Matt Eich  |  2008 Commended

Carry Me Ohio

Once known for natural resources such as coal, salt, clay and timber, Southeastern Ohio has been stripped of its resources by extractive industries. When nothing was left the corporations vacated the region, adversely affecting the economy and leaving the remaining communities with little but their cultural identity; a product of poverty, which has forged their lifestyle in Appalachia. In 2006 Athens County had a poverty rate of 27.4 percent and had a median household income $14,000 lower than the national average.

Four of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s most distressed counties in the country lie within Southeastern Ohio. Driving down the main drag of any given town, one can easily visualize what once was or what might have been. Rampant unemployment and poor housing conditions have left many families in crisis as they struggle to find a means to survive. Their poverty has rendered them invisible to mainstream society. Only after being allowed into their homes have I come to realize that this devastating cycle of poverty has ingrained itself into generations of their community making them feel trapped – unable to escape. Though the roots of this project are buried in the village of Chauncey it is only one town of dozens with similar stories that speak volumes about the cyclical epidemic of poverty.

Impoverished school districts further limit the opportunities of the youth. They are faced with the choice of leaving home and family or continuing in the cycle of poverty.  “There’s not really much work here in Chauncey,” says resident Jesse Sellers. “If you find something it usually pays like $5 an hour. A lot of people live on cash assistance or work at restaurants.” Jesse was an ironworker for more than 16 years and regularly traveled to Columbus, Cincinnati or Dayton to work until he lost his driver’s license because of a DUI.

The question remains how families are able to survive on incomes that are a minuscule fraction of the average per capita income in the United States. In every decade between 1960 and 2000, one in eight counties in the United States had poverty rates of at least 20 percent. Appalachia is home to many of them. Skyrocketing gas prices have made it even more difficult for these struggling individuals to find employment, further isolating them.[1]

For the past two years I have focused on documenting communities that have been overrun by poverty as they attempt to recover from the aftermath of extractive industry. With the recent presidential elections blue-collar Appalachian communities in the swing-state of Ohio played a crucial role in deciding the future of the United States. Though the country is hopeful that a new administration will bring about a positive change, the present conditions in Appalachia will almost certainly get worse before they get better. Now is the time to focus inward and inspect issues that are below the surface in these United States in order for them to be dealt with over the coming years.

The goal for the project is to produce a body of work that will serve as an historical document of the present period in Appalachia while giving voice to the residents. As the economy spirals, industry declines and rural poverty grows, it is imperative to document this ever-changing landscape.

“That the poor are invisible is one of the most important things about them. They are not simply neglected and forgotten as in the old rhetoric of reform; what is much worse, they are not seen.” - Michael Harrington



[1] Candisky, Catherine. The Columbus Dispatch. June 1, 2008. “Nearly one in three Ohioans lives in a household that doesn't earn enough to pay for housing, food, health care and other necessities…Meanwhile, wages sink and gasoline and grocery prices soar.”

About the photographer

Matt Eich

www.matteichphoto.com

I was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1986 and am the oldest of four children. We grew up in the peanut-farming town of Suffolk, Virginia. Watching my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease was a formative experience and a road trip with my grandfather cemented my early relationship with photography.

I studied photojournalism at Ohio University and began working as a freelance photographer while in school to support my family. I’ve worked with GQ, Esquire, Mother Jones, TIME, FADER, Harper's, Apple, National Geographic and others.

My time in college was an incubation period, and participating in the Joop Swart Masterclass in 2009 was my birth. In 2010 I was named one of PDN’s 30. Recently I’ve been working with support of grants from ShootQ, NPPA, Aaron Siskind Foundation and National Geographic Magazine. The Portland Art Museum and The Museum of Fine Arts Houston are keeping some of my prints safe. These days I’m living in Norfolk, Virginia with my family while compulsively documenting everything around me.