“I’ve always said that if I stood blindfolded in an empty parking lot somewhere, I’d know whether or not I was standing in Broome County just by the smell of the air,” the photographer Matthew Barbarino tells me. “I remember the landscape well. The Binghamton area is known as being cloudy and rainy, and that had a big impression on me growing up. I also remember the architecture and, of course, the factories. They had a powerful effect on the imagination of a young kid.”
As manufacturing jobs in the US faced a sharp decline, Barbarino saw the landscape of his hometown, Binghamton, New York, change. “For me, the IBM plant was the axis mundi, the center of the world, and the sacred heart of all things,” the photographer says. “Where other civilizations might have had a totem pole or a sacred tree, we had a factory. It’s still there, but much of it is abandoned.”
Coinciding with that decline, the opioid epidemic hit, and heroin tore through the area, altering the lives of a young Barbarino and his childhood friends. Sometimes, the damage was irreversible. Many of the photographer’s friends never made it out of Broome County. Some have survived and had families of their own; others have died.
After leaving for college, Barbarino returned home one last time to tell some of their stories. Those memories became the foundation for the series Graceland. “I don’t think I’ll ever be back,” the artist admits. “While it will always be home to me, I don’t expect I’ll ever see it again. I know somehow that if I ever did go back, I’d probably never get out again. Frankly, it’s hard enough just to look at the pictures.” We asked him about the place where he was born, the decision to say goodbye, and the people he’ll never forget.
When did you start photographing your life and friends in Binghamton? What was going on in your life at the time?
“Some of the pictures (although very few) were taken as far back as 2013 when I was still living in the area and, you know, still kind of a mess, but the bulk of the work was made later after I was admitted to RISD. At that time, I felt I was moving from one stage of my life to another and while I had lived elsewhere before, it was really the first time I felt I was moving forward in any real sense.
“I also felt it was the first time I’d really got a glimpse of what was going on in any sort of cultural mainstream, so to speak, and that I was exposed to a world I didn’t really know existed. Growing up where I did, somehow I always assumed that somewhere there was a helm to the ship and that the people there were aware of the situation in places like Binghamton and that they were somehow on top of it or concerned with it.
“But my impression at school was that they were actually not that concerned with it and that what was going on back home was entirely outside their purview. If this was the helm of the ship, Binghamton was not so much the hull as a piece of baggage that had been cut loose and set adrift at sea.
“What was also coming into focus during that time was the fact that, for many of the people I ran around with, the drugs were turning out to be more than a passing phase and that some of them, to be blunt, were perhaps not going to make it. When you’re younger, somehow you assume that everyone is going to eventually snap out of it, move on with their lives, get married, and have kids and everything.
“But at that time, the reality was starting to look very different. And so I was moving ahead in a certain kind of a world and leaving behind a very different kind of world. I was trying to find my footing in the midst of that.”
Why do you think your friends trust you to document these intimate moments in their lives?
“Well, when I started, I really had no way of knowing whether there would be interest in the photos outside of my classroom. Obviously, I hoped that there would be, but I didn’t know. It’s also true that some people were more open than others and that they all had different concerns. Jimi, for example, was content so long as he felt I wasn’t focused too much on his girlfriend (which I wasn’t), and Jordan was happy provided his boss didn’t see the pictures.
“I was often surprised, though, when people were not only willing but eager to be part of the work. Steve, who’s shown on the right in the photo beneath the flag, was one such person. I believe the reason was because he had endured unimaginable suffering, the bulk of which had gone completely unnoticed outside the small circle around him, who had little in the way of understanding to offer.
“Because of the history we’d shared, I felt there existed between us a kind of resonance I tried hard to maintain, and based on the conversations we had, I believed that I was being entrusted with this because he really wanted something of his journey to be recorded and shared with the outside world.
“For my part, I struggled to know how to factor others into a vision that ultimately belonged to me, particularly where the lay of the land afforded me little reason for optimism. My feeling was that if the arch of a person’s story ultimately takes the aspect of tragedy rather than of triumphant heroism, one honors that person not by denying the basic facts of the matter but by bearing in mind the size and scale of the obstacle they were up against and by telling the tale accordingly. I believe that was perceived as integrity on my part and that that is why they trusted me.”
Might you tell me a bit about one or two of the friends who appear in your photographs?
“A lot of the people shown are people I’ve had to part ways with, but one person I’ve kept in touch with is Steve, the guy I mentioned. Whether they recognize it or not, people very often speak as if crawling out of the position he is in is a matter of mere willpower. But his case, in particular, emphasizes the extent of the error in that attitude.
“Aside from that, in a world characterized by unspeakable insanity, he was uncommonly honest, good-natured, trustworthy, and had a tremendous amount of potential. I know that he wanted to be an engineer like his father, and I’m absolutely certain he could have been.
“Another person I think often about was a close friend whose father died when he was very young. He knew little about him, but what he did know was that he had been in and out of jail before he died. I remember that as teenagers, whenever we’d talk of the future, he would grow frustrated and say things like, ‘What’s the point of thinking about it? We all know I’m going to end up in jail just like my dad.’
“He did end up in jail and has been in and out since just after high school. The last time I saw him he had just had a son of his own but was about to serve another sentence. It’s hard to say why that stays with me, but it does.”
Could you tell us about the history of Binghamton and the causes of this epidemic? Why has this town been especially hard-hit?
“I grew up in the Endicott area, and that’s where most of the pictures were taken. Endicott’s history is significant because, together with Johnson City, that’s where the bulk of the manufacturing took place in our area. It’s a factory town, built from the ground up in the beginning of the 20th century by the Endicott Johnson Corporation, which was kind of the ‘Nike’ of its day and the world’s leading manufacturer of shoes during the first half of the century.
“It’s also the birthplace of IBM and, for most of the 20th century, the center of operations for that company was in Endicott. Many of the local schools, roads, and parks are named after the leaders of industry, and there are statues and monuments built in their honor all around town. At the post office on Washington Ave, there’s a mural of men with wagons digging the foundation for the plant.
“Few people know this, but there’s even a local church that used to have a stained glass piece behind the altar depicting the head of the E.J. Corporation, surrounded by adoring children. It was later moved to a place above the door because, you know, it was felt only Christ belonged behind the altar.
“In any case, as manufacturing moved abroad in the ’90s, the place really just fell apart and has never recovered. People forget this, but the fact is that as the world outside shook under two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Nuclear Crises, and all the great cataclysms of the 20th century, American manufacturing really never budged. Few things were as stable as life in this area. I had friends whose parents and grandparents both worked for the same company.
“I think it’s significant that it was not a case of a company moving into a town which already had a life-blood of its own, but of a company buying the very land itself with the sole intention of building its factories, and of people organizing themselves based on those factories and the work ethic that characterized life in this area.
“I think the significance of that is probably pretty great, but having said that, I do not think the phenomenon can be explained in that way. I would also mention that, as far as my art is concerned, I worked hard to avoid scientific or even journalistic explanations as to what has happened, and tried to limit myself to an interpretation of the phenomenon as it unfolded for me, if that makes sense.”
How has Binghamton changed since you first moved away?
“It’s a little hard to describe, but to me, it’s unrecognizable. It feels as if the play is over and all that is left is an empty stage, some dusty props, and a janitor sweeping up the floor. But people nevertheless mingle outside the theater, as if awaiting an encore. When I was young, it was a fully functioning community and practically picturesque apart from the bad weather, but now it looks like a foreign country that has been ravaged by war. I’ve always felt that because I’d spent so much time away, the change is more apparent than it is to those who have never left.
“There are certain statistics like a high unemployment rate that are easy to point to, and it’s also true that when I was younger, heroin was something that people did in the movies, not in places like this. But now it’s virtually impossible to live here without knowing someone who has either dealt with it themselves or who has a close friend or family member who has. I also know because people tell me that the cost of a bag of heroin has been cut in half in the last several years because it has flooded the streets.
“What is striking about the whole phenomenon is that there has been a kind of catabolic degeneration all across the line, not only at the economic level but at the level of the family, at a moral and spiritual level, and so on. The result is a kind of distilled essence or spirit that is palpable the moment you step foot in town. Local kids nowadays just say the place is cursed.
“Because that spirit pervades both the outer world and the inner world, it begs the question of whether outer phenomenon caused the degeneration within, or whether it’s the other way around, and the condition outside is an emanation of something having gone wrong within. Whatever the case, to me it’s that spirit that is the most noticeable change. I’ve tried to allow that to animate the work as much as possible.”
What is your most indelible memory from your time working on this body of work?
“I don’t know about a single memory, but I would say that one thing that definitely left an impression was discovering that, behind the masks we may have worn during the part of our lives I was concerned with, what was concealed was of such a common nature. We were all dealing with essentially the same things, but somehow that wasn’t apparent at the time. I suppose a lot of people have had that experience.
“In that vein, another thing that was really driven home was how easily my place might have been swapped with someone else’s. Without singling anyone out, I’ve known a lot of people who have ended up either dead or in jail, and the trajectory of a life often hinges on a pivot point so minute one really has to stand in awe. I suppose it’s not too much to say that I walked away with a pretty strong sense of gratitude.”
Is there anything you’ve chosen not to photograph?
“One of my big influences as a student was Henry Horenstein, and one of his many great suggestions was to always take the picture and decide later whether you want to show it or not. And so I’ve taken a lot of pictures that I haven’t shown. I might mention that the girl on the left under the flag has died, and so there are some of her I don’t think I’ll show. By and large, my primary consideration in that regard was with respect to the dignity of the people in the pictures. Wherever I felt that was compromised too much, I haven’t shown them.”
Are there any photos you’ve made just for yourself and your friends that you don’t show to the world?
“I did make an effort to step away from the flame every now and then and get shots that the people in them could sort of ‘walk around with.’ The girl I just mentioned used one of my photos, a simple shot of her in sunglasses smoking a cigarette, as her profile picture on social media, and I’m actually quite proud of the fact that she saw it as suitable to represent herself that way.”
Has it been difficult or painful for you to return to Binghamton? If so, what motivated you to continue to return, in spite of that difficulty?
“The whole thing has been incredibly difficult. I don’t know whether people can appreciate that creative inspiration can be extremely hard to handle and isn’t always pleasant. I would also say that this project was very strange because I felt the entire time as though I had no choice but to make it or that I was somehow being used to do so. It became an absolute obsession over which I felt I had no control.
“In terms of motivation, I felt very strongly that the drama unfolding in the lives of people I’d known was tantamount to that which is found in great literature and that, as such, it was worthy of artistic representation. I felt the moment I stepped foot on campus that this whole phenomenon was of historic significance and that once lost, the details would never recur again in the same way. I wanted to give my testimony before the ashes settled and the curtain dropped for good. To be completely honest, I also hated the idea of outsider commentators speaking to things they didn’t know firsthand or writing the record without having had a say myself.
“I might also add that I was somewhat wary of certain attitudes I encountered on campus among more well-to-do people. I felt that, with respect to much that is so casually mulled over in loftier places, the coal mine of the real world is practically littered with dead canaries. Because of my experience, I felt I had something to bring to the table in that regard.”
Have you witnessed any moments that give you hope for your hometown or any of the people in it?
“I think that in the beginning, I anticipated that I’d see moments like that. In fact, in a way, I think I set out looking for a happy ending, but the simple fact is that unfortunately, things did not end on an optimistic note by any means. A point came where I had to accept things as they were and say my farewells.
“The only exception that comes to mind is that, while I was working on the project, a friend of mine had a baby with her husband. Both of them live in the area and were never caught up by whatever is wreaking havoc around them, and so that’s definitely something. It was striking really, to see a new life come into the world in spite of everything.”
Do you make photos with a larger goal in mind, or are you mostly in the moment, documenting your daily reality? Both?
“When I started, my intention was to make myself a fly on the wall and to photograph every moment. I was cautious not to maintain any conscious goal or impose any narrative, in part because a lot of the discourse on documentary photography at present has to do with authorship and imposition of meaning on the part of the artist.
“But my experience working on this project was that that position became untenable after a certain point and that the issue of authorship could not be avoided. A series of random events become meaningful only inasmuch as an author is able to decipher some thread that runs through them and tie things together narratively in a meaningful way.”
Has photographing your hometown helped you heal at all? If so, how? If not, where do you find your healing?
“I think somehow I expected that it would help. In certain ways, perhaps it has. Other times, I’m not so sure. I might liken the experience to a painful or even dangerous procedure that is necessary for the health of a patient but which itself is not enjoyable by any means.
“When people get debris lodged in their body somewhere, they often have to decide whether to have it removed or whether it’s better to just leave it there and deal with it. I decided to go in and confront the thing, and as a result, I came out a different person. Sometimes, I feel it came at a price. In fact, I’m quite sure it did.
“As far as healing is concerned, I would say that it has come as a result of the relationships I’ve formed outside of that place and in the life that I’ve invested in before me. Probably the greatest source of healing has been my relationship to my girlfriend and in, you know, learning to love and be loved in that way.”
Are you in any of the Graceland photographs yourself?
“There were some pictures that I ended up in, but somehow they didn’t feel right. There were one or two that came out okay, so maybe I’ll use one someday. But, by and large, I would say that because I was principally concerned in this project with a period of my life which had ended or was ending, where I appeared in the pictures it felt inorganic, as if I were grafted into a scene in which I once belonged but no longer did.
“But at the same time, while my attention was fixed on the struggles of those in my peer group, the greater result was a deepened understanding of myself, my context, and my history, and the project in that sense was a means to self-knowledge, a means of ‘drawing out the figure from the ground,’ as someone I know would say.
“The mystery of photography consists in that the ‘hand of the artist’ is supposed to be erased and an objective image of the world somehow revealed, yet somehow this isn’t the case. The portrait provided is never entirely the world ‘as it is,’ but remains always and forever a confession on the part of the person who made it. And so in that sense, I would have to say, the truth is that I’m in all of them.”