Social Documentary Storytelling with Matt Eich

Where Community and Country Coalesce; Social Documentary Storytelling with Matt Eich

I recently had a conversation about all things social documentary storytelling with Matt Eich, a photographer based in Charlottesville, Virginia. Matt recently published his second monograph, I Love You, I’m Leaving in September 2017 and it quickly sold out.

In this interview, Matt speaks about balancing family time and work, the competitive nature of getting work as a photographer, and what fuels his creative vision. Enjoy this interview from the series Q&A: Creatives Speak.

Social Documentary Storytelling with Matt Eich

Fire hose baptism, Newport News, Virginia. 2013. From the series, The Seven Cities.

Do you consider yourself creative? How do you express that creativity?

Yes…I don’t spend too much time thinking about creativity in my own practice, but I try to encourage it in my children. The need for creative thinking goes beyond actually making photographs, and spreads into other aspects of work and life. Much of photography is about creative problem-solving. Much of parenting is the same. I used to play music as an alternate outlet for creativity, but that has taken a backseat in recent years. Now, I expend most of my creative energy making photographs, running a business, and raising children.

How did you become interested in photography? What do you strive to do through your photographic work?

My relationship with photography started when I was quite young, and my grandmother was dying of Alzheimer’s disease. My grandfather took me on a road trip and loaned me a point-and-shoot camera. I made a picture of a rotting fence post in a field that somehow encapsulated the feeling of being there, and sent me on a journey using the camera as a tool to preserve memory. I value emotional resonance over technical perfection in a photograph. The “purpose” of my work continues to evolve, but I am interested in the visual intersection of family, community, and country.

Social Documentary Storytelling with Matt Eich

(L-R) Jabari Wilson sits next to his cousin Korwin “Quan” and mother Ellen in the dining room of the home he shares with his mother, sister Nikki and her girlfriend Dominique in the Baptist Town neighborhood of Greenwood, Mississippi. Jabari and his sister Nikki both work to support their mother who has a number of health problems and is unable to work. Quan (center) lost his mother in a car accident as a child and has been raised by his grandmother ever since. 2010. From the series, Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town.

Where do you “find” your ideas?

Ideas form slowly for me. I find inspiration by looking at the work of other photographers and artists, by listening to music, by reading poetry, and news. Sometimes people come to me with an idea, or a story, other times I hear about something or read about something that I can’t shake, so I begin doing my own research and pitching ideas.

blackbirds dawn purple haze

Blackbirds at dawn, Greenwood, Mississippi. 2014. From the series, Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town.

What are you working on currently?

At the moment I am preparing a number of books and exhibitions that all hinge on the aforementioned themes of family, community, and country. I am working on a series of four books called, The Invisible Yoke, which explores legacies of the American experience that continue to impact our culture, such as extractive industry in Ohio, racism and segregation in Mississippi, and the military-industrial complex where I grew up in Virginia. The first book in this series, Carry Me Ohio, was published in October of 2016 and sold out in a month. The next volume, Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town is due out in 2018, to be followed by the last two volumes in 2019 and 2020.

Apart from that, I completed an MFA in photography in 2016 and started teaching at The George Washington University in 2017. Teaching is exhausting and draws a lot of energy from my personal work, but I’m enjoying it too. In 2018, I’m working on another book outside of The Invisible Yoke series. It’s a collaborative project with a buddy of mine named Jared Soares where we’ve been gathering orphan pictures over the past few years. This currently untitled work is due out sometime this spring via Zatara Press


track inprints on kids feet

Imprint, Smithfield, Virginia. 2016. From the series, I Love You, I’m Leaving.

How do you keep a balance between your paid and personal work? Is there ever an intersection between the two?

The balance is never easy…I need the paid work to do the personal work. And I get hired for the paid work because people see the personal work (usually). Occasionally there is an intersection, and that’s always exciting when it happens. In order to support my family in a more sustainable way, I feel that I need to either begin teaching (so I can have a steady income/benefits) or begin doing more regular commercial work. The editorial clients that are my bread and butter are not very consistent, and we regularly go through droughts without work.

Where and how did you grow up? Has that influenced your work?

I was born in Richmond, Virginia and am the oldest of four children. I grew up in largely rural parts of Virginia, like Suffolk and Smithfield, and was homeschooled for nine years. This certainly influenced my life and personality in a lot of ways. Growing up in rural communities contributes to the fact that I feel more comfortable in a small town than a big city. I feel connected to rural communities and can empathize with some of the community members’ struggles. I’ve never wanted to live or work in a big city, so while I travel frequently for jobs, I don’t live in places that offer lots of regular work opportunities. It’s a trade-off.

boys catch snakes

Boys catching snakes, Thermopolis, Wyoming. 2011. From the series, We, the Free.

Matt, your work has really inspired me as a photographer. I’ve learned so much about documentary-style photography from you. I admire the closeness you appear to have with your subjects, and I want to know more about how you foster those relationships. Do your potential subjects ever push back? How do you create rapport with people and show them that you’re trustworthy? Are there certain situations where you have to forego photographing someone you had hoped to?

Thank you for the encouragement, Willow! As with all human relationships, it’s complicated. I’ve tried to hone my radar over the years so that when I meet someone I’m drawn to, I can recognize it and articulate why I’m drawn to them, even in basic terms. If someone is willing to give you the time of day or let you into their lives, it is important to engage with them as you would any other person, to be inquisitive, open, caring, honest, etc. I spend a lot of time listening.

The camera is always present, so when I make a picture it doesn’t feel like a strange intruder. Potential subjects frequently push back, because being photographed is awkward for everyone involved. It’s a delicate dance. I strive to answer any questions/concerns that people might have and become as vulnerable with them as I hope they will be with me. And yes, there are always times when I have to forego making a picture that I want.

man and angry dogs

Clayton Ator riles up Shank and Money. Ator, an ex-con learned to “shoot ink” in prison and does prison style tattoos out of his living room in Carbondale, Ohio. From the series, Carry Me Ohio.

What do you think about work like The Julie Project by Darcy Padilla? Do you strive to do something similar (create a long-term relationship) with your subjects?

I’m not personally familiar with Darcy, but I do know her work. I can only imagine how complicated it became over the years of documenting that family. I want long-term relationships with other humans. When I make a connection with someone, I want to watch over time as their life evolves. Through this process, I learn more about the person I am photographing, but I also learn more about myself.

Do you consider yourself an artist? What makes one person an artist and one not? Do you think artists should starve?

For a long time, I would have said no, I’m not an artist, I’m a photographer. At this point, I don’t really care what people call me: artist, photographer, or documentarian. Now, I know that I’m not a by-the-book photojournalist…the framework for that genre within the medium is too limiting and insular. There are a lot of bullshit expectations that get piled on top of these boxes that we like to put individuals in.

No, I don’t think artists should starve. I understand how a little bit of suffering can go a long way in terms of artistic inspiration or development. Eventually, though, starving artists can’t make work, so what’s the point? Also, when I factor in family/children, I have to realize that if I am willing to make my family suffer for my art, then I’ve got bigger issues to deal with.

child looks out trailer window

Richie Goins Jr. watches from the window of his parents’ trailer as cinderblocks are brought in as the foundation for his grandmother’s new trailer. Leetha Goins and her children Timmy, 25, Troy, 16, and grandson Will, for whom she cares, were displaced when a drunk driver swerved off the road and crashed into their trailer. A recent study showed that the child poverty rate has increased 5.6 percent in the state of Ohio over the past 5 years. From Eich’s series, Carry Me Ohio.

What challenges have you faced in your creative work? How do you stick with it when the going gets tough?

It’s impossible to sum up the challenges, or any “solutions” in this sort of format. The main struggle is always, how do we continue to live? How do we maintain relationships, protect family and the people we care for, and still make a meaningful artistic/social contribution to our community/country? I try to remind myself that photography was never an easy path and that people much more talented than I will ever be have struggled to carve out a living in this field. Each day is a chance to keep chipping away at the giant rock, in the hopes that eventually you get somewhere. But the truth is, you never actually arrive…most artistic pursuits are a series of experimentations, failures, modifications, honing, practicing and polishing until you put something out into the world.

waking up bed missisiippi

Quan waking up in Ellen’s bed, Greenwood, Mississippi. 2011. From the series, Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town.

How can people view and stay up-to-date with your creative work?

Hmm…in terms of staying up-to-date with my creative work, I suppose it varies. I try to send out email blasts once or twice each year with updates. I like to do in-person meetings with folks that I do work for, or want to work for, once or twice a year as well. Although I’m a bit of a reticent social media user, I do share my work occasionally on Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr. I’ll go dark for a number of weeks sometimes when I get caught up in something, or depressed about society-at-large.

Carry Me Ohio is my first trade-published monograph, and it spans a decade of working in Ohio (2006-2016). The work started when I was 19, as an undergraduate at Ohio University. In 2010, I self-published a limited-edition book of the work in a run of 100 copies. It sold out overnight. Eventually, a Swiss publisher, Sturm & Drang, found an early copy and approached me about doing a larger run. We prepared the book for about a year, working with a designer, editor, some contributing writers, a copy-editor and others to polish the materials that I had gathered. We did a run of 600 copies and released the book shortly before the US Presidential Election. The media attention generated by the election cycle seemed to help push sales, and the book quickly sold out.

sexy earrings on woman

Sexy, Greenwood, Mississippi. 2013. From the series, Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town.

Are there any ideas you wish you had time to act on but haven’t yet?

Haha, always. Frequently I have rather nebulous ideas and I’ll pitch those to outlets. I picture the editors roll their eyes as they ask, “Yes, but what is the news hook?” Rarely do my ideas fit within an editorial framework, so it’s always a struggle to find the time and resources to pursue them.

Tell us something we don’t know about you yet:

Hmm…I used to play music in high school in bands that were a mix of jazz/spazz metal.

shadow on glass door

Trent’s shadow, San Francisco, California. 2014. From the series, We, the Free.


Matt Eich (b. 1986) is an independent photographer working on longform photographic essays about the American condition. His projects have been widely exhibited and received numerous grants and recognitions, including PDN’s 30 Emerging Photographers to Watch, the Joop Swart Masterclass, the F25 Award for Concerned Photography, POYi’s Community Awareness Award, and many others. His prints and books are held in the permanent collections of The Portland Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The New York Public Library, Chrysler Museum of Art and others.

Matt studied photojournalism at Ohio University and holds an MFA in Photography from Hartford Art School’s International Limited-Residency Program. His first monograph, Carry Me Ohio (Sturm & Drang, 2016) sold out in a matter of weeks. He has four forthcoming monographs scheduled between 2017 and 2020. Matt currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with his wife and two daughters.

Matt Eich

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Past interviews from the Q&A: Creatives Speak series:

‘Criminal’ Illustrator Julienne Alexander on how variety keeps her creative

How collaboration became more important than the limelight, interview with Musician Josh Urban