America From The Bottom’: Documenting Poverty Across The Country

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For the past four years, Matt Black has tried to document poverty in the U.S. He’s traveled to places where it’s both very common and often overlooked, trying to make poverty more visible to America.

Black, who is an associate member of Magnum Photos, has been working on a project called The Geography of Poverty. He’s traveled about 100,000 miles across 46 states, and some of his photos appear in the current issue of Time magazine.

Black spoke with NPR’s Scott Simon about the project and what he’s learned about poverty in the U.S.


Interview Highlights

On what he sees across the country’s landscape

What I see is this wide gap, this perception gap between, you know, these mythologies of America that we like to tell ourselves, that it’s a land of opportunity and so on, and the lived experiences in so many communities, you know, across the country. I mean the fact of the matter is, the growing gap between rich and poor in this country is consigning people to a fate that is largely inescapable. If you are born poor in America today you are likely to die poor. If you are born rich, the same.

You know, one of the things I heard repeatedly on the section of this trip that took me through the South was that, you know, these communities really were the front line during the Civil Rights Movement 50 years ago, but many of the benefits of that era and of that movement went elsewhere.

On what he’s learned about what it means to be poor in the U.S.

You know, to me in the end poverty is not really an economic question. It’s a question of power: Who gets their needs met, which communities get their needs met and which communities don’t. And that’s what I’m attempting to photograph here — it’s not poverty in an objectified sense, but poverty in the sense of a lived experience. OK, what is it like to be here? What is it like to have your reality surrounded by these certain totems of power, social power? Is your street paved or is it not? Do the street lights work or do they not? When you go downtown are four of the five businesses on a certain block, are they shuttered and closed? What is the effect upon people’s sense of self? A community sense of self? And so on. All of these glimpses that you catch out of the corner of your eye but that form the environment of living or growing up or, you know, experiencing America from the bottom. From the most brutal bottom.

NPR’s Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the Web.

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