Sarah Aucagos

Foreword / Translation
Claudine Boeglin

Matt Black
Jeff Mermelstein

For our Instagrammar debut, curator Sarah Aucagos introduces the work of Magnum documentary photographer Matt Black and urban anthropologist Jeff Mermelstein. Using Instagram as their primary platform for investigation, Mermelstein and Black operate on different scales and in different territories. But both are methodical chroniclers of America today. Black documents hands harvesting crops for a few bucks, Mermelstein hunches on screens held tight by hands with painted nails.

In New York, Jeff Mermelstein peers over subway commuters’ shoulders to bring back the dramatic and the mundane of their screen conversations: ‘The shower curtain is getting pretty dirty’; ‘A doctor tried to put me on three drugs / And told me I’m bipolar…’ / ‘Damn. Dick is the perfect name for him’ / ‘She likes ruff sex’. Mermelstein's 'anthropop' collection of screens made of overblown pixels and raw text exchanges is like a magnifying glass on human behaviors; while carefully preserving people’s anonymity.

On the road, Matt Black uses Instagram for his elegiac, black-inked mapping of today’s Geography of Poverty. He chose Instagram for its map system pairing geotagged photographs with census data; and its audience reach. Black's piece of beat photography connects the dots of what Zachari Caneperi, the co-director of the Netflix series Flint Town, coined as the ‘infrastructure of poverty in America’. Black exposes the haunting evidence of this apparatus throughout the country.

Rural, Urban, Digital

From urban to rural, print to digital, portrait to macro, street photography always thrives by its honesty. Jeff Mermelstein and Matt Black document today’s complex American society in its kaleidoscopic contractions. One tames buzzing New York, the other highlights muted rural populations. Both use every day America as a canvas for creative experiments; one is using a palette of pixels and color photography, the other operates in high contrasted black and white. Both reveal through their photography the profound shift in society experienced by Americans from the Californian tech revolution to the hateful immigration policies introduced by the US president Donald Trump.
The Anthropop Voyeur
The Beat Photographer
Detail of a smartphone screen, New York © Jeff Mermelstein [left]
Plywood sign, Indiana © Matt Black | Magnum Photos [right]
The Anthropop Voyeur

Jeff Mermelstein has captured the importance of our interactive social communication. From his street photography capturing people’s body language to people’s digital language, the page @jeffmermelstein is a direct witness of the digital generation. From subway commuters to people queuing, Mermelstein is never far away, always ready to snap a photo. His phone is a constant channel for social commentary. The photographer conjures up ordinary people’s portraits in the frame of their own smartphones. This highly addictive, seemingly indispensable tool has made its users less happy but built its own language.

Jeff Mermelstein provides a glimpse into the digital intimacy of New Yorkers who are oblivious to his presence. It is an act that places the Instagram viewer, like Mermelstein himself, into the role of a voyeur.

On Instagram, author and viewer scrutinize carefully the slices of ‘stolen’ conversations. Details of everyday life are revealed; at times juicy, at times disturbing. Street photography is remastered here; its always acute sense of observation tinged with humor.
Detail of smartphone screens, #New York © jeffmermelstein
“Paris is far more beautiful than New York but I like New York better because there is a kind of craziness and a neurosis in the air, and there is the angst; there is a temperament on the street,” Jeff Mermelstein said in a video posted by Media Matters in 2007. His impressive career and numerous rewards can only command respect. However, it’s his ability to extract touching intimacy from the banal that makes his body of work so fascinating. From the New York of the 1990s, Mermelstein has accumulated street scenes with a piercing eye for detail, a witty tenderness for human idiosyncrasies and at times, a tendency for gruesome compositions. Art critic, Max Kozloff, calls him “an absurdist with a sense of humor.”

Series of mouths: fig. 1, fig. 2, fig. 3, fig. 4 and duos fig. 1, fig. 2, fig. 3, fig. 4, fig. 5, fig. 6, fig. 7, fig. 8

And New York Times photo editor Kathy Ryan talks about his “very distinctive pictures. There is nothing posed about them, everything about them is very much in the moment, very much heavy with a certain kind of attitude”.

When 9/11 marked a turning point for America, the tragedy took place in Jeff Mermelstein’s city. He went downtown. He knew he was making history.
© Jeff Mermelstein, Tree and Skeleton of Tower Two, from Ground Zero, September 11, 2001
“For me 9/11 was a continuum of my endeavors on the street; with one great twist, and that great twist was this extraordinary tragedy of that day. All the same gears, all the same mechanics of my camera were the same... and here is this to deal with the camera... here take this... take this...”. He shot and shot and shot “more and more films” – seventeen rolls, until 7pm when he went home. He said, “I was a war photographer for one day”. Kathy Ryan speaks of the spirituality of Jeff’s images that day. Jeff Mermelstein, video Media Matters (Part II).

More than a decade later, the Leica films are replaced by a smartphone. Mermelstein’s practice remains unchanged. New York is still his central stage. What has changed with the birth of Instagram is his angle of view. In Jeff Mermelstein is a F***ing Anthropologist, Frank Multari, a millennial photographer member of @nycspc [NYC Street Photography Collective], speaks of Mermelstein in these terms: “The most talented people working in the genre today are missing something fundamental about life on the streets of the 21st century, and Jeff Mermelstein is the only one who’s found it.”

By using a screen to capture a screen, Mermelstein suggests that the most relevant camera today is the one that shares. Only fingers and the smartphone screen are shown – the user isn’t in the picture.
© jeffmermelstein

Once shared on Instagram, the image triggers instant comments. The ‘voyeur’ turns his interactive audience into ‘voyeurs’. The language used by commentators – often short sentences replete with superlatives and emoji - is itself fodder for future academic analysis.

When producers and commentators join together in this digital journey, what differences are there in the perception of their journeys? What impact does an artist’s social observation have on the active viewers? How will devices and platforms that are primarily designed for instant gratification influence the understanding of the physical world that the storyteller has intentionally engaged with?

The Beat Photographer

Shuttered train terminal, Buffalo, NY. ©mattblack_blackmatt | Magnum Photos mattblack_blackmatt
The Geography of Poverty is a seminal piece of social, interactive documentary in its use of geotagged photography paired with data census for a social media target audience.
Californian-born Matt Black builds an Instagram account of his own version of America, the America of marginalized communities. A blog on Magnum Photos, introduces the project.

“Matt Black deconstructs the myth of America as a land of opportunity, finding that poverty is deeply woven into the fabric of society. Since 2014, the work has taken him on four cross-country trips over 80,000 miles, photographing communities in 46 states.

‘It could have just as easily been called The Geography of Power,’ Black says, soon after returning from his fourth trip, which lasted nine months. ‘It’s something much more complicated than economics; it’s about social power. Who gets their needs met and who doesn’t?”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 12.7% of Americans — or 40 million people — live in poverty. To Black, poverty is not really a question of economics but a lived experience of power.

How do you make visible something ingrained in the very fabric of our society?

“46 million people living in poverty in the U.S. since year 2000. The number of people living in communities of concentrated poverty has doubled,” Black states in a YT video post by the Pulitzer Center.

From the epicenter of rural California, Black enriches his photographic essay with maps allowing his 288,000 followers to trace his journey. His field-based investigations paired with data journalism build evidence of endemic poverty at a social scale that debunks most pre-conceived ideas. Poverty is not operating in isolated, fragmented and disconnected zones in America but ingrained in the very roots of the country.

On his Instagram account, Black shares his journey with a red line on a map and directly addresses his audience:
Map fig. 1: “This marks the end of my fourth crosscountry trip for my project The Geography of Poverty, which now covers 88,000 miles across 46 states. Thank you for following along. Please watch here for new work.”
Map fig. 2: “Thank you for joining me as I completed this latest chapter in the Geography of Poverty. I have visited and photographed over a hundred cities across 39 states so far. Poverty in America is often portrayed as something that is isolated, fragmented and disconnected: an aberration, in other words. In fact, all of the communities I have photographed are deeply connected and intertwined. Watch here for more of this work soon.”

Matt Black in The Geography of Poverty has challenged Instagram’s typical audience by resisting the aesthetic diktats of Instagram. He instead portrays a community that is left behind by technology and all that Silicon Valley promises. His documentary-poem details the daily grind of California’s forgotten population, the one which facelessly sows and harvests in dire conditions for a few dimes.

Each of his thumbnails draws poverty through the lens of childhood, old age, family, authority, racism, disease or death. The captions pairing facts and quotes speak for themselves, offering a more textured examination of humanity beyond the iconography associated with poverty.
Cedar City, UT. Cedar City is a town in Iron County, Utah. The population is 28,857 and 22.3% live below the poverty level. © Matt Black | Magnum Photos mattblack_blackmatt #geographyofpoverty

“I've seen the way it is slowly progressing downhill, to where it seems more comfortable for the government to simply support the poor people rather than giving them opportunities, because they will have to raise middle income, and that’s where it’s supposed to be at. So it’s disappearing, so the rich can get richer.”
Baltimore, MD. Sandtown.
© Matt Black | Magnum Photos mattblack_blackmatt #geographyofpoverty

"I saw Freddie Gray being arrested. He was right there. He kept saying ‘Why you breaking my leg?’ It wasn't about race. It was about authority." Baltimore is a city in Maryland. The population is 620,961 and 23.8% live below the poverty level. "If the same stuff is going on across the country, it's coming from leadership. It come from the top to the bottom."
Burlington, VT. © Matt Black | Magnum Photos mattblack_blackmatt #geographyofpoverty

"They think I am stealing something because I have two kids and a stroller. If you get mad you are just giving them more reason to discriminate against you." Burlington is a city in Chittenden County, Vermont. The population is 42,417 and 25.1% live below the poverty level. "You just got to keep calm and suck it up."

Matt Black walks in the footsteps of photojournalists of great ethical stature such as Eugene Richard currently exhibiting at ICP Museum. Both are compelled to represent the America of those left behind and shut out. Their respective projects reveal the outcasts, the illegal immigrants, the people suffering diseases and addictions, the victims of racism or war traumas.

"This is all races, all ethnicities, all cultures, all histories, all geographies throughout,” Matt Black states.

Through Black’s work on Instagram, the photographic documentary preserves its role of social anthropology, now with an anchor in the digital world. Will it be altered by the digital experience through which it is accessed? Will its content bring us closer to the artist’s plea?

Sarah Aucagos
Of mixed Caribbean and Indian descent, Sarah Aucagos was born in Guadeloupe in 1991. In the summer of 2009, she visited New York for the first time and electrified by the Guggenheim, the MoMA and the Met, she decided to pursue Art History. London was another stage of awakening where she expanded her field of experimentation, including video at the Language Center of London's College of Communication (UAL), in Interactive and Digital Design. In 2018, Sarah began studying Arts Management at ICART, Bordeaux, to serve her conviction that: "Art is a unique means of expression that should be transmitted." Her curiosity for the arts and interest in the human have resulted in different projects mixing music, photography, theater, scenography, architecture, street art and gastronomy on a range of issues from ecology to migration and cultural diversity.

Matt Black
Matt Black is from California’s Central Valley, an agricultural region in the heart of the state. His work has explored the connections between migration, poverty, agriculture, and the environment in his native rural California and in southern Mexico. He is an Associate Member of Magnum Photos. He has traveled over 100,000 miles across 46 U.S. states for his project The Geography of Poverty. Other recent works include The Dry Land, about the impact of drought on California’s agricultural communities, and The 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 has taught photography with Leica Fotografie International, Rubis Mécénat, Foundry Photojournalism Workshops, the Eddie Adams Workshop, and the Los Angeles Center of Photography. Anastasia Photo gallery in New York represents his prints. He lives in Exeter, a small town in California’s Central Valley.

Jeff Mermelstein
Jeff Mermelstein was born in 1957 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and studied at Rutgers College and the International Center of Photography. His career combines personal photographs with assignments for publications such as LIFE, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine. In the tradition of other photographers such as Helen Levitt, he has photographed street life in New York City extensively as well as September 11th and its aftermath. His works are held by institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago; the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House; and the New York Public Library. He has received the Aaron Siskind Foundation Individual Photographer’s Fellowship and the European Publishers Award for Photography. Mermelstein has taught at the International Center of Photography since 1988.
Instagrammar is a vehicle to welcome and nurture young curatorial voices using #Instagram’s archival material for critical thinking. Curators under 35 will be invited to develop their arguments using rich media material. The essays will focus on bodies of works produced specifically for Instagram either as social observation or art experiment.


September 25, 2018, the co-founders of Instagram, Kevin Systrom, 34, and Mike Krieger, 32, resign from Facebook after six years at the tech giant, reaping massive profits. Between 2012 and 2017, the company went from 30 million users and zero revenues to 600 million users and a multi-billion-dollar ad business [source: Recode]. What will become of the open source platform with its now one billion monthly users that have generated more than 20 billion images? The wealth and future of Instagram might reside in the analysis, in the deconstruction of its authored and user-based content.