Ten years before they were blamed and credited with helping to elect Donald Trump the 45th president of the United States, the white working class in post-industrial southeastern Ohio was documented by Matt Eich. A 19-year-old student of photojournalism at Ohio University at the time, Eich, now a Charlottesville resident, had grown tired of what he calls the college bubble. “I wanted to see what lives were like outside of that bubble. I found family, love, tenderness, tenacity, all kinds of other things,” he says. And this October, just before the election, he published a collection called Carry Me Ohio. The first edition was released worldwide in a print run of 600 and sold out in a month.
Eich’s explorations in “making pictures” began at age 10. “My grandmother was dying of Alzheimer’s and my grandfather took me on a road trip and handed me a camera,” he says. His work largely consists of moving portraits of people in everyday life. In high school he was exposed to the war photography of James Nachtwey and came to an important decision as a budding artist who also dabbled in music: “Photography has the greater potential for social good, which drove me to photojournalism,” says Eich. It was this drive that compelled him to overcome his shyness.
While soft-spoken, he conveys an earnest desire to capture people as they are, without pushing an agenda. He describes sitting quietly in a trailer in Ohio, chain-smoking and waiting to earn the trust of people who arrived to pick up illegally acquired OxyContin. Because while he did find tenderness and tenacity in these small communities, he also found poverty and addiction. “It’s hard to address it without falling into tropes,” he says. And even now, after 10 years of immersing himself, he says, “I still haven’t addressed it yet to the degree I want to, given how it’s taken over the towns.”
One photo called “Duct Tape” shows a young boy and small dog looking out a duct-taped window. The boy looks as though he’s crouched against the cold, and a bare tree is reflected in the window. Eich explains that the boy is in his family’s old trailer watching as the adults prepare to bring a new trailer onto their property in Chauncey, Ohio.
Another photo, “Elvis the Zebra,” adds some whimsy and strangeness to the collection as a zebra prances in the snow, seemingly in someone’s backyard. Eich explains that he took the photo at The Wilds, a research and conservation facility in Columbus located on 10,000 acres of reclaimed strip mine. “I’m interested in photos with a sense of mystery or ambiguity, which counteracts my photojournalism upbringing where photos are supposed to deliver information,” says Eich.
But he is also very committed to the role of photojournalism. On assignment he has photographed people with whom he is “completely and utterly morally opposed.” But, he says, “The role of journalism is to put light on marginalized communities, whether they’re marginalized with good reason or without.” He uses the medium, he says, “not for further division and polarization, but to show what we share in common, things we all need as human beings and citizens of the world.” It requires compartmentalization, he says, because the alternative is “if no one’s paying attention, things can grow in the dark and spread beyond our understanding.”
Yet the work he does not only requires his attention, but his empathy as well. “While I may not agree with people personally or politically,” he says, “I have to feel empathy for them or I can’t do the work. I have to interact with them as fellow citizens, human beings.” Speaking specifically of the subjects in Carry Me Ohio, Eich says, “Their choices are made out of decades of being forgotten. …We were taught in grad school ‘listen to your work.’ I’ve been trying to put a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in America. The growing discontent. It didn’t have a name for a long time. But now it does.”
And it is evident in the way he describes the collections scheduled to follow Carry Me Ohio, that his approach to his work continues to be careful and conscientious. The next volume, Sin and Salvation in Baptist Town, is due out in 2018 and is based on a community in Mississippi where there is a glaring disparity between the living conditions of the African-American and white communities. “I had a lot of conversations with people about how they’re used to being portrayed, and how they’d like to be portrayed,” he says. “The pictures need to strike a balance between the way they see themselves and the way I see them. I don’t want to create propaganda but I also don’t want to project my own outsider perceptions on them either.”