Andrea Wise

Balance: Matt & Melissa Eich

Andrea WiseComment

Balance is an interview series with creatives about how they find balance in their work and lives.

Last time here, I interviewed someone I'd long admired, but never met (Melissa Lyttle) and I'm excited to say that a few weeks later, I finally got to meet her! So this time, we're going to keep the good vibes going and I'm not only interviewing TWO people I've never met before, but one of them is also named Melissa. How's that for good mojo? 

One of my first exposures to intimate storytelling was Matt Eich's project, Love in the First Person, which I first saw in college in 2008. I was deeply moved by Matt & Melissa's strength and openness, their relationship, and of course, by Matt's photography and storytelling. Since then, his work has continued to grow, as has their family.

Matt's just gone back to school, pursuing an MFA at the Hartford Art School, and as my grad school career winds down, it's hard for me to even imagine taking on all that Matt has going on professionally + a family + graduate school. So I wondered what that is like for him and for his family. And although we often hear photographer's talk about how their work affects their families, I feel we rarely hear directly from the families, so I'm simply honored that Melissa was willing to join the conversation. I think we can all learn a great deal from them.

Matt, you've become known for your deeply personal and intimate long term essays. What are some of the challenges you struggle with in doing this type of work? 

Matt: The challenges associated with long-term essays aren't new, but they are still a challenge. For most people, it's finding the time and money to do the work. I apply for lots of grants, and have been fortunate enough to piece together support from various outlets that have allowed me some time and creative flexibility in years past. The truth is, I'm hardly ever making money when I'm working on these long-form essays, I'm just trying not to lose money. As such, I've got to balance project time with paying gigs, and time away with time at home. This year alone I've been named a finalist for five different grants, totaling $63,000, but I haven't won any of them. There are other things I applied for where my work never got a second glance. Knowing you're a finalist is almost like getting sand kicked in your eyes after a few repetitions. It's doubly depressing knowing that the funds aren't going to be there to pursue this work in the coming year, unless something else miraculously falls out of the sky. All the more reason to keep looking for support, right?

When you're fortunate enough to get someone to publish your work, many outlets will ask for content for free, or for super cheap and then you've got to haggle with them to reach a reasonable rate. Once you're there, then you have to fight over the edit and the text. Eventually you lose creative control and the outlet can twist your work however they see fit, often an oversimplified representation of a complicated issue. Then they publish it with your name on it and you can catch all the shit from the community you've been documenting for years. And even if you do get someone to publish it, what good is that anyhow? How will that online publication or print publication impact the lives of the people you have photographed? My experience with mass media is almost always disappointing. 

It's hard to build relationships where you are constantly coming and going, and trying to drop back into people's lives as if you've always been there. Sadly, it feels the same when I come back home some times. Recently I had the opportunity to ask Alec Soth how he balances work and family life. He described each time he returns from a trip "like a plane crash landing in the living room." I can totally relate to this feeling, and I find it to be emotionally draining for myself, and for my family.  

How do you balance your commitment to your work and the people you photograph with your commitment to your family, especially since your work often keeps you on the road away from your family for long periods of time?

Matt: It's impossible to balance. To paraphrase what a professor of mine (Bruce Strong) told me years ago, "There isn't a balance, there is always something that suffers. You need the wisdom to choose which will suffer at any given moment."

The constant pressure to produce images, hustle for work, stay in touch with people in other places and all the other pieces of running a business inevitably bleeds into family life on an almost daily basis. For the last few years I've grown increasingly concerned with the imbalance, and have been making steps towards what I hope will be a more sustainable future for my family. 

And Melissa, although I've never met you, I'm sure you're a tremendous source of support to Matt in his career. What is that like for you? How do you balance your independent sense of personhood with your roles as a mom and a wife?

Melissa: Although I try to be supportive of Matt and his career/path, I often find myself having a hard time focusing on much besides keeping myself calm and our girls (ages 7 and 2) fed and cared for.  I have grown up watching a certain person in my life wake up and loathe going to work; I never want someone that I love and adore be crushed by that. Matt has such a passion for what he does! He can take something weird such as a blade or two of grass that has been spray painted bright pink, and turn it into a strangely beautiful image. 

When he is away it is both taxing and relaxing.  I have all the home responsibilities on my shoulders (getting the girls to care/school, getting to work, working, pick-up, dinner, bedtime, taking out trash, finances, etc.) However, it is more relaxing because he is off taking care of himself! When he is home Matt is, in some ways, a large child whom I fight myself not to take care of... telling myself "He is a man! He can do that."  When he is home I nurture myself by: 1) waking early to read a devotional and sip coffee. and 2) drinking wine. :)

Just a few days ago Matt was out working in the middle of a Saturday and while my girls napped and played I took a relaxing bath.  I think I also find it easier to deal with his always-changing schedule because I have a very consistent one.  I work as a full time Speech Therapist in a public school and can look forward to my structure at work and as I tell my work friends "When work ends, the craziness begins."

Matt Eich was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1986 and is the oldest of four children. Eich studied photojournalism at Ohio University and works for clients that include National Geographic, GQ, The New Yorker, AARP, Apple, Tiffany & Company, Republic Records and others. 

Matt is currently pursuing his MFA in Photography from the Hartford Art School.These days Eich lives in Norfolk, Virginia with his wife and two children while accepting commissions of all kinds and creating photographic essays about the American condition.

Melissa Eich was born in Mayfield, Ohio in 1987 and studied speech and language sciences at Ohio University and received her masters degree from Old Dominion University. Melissa currently works as a speech therapist in a public school and is a mother to Madelyn and Meira. In her rare spare moments she loves thrifting, sewing, and crafting with repurposed materials. Melissa's family photographs have been published in GEO.