Where is poverty? For many Americans, unfortunately, the answer is easy. For others, it’s a world away — compartmentalized into easy to swallow pieces far from our own backyards.
“I have lived in a ‘poverty area’ my entire life,” photographer Matt Black wrote on Facebook before he started his latest project. “For most of my adult life, I’ve witnessed and photographed the impact of poverty: to grow up poor is to grow up in a world that tells you that you don’t matter.”
On Wednesday, Black was awarded the 2015 W. Eugene Smith Fund’s $30,000 grant in humanistic photography, one of the industry’s most prestigious awards, for his project “The Geography of Poverty.” The project took Black across the country, charting America’s poorest regions and examining the cost and consequences of poverty.
“There are 46 million people living in poverty in the U.S. Since the year 2000, the number of people living in communities of ‘concentrated poverty’ has doubled,” Black said in a statement. “The Geography of Poverty combines geotagged images with census data to map and document these communities across the U.S.”
For the last two decades, Black has documented the plight of California’s rural Central Valley. “The Central Valley is this kind of vast unknown zone,” Black told Time. “These towns, these communities are right in the heart of the richest state in the richest country in the world. It’s halfway between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, and yet, you still have conditions like these.” But as Black told Time, he got the feeling that people could look at the work and dismiss it as some place far away.
“Occasionally, with my work in the Central Valley, I get the feeling that people can dismiss it by saying that it’s happening in some weird place in the middle of nowhere in California; that it’s an outlier,” he told Time. “But I know very well that the Central Valley is not an outlier. You can find similar communities and similar circumstances throughout the country.”
And that’s what he did. Black first published his photos on Instagram–the social media platform that has become an instrumental and prominent medium for documentary and reportage work–and then on MSNBC. Alongside reporting from Pulitzer Prize winner Trymaine Lee, and with the support of the Magnum Foundation, the Pulitzer Center, and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, “The Geography of Poverty” takes us across the country to 70 cities where the poverty rate is above 20 percent.
Photographers Mary F. Calvert and Marcus Bleasdale were also recognized by the Smith Fund Fellowship, Calvert for her project “The Battle Within: Sexual Violence in America’s Military” and Bleasdale for “Financing the Failure of a State” on the turmoil in the Central African Republic. They share the $5,000 award.
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