Warehouse District, Fresno, California © Matt Black
Last week, Stan blew the cover on my long held admiration of Matt Black. In the past couple of months, and on three different occasions, when conversation has moved toward photographers’ work that really turns us on I’ve begun explaining Matt’s work only to have the other person blurt out his name. You know that excitement when you’re on the same wavelength? Repeated.
Matt Black also has a great name. What else could he be but a photographer?
Matt’s documentary photography focuses on the social and environmental realities of southern and Central California, and the span of Mexico. Man-made borders need not apply. He’s knee-deep in the regions.
Each of Matt’s portfolios eddies of the last. It’s an admirable body of work. For his latest project, The People of Clouds, Matt has teamed up with Orion Magazine and Daylight Online for a cohesive distribution plan. He has also, for the first time, made use of Kickstarter for a very well-stated funding pitch.
High in the Mixteca mountains of southern Mexico, an exodus is unfolding. In the birthplace of corn cultivation, where farmers first coaxed maize from the earth nearly 9,000 years ago, an ancient way of life is crumbling as land degradation and erosion cripple the soil and as migration tears families apart.
Named the “Place of the Cloud People” by the Aztecs, the Mixteca is home to one of the oldest and largest indigenous cultures in the Americas. Rugged and remote, the isolated region sheltered a pre-Colombian way of life that largely vanished from the rest of Mexico in the aftermath of the conquest. At its heart, it’s a culture of the land, and corn. Along the region’s hillsides, it is still possible to glimpse ancient terraces, canals, and runoff channels that protected the Mixteca’s rich but fragile soil, and nourished its inhabitants, for thousands of years.
But today, these ancient farming traditions have been lost, replaced by chemical fertilizers, hybrid seeds, and herbicides, the trifecta of modern agriculture heavily promoted in indigenous communities by the Mexican government and international charities as part of the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s. When combined with slash and burn farming, the Mixteca’s steep terrain, and the loss of other indigenous soil-preserving traditions like multi-cropping, these imported industrial agricultural techniques have turned Mixtec corn farming, one of the world’s oldest and most perfectly integrated agricultural systems, into a soil-eating machine.
Today, much of the Mixteca has been declared an “Ecological Disaster Zone,” the result of unchecked erosion, deforestation, and soil exhaustion. Per capita maize consumption is less than ten ounces per day, 90% below US rates, and fewer than a third of children under the age of five show normal growth by weight and height. Ranked on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), the Mixteca’s poverty is deeper than nearly all of Latin America’s, comparable only to areas of Africa, India, and the Gaza Strip. Far from sparking a Green Revolution, the industrial farming techniques prescribed to the Mixtecs have resulted in their becoming unable to even keep themselves fed.
Nearly a quarter million Mixtecs have emigrated to the US. Some villages have lost as much as 80% of their population and have become little more than ghost towns. “I only think about dying,” one elderly man told me. “My only worry is how my funeral will be.”