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Growing Pains in California’s Most Neglected Region

  • two people
    The Central Valley is one of the richest farming regions in the world, generating billions of dollars’ worth of food each year, but is also home to many of the poorest communities in the US. Photo of Sinamon and Aaron, residents of Fresno, California. © Matt Black for Open Society Foundations
  • An oil pump and palm tree
    Extensive fracking is sparking conflict between agricultural and oil interests in Kern County in the southern Central Valley. © Matt Black for Open Society Foundations
  • Two men
    Sellers at a flea market in the Central Valley. © Matt Black for Open Society Foundations
  • An almond orchard
    An estimated 400,000 undocumented farm laborers live and work in California. Workers prune a newly planted almond orchard. © Matt Black for Open Society Foundations
  • A man and water drum
    Raul is a shepherd from Peru working in the Central Valley under an H-2A guest worker program for jobs American citizens won’t take. His water for drinking, bathing, and cooking comes from this 55-gallon drum. © Matt Black for Open Society Foundations

Photographer Matt Black has been documenting California’s Central Valley, one of the richest farming regions in the world, but also home to many of the poorest communities in the United States. Black recently spent a week there posting images to Open Society’s Instagram account. He spoke to us about the region and his work.

Even people in or from California don’t seem to think, hear, or know that much about the Central Valley. Can you describe what’s happening there?

Yes, the Central Valley is California’s most overlooked region. It’s horribly neglected. Just a couple months ago someone in the California Senate said, “No one lives out there in the tumbleweeds.” That about sums up the attitude.

In terms of the forces shaping the place, immigration is huge. Big swaths of the population are undocumented, and that casts a long shadow across everything. Something as simple as a traffic ticket can lead to deportation, and that breeds a tremendous amount of fear. But it’s not just the police: hospitals, schools, public institutions of all sorts are treated with distrust, as places where bad things can happen. So it’s really tough for a healthy society to grow out of that.

In terms of other forces, economically, the Central Valley is in rough shape: the recession never really ended and there’s a drought right now that’s crippling the place. But for the rest of California, life goes on more or less as usual. That’s the reality.

Having grown up in this region, do you feel a certain responsibility to tell these stories, and to tell them in a particular way?

That’s right, I feel an obligation to do this. The work is public and deals with public issues, but the motivation to do it is personal.

Some comments on your posts expressed shock that this was happening here, and not some far-off land. In your mind, how do the people and places you photograph fit, or not fit, with our collective ideas about “America”? 

Yes, life in these places is directly contradictory to that “city upon a hill” vision of America. These are communities without even the basics: the schools are in bad shape, the water is undrinkable, the air is dirty, the roads go unmaintained. If there’s a bottom-line theme or role I want my work to have, it’s that that idea of America is simplistic and wrong and excludes huge swaths of the country. 

Your work seems to touch on a lot of important issues today: immigration, undocumented labor, poverty and inequality, race, climate change, even fracking. What role does documentary photography play in bringing attention or change to these issues? 

Nothing is known and nothing can be done until things are discovered and understood, and that’s what doing this work is about: you are the one out there, looking. To me, all issues—environmental, social, economic, etc.—are important, and I want to address them because they all reflect the same fundamental reality, which is powerlessness.

So my work is showing how the deck is stacked, and how hard it is for people to make strides in their own lives when it’s a constant crush of problems and a struggle just to live day to day. Something as simple as not having clean water can be just crippling. It’s that cascade of obstacles and the humiliation that can make poverty inescapable.

But the strength of photography is that you can address these issues, but do it in a way that is personal and immediate—it’s the feeling and the connection of the photographer that matters. It works on an emotional and intuitive level. You are not building abstract understanding; you’re giving meaning to things and a reason for people to care.

How do you think social media’s relationship to documentary photography will evolve?

When I started on Instagram, I was extremely doubtful that I’d gain much traction because I assumed people would find what I do as too depressing, or heavy. But the opposite seems the case. People seem to be looking for meaning, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to use it for, as a place to report on things.

It’s a big opportunity for photographers. It’s amplifying our voice. I’m sure things will change and evolve over time, but if it furthers the reach of the work, it’s a good thing.

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