment.
What about a picture that captures a moment of emotional resonance?
I was in Baptist Town the morning after the funeral for a young man from the neighborhood. A few people were sitting around a kitchen table and they’re kind of illuminated by these colorful curtains, and a hand is coming in holding a cigarette. There was this kind of somber mood all about, and I feel like that’s palpable in that image. At the same time, this is subjective and has to do with what I chose to frame, how I chose to expose it, when I pushed the button. When I’m working in communities I don’t belong to, I try to mediate my subjective viewpoint and turn myself into kind of a conduit for what I see unfolding in front of me. But it’s hard for me to measure how successful a photograph is at accomplishing that.
Your stories often include unexpected details—a ripped screen, an insect trapped in a soda bottle—that don’t hit the viewer over the head but definitely add to the mood and rhythm. During a documentary shoot, do you actively look for details to include as metaphors for the larger story?
At this point, I think it’s largely subconscious. But I do have to remind myself to push and pull: You know, as human beings, we tend to fall into these safe distances from one another, so when I’m working and using fixed lenses, I’m reminding myself to change out my lenses for different things. Or, more often, just to move my feet so that I’m closer or further away.
You seem to include windows and doorways in some of your stories. How do those function for you?
Windows. Doors. Reflections. Hands. And animals as, I don’t know, a vehicle for things that can’t be communicated through humans. I do find myself photographing through things a lot. Some of that is probably compositional, where I’m looking for frames within frames. But often, shooting through something complicates the surface and abstracts things a bit so that the reading isn’t as simplified as it might be otherwise.
Is there something you learned while you were studying photography that comes back to you on your assignments?
When I was building the “Carry Me Ohio” series, I showed it to a professor and he was, like, “The pictures are good, but there’s a difference between speaking about poverty with neon lights versus speaking about human experience where poverty’s written in between the lines.” At the time, I didn’t really know what he was getting at, but it stuck with me. You can see that in the Baptist Town pictures: Do you need to show guns and drugs in order for people to be able to understand what the community has to deal with?
Who are some of the photographers whose documentary work influences you now?
Eugene Richards is probably the truest, deepest influence because of the way that he can blend photographs from his personal life with his project work so seamlessly that you can’t tell the difference between his wife and a person he just met on the street.
What about early influences?
What speaks to you early often loses its luster over time. In high school, I worked in a Ritz camera store, and on lunch breaks I’d flip through American Photo magazine and see James Nachtwey’s pictures from Iraq. I thought, “Damn, that looks important. Maybe I could do something that meaningful with my life.” But now his photographs read as cold and unfeeling to me, and it’s not what I aspire to do, even though I think his work is important and has contributed more to photography and society than I’ll ever be able to give. I’m less interested in technically perfect photographs, where everything is well exposed and well composed. I’d rather have something that feels a little less sterilized. I don’t want to spoon-feed people answers. I want them to be able to think for themselves and give them room to explore.
Interview by Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former Editor-in-Chief of LIFE magazine and the author of the new book, What We Keep.
More information on Matt Eich here.