Carry Me Ohio: The Cycle of Poverty in Appalachia
2008 student winner
Pushed to the fringes of American society are communities in Appalachia marginalized by poverty, which have forged their culture and lifestyle since the early 1900s.
The Appalachian region was once defined by extractive industries such as coal, salt, clay, and timber. However, by the 1970s, most of these industries had closed down or moved on, leaving regions such as rural southeastern Ohio stripped of the natural resources that once provided employment and a way of life for residents. Those who remain often drive more than an hour to work, with many supplementing their income however they can, through legitimate or illegitimate means. Historically, corporations with little vested interest in the long-term prosperity of the region have exploited both the environment and the people of Appalachia.
Four of the Appalachian Regional Commission's most distressed counties in the country lie within this area of Ohio. Driving down the main drag of any given town one can easily visualize what it might have been. The rough-hewn streets are lined with telltale signs that industry and the money that follows were once there. Equally easy to see from a pedestrian perspective is rampant unemployment and poor housing conditions that have left many families in dire straits as they struggle to find the means to survive. Their poverty has rendered them invisible to mainstream society. Only after being allowed into the homes of residents have I come to realize that this perpetual devastating cycle of poverty has ingrained itself into their psyches, leaving most residents feeling 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.
Corporations stripped the land of its natural resources, and the people of their self-sufficiency. As a result they are left with nothing but their cultural identity, a product 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 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. Roughly one in eight counties in the United States have had poverty rates of 20 percent or more in every decade between 1960 and 2000 and Appalachia is home to many of them.
During my time as a student at Ohio University, I have focused on documenting communities that have been overrun by poverty as they attempt to recover from the aftermath of extractive industry. In the next year, I will begin to document other facets of rural life including coal-mining, recreational activities such as raccoon hunting and social problems that are prevalent in many small communities such as widespread OxyContin use and methamphetamine production. The end goal for the project is to produce a book that will serve as a historical document of the present period, a multimedia package to educate individuals elsewhere on the issues in Appalachia and a local gallery show to give back to the communities who have assisted in this project. As 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
Matt Eich (b. 1986) is a Midwest based freelance photographer with a passion for social documentary storytelling. He recently graduated with a degree in photojournalism from Ohio University and is a founding member of the Aevum and Luceo photo collectives.
His clients and publications include Newsweek, the FADER, Mother Jones, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, TIME.com, MediaStorm.org, Smithsonian, Photo District News, AARP Bulletin, Days Japan, Grazia, American Photo, HotShoe, GEO, the Sunday (London) Times, Issue, The Canadian Opera Company and others. He has worked with the Orange County-Register, the Virginian-Pilot, the Oregonian and National Geographic.
Q.List your accomplishments, awards and interests since the Alexia grant.
A.National Geographic Grant for Photography, Aaron Siskind Individual Photography Fellowship, ShootQ/Pictage Grant, Joop Swart Masterclass, POYi Community Awareness Award and others.
Q.How has the Alexia grant influenced your career?
A.It helped to cement my interest in documenting domestic social issues.
Q.How did your project lead to greater exposure or solutions for your issue of focus?
A.Perhaps it made more people in the photographic community aware of the plight of those living in poverty in Appalachia, but this is a topic well-known within the photographic community. I do not feel that the student grant really helped me to reach a new audience, nor did the $1,000 allow for a massive expansion of the project. In today’s economy, that amount of funding will give a photographer 2-3 weeks at maximum to produce work, if their expenses are incredibly low. This is a project that has been in progress for six years at this point.
Q.Tell us about a moment from the project that you will never forget.
A.There are too many to recount.
Q.Have you, or do you plan on expanding your project? How so?
A.Since receiving the Alexia Foundation Student Grant in 2008, I have continued working on expanding and contextualizing the work I created in “Carry Me Ohio.” Only a week ago I was back in Ohio for a commission, continuing to add to this project. My hope in the next few years is to publish a box set of three books, with “Carry Me Ohio” as the 1st chapter of this large project.
Q.How has being a part of the Alexia community changed the way you view the world?
A.It has made me more aware of meaningful work being produced about important social issues around the world. The purpose of the Alexia Foundation has always resonated with me and will continue to do so in the years to come. I sincerely applaud everything you all have done to support significant photographic work.
Ritchie Goins Jr. watches from the window of his parents' trailer as cinderblocks are brought in as the foundation for his grandmother's new trailer. Leetha Goins and her children Timmy, 25, Troy, 16, and grandson Will, for whom she cares, were displaced when a drunk driver swerved off the road and crashed into their trailer. Matt Eich/Alexia Foundation
Clayton Ator riles up Shank and Money after getting stoned. Ator, an ex-con learned to "shoot ink" in prison and does prison style tattoos out of his living room in Carbondale, OH. Matt Eich/Alexia Foundation
Troy Goins, 16, sucks his toe to console himself as he sits on his new bed in his grandmother's trailer. His autism makes it difficult for him to deal with even the smallest changes, and self-stimulation or "stimming" is his way of coping. Matt Eich/Alexia Foundation
"I like to take each of the birds out a few times a week", said Tracie. She explained that recently caring for her brother-in-law who has cerebral palsy has consumed the time that once would have been spent on the birds. Matt Eich/Alexia Foundation
Boys tussle during a backyard sports gathering. Matt Eich/Alexia Foundation
Jesse Sellers Jr., his hair still wet from a bath, stands in his kitchen holding a trophy he won during his first dirt bike competition. As with many poor families in their Appalachian community, a large percentage of the family income is spent on "non-essentials" and entertainment. Jesse's father has thrown all his time and the family's remaining money into making Jesse and his brother pro dirt bike racers. "It was so cold and he wanted to quit," Jesse Sr. said, "but I told him we needed those points and he had to finish. But he won something his first race!" Matt Eich/Alexia Foundation
DJ Goins (left) and his cousin Will (right) wrestle in Will's new room in his grandmother's trailer. Despite bleak surroundings, the children of Chauncey, OH, have an unbridled enthusiasm for life. But that dwindles steadily as they are confronted with more adult issues. Matt Eich/Alexia Foundation
Viewed through a collection of medicine bottles lining the Sellers' window, Hercules crouches to watch the children playing in the snow. The Sellers family struggles with an assortment of health problems. Most of their children have asthma and twins Kacey and Lacey, 5, were both born profoundly deaf. Matt Eich/Alexia Foundation
Tylor Woodrum, 16, holds a box containing his father's ashes. Dave Woodrum was killed in August of 2006 in a high-impact 4-wheeler accident. Dave's family had his body cremated and his favorite cock-fighting rooster mounted on top of the box. Matt Eich/Alexia Foundation
Dave Bircher, 71, has farmed the rolling hills of Southeast Ohio for more than thirty years. “Honestly, we’re farming because we love to farm. We’re not farming because we’re making any money,” says Bircher. Matt Eich/Alexia Foundation