These subtle yet emotionally powerful photographs were selected as a student spotlight in the Magnum Photography Awards 2016. Discover more inspiring work from all 44 of the winners, finalists, jurors’ picks and student spotlights.
American photographer Matt Eich has spent the last ten years exploring the “American Condition” through his photographs. Particularly drawn towards understanding family dynamics, as well as notions of home and community, his images tend to be suggestive, marked by a subtle air of unease. Using his own family as the focal point, his latest project “This Is Not Your Family” explores the crossover between photography, reality and memory.
Eich started making pictures when his grandmother was dying of Alzheimer’s disease. “I was watching her being stripped of her memory and saw the toll that it took on my mother and my grandfather. Photography just made sense to me; it’s a way to preserve memory.” While the medium serves as one of the clearest vessels we have to accurately document memory, the more Eich photographed family dynamics, particularly his own, the more he doubted the authenticity of the image.
Roland Barthes’ seminal Camera Lucida comes to mind. The book nucleates around Barthes’ search through thousands of old photographs of his deceased mother to find an image that adequately captured her essence in the way that he remembered her. Eich became intrigued by the notion that something so interior as our family memories are essentially un-documentable. Being a realist, he acknowledges that “photographs only present what’s on the surface, they can’t show the entirety of someone’s character—but I’m trying to use the camera as a tool to get there as best I can.”
Looking at a photograph can often encourage selective memory, or an evolving kind of memory. As time moves on, the lines can blur between what you see in the picture, what you think you remember and what happened in reality. Eich spoke strongly about how photography can highlight certain elements of history and eradicate the inconvenient realities that we’d rather forget. This thought process led him to look at photography differently; “I started to think of photographs, especially things like family albums, as an idealized version of reality. So with this project I wanted to re-navigate the family document a little bit.”
Testing these limits required Eich to fully implicate himself and create a body of work very close to his heart. “It was shot at a time when everything was very uncertain in my family. My parents were separating, my siblings were going through a lot of stuff, my wife and I moved to a new city with our kids (which was especially difficult as I was in grad school). My parents had been together for 33 years and seemed untouchable, so at the time I was wrestling with a lot of questions about relationships and the past. I’d always held my parents up as a standard and seeing them struggle was disorientating.”
Eich admits that the project straddles the border between documentary and fiction. As an artistic exploration rather than a quest for absolute truth, he said some photographs were included for being intentionally figurative. Similarly, some shots that look staged were actually authentic moments, and vice versa. “It’s very much a fictional account of family,” a point he addresses in the playful title. Eich relishes in this ambiguity, which he feels makes the photographs that much more accessible, allowing each viewer to apply their own interpretation of “family.”
The images have a subtlety about them, which can disguise yet also enhance the underlying sense of unease that Eich injects. This kind of “subtle sublime” can be found in the caterpillar crawling between two pigtails on a girl’s back, the negative language used in the captions such as “cut tree” or “flightless,” a needy, claustrophobic-looking grip, or a grave gaze that hints of domestic abuse. These scenes encourage an on-the-edge-of-your-chair sensation as if you are navigating your way through the project, creating your own family narrative. Eich’s feelings towards the security of family and the security of memory are reflected in this unsettling aesthetic—you never know what’s around the corner.