MS: Could you share some words of wisdom about what happens to the work and to you during long-term dedication to a story or an idea that might coax photographers to stay the course a bit longer? Unless you don’t agree.
MB: I can only speak for myself, but I find nothing more satisfying than feeling like I truly have gotten to know a place and how it functions, and to see all the pieces fall into place, and to really see and to feel its life in my bones. It’s an incredibly privileged position in which to view life.
MS: What made you want to be a photographer? Do you like it, being a photographer? Is there a particular goal you have in mind when you do the work? Do you think you’ll ever do something else? Have you thought about filmmaking?
MB: I think photography’s ability to speak without having to say a word appealed to me. I got a job at a newspaper near my hometown when I was in high school. Photography with a public role, it wasn’t just about self-expression — it was about history and recording what’s going on and informing people. So bringing those two things together is really what has shaped me as a photographer. Recording history, not blandly but with feeling, and getting others to see it and feel it too.
MS: Historically speaking, what would you like to have happen with your work?
MB: Now that’s a different sort of history, and I think that’s really hard for photographers to know. I think there are some photographers who make their work with that in mind, with an eye towards how things will age and so on, but that’s not for me. I want my work to speak now, and if people in the future find it still relevant, that’s great, but I can’t make my work with that in mind.
MS: I think when someone joins Magnum, it’s sort of like a star is born, but in fact, many people have been working for years going unnoticed until the Magnum spotlight shines a light on them and their work. When I first met you, I didn’t know about your work, and when I saw it I was bowled over, just swept away by the depth and beauty and depth of emotion. Here is a two-part question: Do you feel like you worked in a bit of obscurity before Magnum? What has life been like now that you are in Magnum, or has it made any palpable difference?
MB: I can’t really speak to that because it is asking me to take a perspective on my own work that I just don’t have. I’ve never been one to pay much attention beyond what I am working on at the moment; I do things because that’s what I want to photograph. If that meant I had to do it on my own, it never really mattered to me. Having that freedom is still what I value most. That’s what makes this work worth doing. I am really only interested in my pictures and what I am going to do next. What I am going to photograph tomorrow is still the most important thing. ■
Matt Black has traveled over 100,000 miles across 46 U.S. states for his project “Geography of Poverty.” Other recent works include “The Dry Land,” about the impact of drought on California’s agricultural communities, and “Monster in the Mountains,” about the disappearance of 43 students in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. Both of these projects, accompanied by short films, were published by The New Yorker. He received the W. Eugene Smith Award in 2015. In 2016, he received the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. In 2018, he again received a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his work in Puerto Rico. His work has also been honored by the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Center for Cultural Innovation and others. He is an associate member of Magnum Photos.
Maggie Steber has worked in 66 countries focusing on humanitarian, cultural, and social stories. Her honors include the Leica Medal of Excellence, World Press Photo Foundation, the Overseas Press Club, Pictures of the Year
International, the Medal of Honor for Distinguished Service to Journalism from the University of Missouri, the Alicia Patterson and Ernst Haas Grants, and a Knight Foundation grant for the New American Newspaper project.