A great journey has long been regarded as an access point to creativity, to new experiences, places and people, and often to introspection and self-learning.
I was looking forward to hearing David Campney in this talk, but at the last minute he was replaced by Aaron Schuman, and to be honest I was a little disappointed in his interview technique. He did not seem to bring the best out of either men. However, that could just have been their personalities….
Matt Black and Antoine d’Agata were in conversation, ‘exploring the concept of the journey as a structure for visually responding to the world.’ They discussed their personal take on the photographic road trip and how the journey can be used as a framework for making photographs.
Matt Black is from California’s Central Valley, an agricultural region in the heart of the state. His work has explored the connections between migration, poverty, agriculture, and the environment in his native rural California and in southern Mexico.
For over 20 years, photographer Matt Black explored the issues of poverty, migration and farming in California’s Central Valley, examining the extreme economic hardship in one of the country’s richest states and is highly critical of the contrast in the richest nation in the world also having these pockets of huge deprivation. He photographed people living at or below the poverty line. According to MSNBC, fully 45 million people living in the US ‘meet the official guidelines for poverty’ many are undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Apparently there are 250K more Mexicans in California than in Mexico, leaving ghost towns behind. Mexico has lost 80% of its population, which is a staggering figure.
Black was inspired by the work of the FSA but he believed they should have documented the black Africans more than they did, he followed one family, tracking down Hayley Jones, the daughter of the original migrants, and three generations later she is still working in the fields. There is a distinct lack of opportunity and mobility.
In 2014 he took to Instagram for his latest project, Geography of Poverty, using the social app’s mapping feature to pinpoint California’s poorest communities. In the December he was named TIME’s Instagram Photographer of the Year.
California always seemed special and unique in terms of how it symbolised promise and progress, so it seemed somehow symbolic to begin there and travel east, but what has surprised me is the similarities I have encountered as I travelled from one community to another. All these diverse communities are connected, not least in their powerlessness. In the mainstream media, poverty is often looked at in isolation, but it is an American problem. It seems to me that it goes unreported because it does not fit the way America sees itself.
After two decades of concentrating on California’s Central Valley, Black expanded his project to the rest of the country.
His on-going project The Geography of Poverty, saw him travelling 48,000 miles across 44 States to photograph designated ‘poverty areas’ and highlight the growing gap between rich and poor and Matt Black was awarded the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Prize for this project. He also received the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 2016 and was named Senior Fellow at the Emerson Collective. With his high contrast black and white being described as ‘stark and impressionistic.’ I thought they were highly atmospheric, maybe a little too romantic despite the subject matter, and had a grainy retrospective feel about them which reminded me very much of the early work of Sebastião Salgado, Other Americas, plus his Kuwait body of work.
Going back to the theme of ‘the journey’ for Black, the goal was to use it as a storytelling mechanism.
Every stop along the way has a level of poverty above 20%, I wanted to find a continuous route that linked all of these towns, which are no more than a couple of hundred miles from each other. And the fact that you can link all of these communities from coast to coast and back again is telling.
What I took away from Matt Black was:
The idea of always beginning from home and comparing photographic experiences to what you know of yourself, it ‘contextualizes what I am seeing.’
Taking a journey away from home and then returning.
Looking for similar motifs in the unfamiliar
Exploring similarities within different communities
Seeing a lot very fast
Inclusion of captions/text/interviews with people
Thinking about different platforms for the results
Born in Marseilles, Antoine d’Agata left France in 1983 and remained overseas for the next ten years. Finding himself in New York in 1990, he pursued an interest in photography by taking courses at the International Centre of Photography, where his teachers included Larry Clark and Nan Goldin.
Antoine d’Agata was totally different from Matt Black. He spoke very little, put on a PowerPoint presentation set to a throbbing beat to display his images, and let the work speak for itself. Growing up as a punk in Marseilles had a very strong influence on his life and subsequent photography. His images were firmly within the realms of Daidō Moriyama; they were black and white, grainy, out of focus and looked at the seedier side of life. For his first books published in 1998, De Mala Muerte and Male Noche, d’Agata ‘travelled the world to document characters of the night’s further edges: for sex workers, addicts, war-torn communities and homeless.’ d’Agata informed us that he looked for fragility.
In 2001, he published Hometown and won the Niépce Prize for young photographers. ‘Compiling intimate and provocative images, the book focused on his travels in France and personal journey.’
Unlike Black he undertook no preparation prior to setting out, other than ‘mental preparation’. d’Agata travels the world, documenting his personal experiences and encounters, and oddly more often than not hands his camera over to others to take the photographs. His intention is to be part of the action, not outside it…he did not wish to be a tourist or a consumer…and a lot of the images I suspected him to be the subject of, or part of, were very dubious in nature, and I suspect he had consumed many things… When asked how he knew his work was finished , or know that the journey was over he replied ‘when the darkness became ‘normal’ and it becomes comfortable…’
He believes in going as far as he can as a human being, but always considers the responsible way in which to represent something. Having said that he thinks he challenges Magnum’s comfort zone, but thinks his work has documentary value. D’Agata has lived as he stated a very murky and nomadic life. Immersing himself in his subjects, ‘prostitutes and other marginalised misfits,’ and never shies away from dangerous, drug-addled and sex-fuelled situations.
Most of my photographic strategies are aimed at reaching the highest levels of pleasure or unconsciousness and, in this sense, sex and drugs are highly enjoyable working methods. Part of my recent work could be easily described as some chaotic and biased sociology of ecstasy. I live my life with people who use pleasure as a way to impose their existence and identity in a world that denies them every right. But pleasure can’t be separated from pain and alienation. Pleasure is still a dark territory to me and I am exhausted exploring its limits. It’s just a route. Satisfaction isn’t the aim. Feeling might be the point. I’m hooked on adrenaline.
Because he get so involved in the lives of his subjects he does not think his work is voyeuristic nor exploitative. Since 2005 Antoine d’Agata has had no settled place of residence but has worked around the world, he has a passion for his work that does not always fit a commercial niche and runs many workshops to make ends meet.
What did I take away from Antoine?
Don’t do drugs!
Don’t be scared of looking at the uncomfortable things in life
To not always consume but to try to sometimes be part of the action
Challenge reality and the understanding of the world through the eyes of others
Photographs don’t always have to be about aethetics