Photographer Matt Eich's long-term project in Greenwood, Miss., uses Instagram to forge understanding between divided communities
TIME LightBox Follow Friday is a series featuring the work of photographers using Instagram in new, interesting and engaging ways.
This week on #LightBoxFF, TIME speaks to Matt Eich, a freelance photographer based in Norfolk, Va., who uses Instagram to build a bridge between communities in Greenwood, Miss.
TIME LightBox: How did you first use Instagram?
Matt Eich: I actually created my Instagram account while sitting in a doctor’s office with my wife during her second pregnancy. I am a late adapter when it comes to smartphone technology, so this was early 2012 when I began using the platform. Honestly, it was just for fun, and having this new and ubiquitous tool always in my pocket re-energized something in my work.
TIME LightBox: How has your use evolved? How does it fit in your work?
Matt Eich: At first, I focused primarily on family, using Instagram as a sort of public family photo album. Over time I came to realize that it was a platform for engaging people with my work, so I began to make pictures for Instagram while juggling other cameras and tools for personal projects and assignments. It is a way of teasing out some of the long-form projects that are slowly evolving without giving too much away. When juggling multiple tools, I try to think about what the strengths and weaknesses of each are. Sometimes when I’m out working I’ll see something that looks like a Mamiya 7 frame, so I’ll use the 6×7 camera. Sometimes I’ll see something that seems like the iPhone might be better suited for, so I’ll switch over to that tool.
TIME LightBox: What do you think it can bring to a photographer like you?
Matt Eich: What most excites me about a platform like Instagram is the ability to engage with a community. Because the technological playing field is becoming more level, professional photographers using Instagram can serve as a bridge between two parts of a community or begin to engage community members in self-representation instead of the outsider perspective that is all-too-familiar.
For example, when I was working on my project in Greenwood, Miss., I realized that in this less-affluent black community, all of these kids I’ve photographed have smartphones and they’re all on Instagram posting these occasional daily life pictures — images that I don’t shoot. And the same happens in the white community. These folks are living in close proximity of one another with little awareness of the other side of that community. But it’s all there on Instagram, and you just need something to connect the two.
One thing I’ve struggled with is the fact that I’m a white boy from Virginia coming to a place that I don’t really belong in, and projecting my perception onto them. That’s just the sad reality of photography, but these new tools enable us, as storytellers and journalists, to gather content from the people we’re documenting so they can have a larger voice [in the project].
TIME LightBox: So you would play the role of curator.
Matt Eich: Exactly, and I’ve started doing some of that. When I see something on Instagram that I think is strong, I’ll ask them to text it to me so I can build a little archive.
TIME LightBox: Would that collection of images live on Instagram or would it take on a different form?
Matt Eich: Right now, I’m gathering as much content from as many people as I can. I’m taking my cue from the Everyday Africa folks: we started an Everyday Delta (@everydaydelta) feed, and we hope to build on it by bringing in photographers who are working in the area, as well as locals to create a curated mix that will allow people from outside of the Delta to get a more accurate glimpse of the community.
Matt Eich is a freelance photographer based in Norfolk, Va. His long-term project is Sin and Salvation in Baptist Town. Eich is currently holding an Instagram Print Sale to finance the continuation of his work across the Delta. Follow him on Instagram @matteich.