2003 — professional winner
Matt Black's photographs have been noted for their emotional engagement, social conviction and visual intensity.
Matt grew up in a small town in California's Central Valley, a vast agricultural area that is home to some of the poorest communities in the United States. He began taking photographs at a young age and worked as a newspaper photographer while in his teens. Matt went on to study Latin American and US Labor History at San Francisco State University, where he earned a BA with honors. Early travels in Mexico, Central and South America deepened his interest in changing rural economies, migration and cultural change, themes that he has been exploring photographically for over a decade.
Matt's work has received grants and awards from the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the California Arts Council, Pictures of the Year International, the California Council for the Humanities, the Alexia Foundation for World Peace, the Sunday Magazine Editors Association, Communication Arts, American Photography, Lightwork and the Center for Photographic Projects. His work has also been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and has received a Golden Eye award from the World Press Photo Foundation.
One of Dorothea Lange's famous photographs -- Ditched, Stalled, and Stranded, San Joaquin Valley, California -- was recently made into a US postage stamp. This picture, along with books like John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, have for many come to define the story of "Okie" migrants of the Great Depression. But these works create an incomplete picture of this chapter of American history: the widespread, but false, perception that the Dust Bowl migration, one of the largest population shifts ever to occur in the US, was exclusively white.
This project documents a group of black migrant sharecroppers whose forgotten story proves otherwise. These self-described "Black Okies" still live in several remote rural enclaves scattered amid the cotton fields of Central California. Though some 50,000 of them came to the San Joaquin Valley and worked side by side with Steinbeck's Joads, no books or photographs ever documented their lives. Today, their struggling communities are one of the few surviving remnants of this forgotten chapter of American rural life.
About 10,000 migrants and their descendants remain -- people like James Dixon, a 96-year-old who worked the Valley's fields for over three decades. Like many in this community, his living conditions seemed lifted straight out of the sharecropper South. When I first met him, he still lived in a two-room shack he built himself in the 1940s. With just a single light bulb hanging bare from the ceiling, his sole source of heat was a small wood stove, and his only water came from a rusty spigot in the yard. I photographed James Dixon up until his death late last year. I was one of the few to attend his funeral.
Even the younger generation lives with the legacy of the past. I met Hallie Jones while she was chopping cotton in a field across the street from her home. This was one of the same fields that her father, fresh from an Oklahoma sharecropper farm, had worked over a half-century ago. Wearing a battered straw hat and frayed leather gloves, she tended row after row under the hot summer sun. Though she was born in California in 1960, she seemed like a vision from long ago.
These forgotten migrants still live in a version of America that most believe is but a distant memory. But as the lives of Hallie Jones, James Dixon and others in this struggling community show, this past is not as distant as it may seem. This project, by attending to this community's forgotten history, intends to raise awareness of its impoverished present. The enclosed portfolio gives a brief overview of my work to date. I hope to build upon these photographs with the goal of creating a book-length work.