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I’m Matt and this is my website. I designed and coded it from scratch with love! Take a look around; I have a few cool things to tell you — though I must admit, while I was born in Kentucky, I grew up in Florida. Maybe turn back now if you know anything about the latter.
I hike, play music and love my . I do the photojournalism thing every now and then, but my current job is more photo-picky than photo-takey.
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All images, text and content not otherwise covered are Copyright © 2023 Matthew Riva.
In September 2017, I was living in New York, nearly four years removed from my time in Florida. Hurricane Irma had just spun up off the coast of Africa and was already setting records, including most powerful Atlantic hurricane to develop outside the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
I’m one of only a handful of people in The Wall Street Journal’s newsroom who grew up breaking out the hurricane shutters on June 1st, and because of that, I’m an informal point person for storms. We were covering Irma from afar, and I was on duty the day after Labor Day as it crashed into Barbuda and the Virgin Islands. The next day, Wednesday, someone in my department floated a plan to set up timelapses in South Florida, since it looked like the state would take a hit regardless of where the storm made landfall.
None of our Florida contacts were prepared to set up multiple cameras ahead of the storm, so the head of photo decided that to make it happen, we’d need someone with firsthand knowledge of photography and hurricanes to go down.
(Who do we know like that?)
I spent Thursday getting ready — arranging for friends to pet-sit, calling old coworkers in Florida for safe places to stay, Amazon Prime Now-ing some MREs.
And then, early Friday morning, I took a mostly empty flight to Fort Lauderdale. Getting off the plane, one of the flight attendants wished everyone good luck.
I scrambled that day to set up three different cameras in parts of Miami and surrounding cities and stopped to take photos and do interviews while out and about.
As the outer bands were reaching the Keys the next morning, our team of reporters and editors joined a check-in call, realizing the hurricane was heading west. We made the snap decision for me to pack up one of the cameras and slingshot about 300 miles northeast up the state to reposition it before the hurricane hit the following day.
With the cameras in place, I sheltered in my old hometown near St. Petersburg as Irma made landfall Sunday morning, passing along updates from the people who had kindly allowed us to set up the cameras in their homes.
I was in the middle of sending video when our power went out around midnight.
I woke up to find my area spared the worst of the storm and drove around, avoiding trees and building debris while holding my phone out of the car window, searching for signal.
I stayed in Pinellas County through Monday, checking out the damage and processing the timelapse I had set up there.
The next day, I retraced my steps back across the state, driving down to South Florida and picking up the cameras along the way.
The timelapses turned out with varying degrees of success, though they all ran out of space or power before documenting the worst of the hurricane. Had it been a faster-moving storm, we likely would’ve had a better final product, but there was more value to the trip than the timelapses alone.
Over the course of the hurricane, about three-quarters of the state had lost power, and the efforts to restore it became the focus of the Journal’s reporting.
One of the other photo editors suggested looking out for power crews at work, so on that drive down, I stopped along the barrier island beaches and documented power crews at work.
I stayed in a waterlogged hotel room that final night, making sure to keep my clothes and luggage off the floor, and woke up early to shoot one more photo assignment before flying back to New York.
My photo of the power crews working led Page 1 that day.
There’s a lot of fun to be had poking through digitized archives from libraries and museums. Library of Congress, American Museum of Natural History, the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries, you name it.
In early 2016, I saw that the NYPL had substantially expanded its digital offerings, opening access to high-resolution scans of the public domain works in its collection.
Among them was Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York, a project she persuaded the WPA’s Federal Art Project to fund in 1935.
I spent hours combing through her photos, recognizing many of the scenes from my everyday life. Then it hit me: I should rephotograph them, and show people what has changed. I used Google Street View to parse out the best options and printed out copies of Abbott’s photos to bring with me.
And over the course of a couple of weeks that spring, I went out and shot the current-day streetscapes.
I ended up needing to reshoot a couple of the photos and then devoted a considerable amount of time to lining everything up and adjusting for camera differences.
(It had been 80 years, after all.)
I also interviewed a number of experts on everything from hand-painted advertisements to anchor plates in old brick buildings, and dug around the archives some more for old atlases before putting it all together.
The piece ran online, and our art directors found a way to make it look great in print, too. A kind subscriber even commented that the article justified their subscription for a few more months.
I love teaming up with a seasoned reporter on a project. They have the experience, connections and intuition you get from working a beat, and that’s indispensable for someone like me who is pretty good for research, logistics and story flow but maybe less so for the intricacies of, say, census privacy laws.
So I guess it’s a good thing the D.C. bureau had me team up with our census reporter.
Records from the 1950 census were being released and we wanted to do something fun about how much the country had changed in 72 years (how long, according to those census privacy laws, the National Archives has to wait to release individual records.)
We put together a storyboard of all the things happening in 1950 and some of the most important takeaways readers might find interesting. I compiled a list of celebrities whose first census appearance would be there — people like Dionne Warwick, Martha Stewart and Anthony Fauci.
In the Denver Post archives, I found a photo of a family being interviewed and thought maybe I could see if any of them were around and willing to be interviewed.
I was in luck.
Naomi DiBona was 1 year old in that photo, and now, here in 2022, she was an absolutely lovely human to talk to and very generous with her time. I learned about her family and its quirks, how she had moved around but stayed in the area for much of her life, her family’s hotels. And also her interest in being able to learn more and share with her son.
We were able to piece together some missing genealogy between the photos I found and newly released census records. And the final story came together.
There are so many other stories.
Another story — a much more serious one — that I conceived and produced is about the paths that migrants desperate to escape to the U.S. took through the Caribbean Sea.
Even though this continues to be a well-covered story, I wanted to make clear for readers that (as anyone raised in Florida knows all too well) the stretches of water traversed are far more perilous than most people realize.
Two fantastic WSJ reporters got the byline because it was from their work and expertise I drew most heavily, but I did also conduct my own interviews with Coast Guard officials and atmospheric experts to add to the piece.
And in addition to the reporting, editing and photo research, I also took a crack at cartography and made the maps for this story as well.
When I was on the night photo desk, I did the photo research and visual edit for more than 250 high-profile obituaries. About 100 of those have published so far, everyone from world leaders to religious icons to stars of screen and stage.
The queen’s obit was by far the longest research project I’ve ever undertaken. At one point I stepped back to tally the job: somewhere in the ballpark of 419,000 photos, reduced down to a few hundred on the first pass of an edit. But we were ready when the time came.
Editors, as a rule, don’t get bylines at the Journal, so only the visual piece has my name on it. As for the rest of the Firm, published obits for Prince Philip and a retrospective for Diana were both my work as well.
Working on obits really is a great learning experience. You discover so much about people’s lives and have to have respect for how their last big story and legacy should be told. I have many I’m proud of, but Pelé’s is a recent standout.
One final example I worked on falls under very a meat-and-potatoes coverage area for the Journal: business news.
The pandemic-era smash hit video game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” was getting an update from Nintendo, and I wanted to contextualize why that was a big deal for the entire gaming industry while also making it interesting for people who cared about neither Tom Nook nor gaming as a whole.
I did quite a bit of number-crunching for this story, much of which informed the reporting but didn’t make it into the final copy. But that doesn’t really matter; I think this is still a great example that proves you can successfully marry a visual format with the kind of deeply reported news that maybe doesn’t seem the most visual at first glance.
I was interning at the Tampa Bay Times in the months leading up to the election, and the paper had a recurring series called Know Your Candidates.
As part of the print package, they wanted to explain each amendment on the ballot so readers wouldn’t get to the polls and be greeted with dense legalese on important issues.
Our web guru suggested I embark on a project to display all the information online, as well, so I set to work.
I pulled together analysis of the amendment text — with a heavy assist from Florida Trend and the Collins Center for Public Policy — and decided on a layout that had the legalese on one half and the explainer on the other.
Basically, CliffsNotes for civics.
The text would be annotated, so the reader wouldn’t have to take our word for it, and we would provide links to all the primary sources.
I spent some extra time learning about cookies — yes, those much-maligned browser cookies — for one feature I hoped would be especially useful to readers.
The idea was that, as you read through and decided on the amendments, you could mark how you wanted to vote, and the browser would save each choice until you finished. Then, the site would generate a page with all your picks, which you could print out and take to the polls so you wouldn’t have to memorize each one.
Here is the resurrected version, albeit with some dead links saved for posterity. Your window isn’t currently wide enough to display this project correctly. Please try viewing the link on a bigger screen.
The Times removed the project from their website partly because of a redesign and partly because it became outdated immediately after the election — a whole new version would have to be made for the next one, after all.
(Also, I think, partly because I was still learning at the time and hadn’t thought to create a mobile-friendly design.)
Here is the Wayback Machine’s archive of the live app, saved a month after the election.
I pitched this idea as a way to check our score after the election.
The reader would fly through the state, seeing the counties we’d marked as bellwethers before Election Day and how they (and we) fared at actually predicting the results.
I mapped out the counties and how they voted, as well as every campaign visit I could find to each: Duval (Jacksonville), Hillsborough (Tampa), Osceola (metro Orlando), Miami-Dade and Volusia (Daytona Beach).
As I recall, the project got canned at the eleventh hour for lack of an accompanying story and concerns about how to display ads, but I still think it would have been a really interesting way to postmortem an election.
Sadly, this one is also not mobile-friendly.
Here is the nearly finished project. Use your arrow keys to advance through the counties. Your window isn’t wide enough to display this link correctly. Please try viewing on a bigger screen.
Public service journalism is, in my mind, the category with the biggest gap between how many resources it deserves and how many it actually gets.
I knew from WSJ reporting that districts in New York, Texas and a couple other states were gearing up to be bellwethers for the 2022 midterm election, and I pitched some of the politics veterans on using two of those districts as examples to explain not just the current situation but also how the whole process works.
Everyone was on board, so then we dug in.
They pored over the storyboard and did incredible job of distilling the big picture and sea of numbers down to the most useful context and bits.
And meanwhile, I learned a whole new GIS program so I could make the maps easy to understand.
I rewrote a D3 force chart from the ground up to show every single district in America. (Tap here to see the version for mobile devices.)
And I phoned up a friend and coworker who actually lived in the New York district we were highlighting and asked, please, if she could take some video to show readers what the area looks like. (Thanks, Ariel.)
The visuals were a moving target, because as the story was coming together, states kept releasing new district maps (which, in many cases, were immediately put on hold by the courts.)
But we set a date and went live.
For a month or two after, I kept updating the story so it could continue to be useful to readers while redistricting news was still top-of-mind.
Although the information and story are outdated now, this is one piece I’m most proud of. It’s certainly one I learned the most while producing.
It was a weird week. I was moving in the middle of a pandemic, and my birthday also happened to fall during that week, as well.
We knew George Floyd had been killed that Monday, Memorial Day. The video of his death was on social media all night.
I was moving to a new place the next day and was off work, but still saw glimpses of the movement already forming via push alerts.
When I got back to work, protests had spread to other cities and it was all hands on deck. I was at work late every night that week.
Thursday, May 28, was when everything took a turn.
That night was when Minneapolis PD abandoned the Third Precinct.
For the final edition, we managed to get an unprecedented photo of protesters setting fires in the overtaken precinct building.
The protests over the weekend got better in the Twin Cities, but worse in other cities, and in the virtual newsroom, we juggled multiple protests at a time, sometimes multiple protests in the same city.
After the first week or so, we noticed that police seemed to be stepping back from the overly aggressive tactics they had been using, and essentially all of the damage and looting stopped, as well. The protests were overwhelming in size, scale and peacefulness.
I began sifting through the photos from the first week and cataloguing them by city, with a particular emphasis on Minneapolis–St. Paul.
About two weeks after protests began, I started reaching out to photographers from all the wire agencies, our own assigned photographers and freelancers who had shot the protests. I wanted to use their photos and interview them for an oral history, which is a fairly nontraditional format for the Journal.
I spent one full week conducting the interviews (with a broken phone, nonetheless) and editing down the transcripts so I could combine specific incidents and accounts into a narrative of the week after George Floyd died, and then I began weaving everything together.
The first draft was more than 5,000 words.
A fantastic editor at the Journal, Rich Bellis, helped shape and cut everything into the smartest possible form, and we finished up the story a couple of days later.
“What Photographers Saw In Minneapolis” published one month to the day after George Floyd was killed.
But that was only the first part of the story.
Why stop with just Minneapolis–St. Paul?
I also interviewed photographers in other cities around the United States to hear what happened in those places. Some had become national news on their own, like Washington, D.C., and the tear-gassing of peaceful protesters for President Trump's photo op there, or the creation of an "autonomous zone" in Seattle.
There were so many more stories to be told as a result of Black Lives Matter protests across the nation.
And I talked to 40 photographers across 17 cities in total, getting more than 17 hours of interviews.
So while Rich and I were editing the first part of this series, I was also assembling and editing the second part.
It was a herculean sprint to cut the second part down and have it ready for publication, as well, because it was double the length of part one, but we had the same time frame to put it together.
We decided to break it down into a handful of “focus cities,” where the reader would have multiple people and photos and a timeline structure similar to part one, and trim the other cities to just one or two photographers talking about a couple of memorable photos.
Given more time and money, I'd have loved to do a part three and expand beyond the U.S. or into undercovered cities, but as it stands, the two parts I finished represent a monumental amount of work, given how few people were involved editorially.
Part two, “On the Streets With Photographers of Black Lives Matter Protests Across the U.S.,” published two days later, on Saturday, June 27.
The effects of those protests are still being borne out, but I hope that this oral history series provides a faithful snapshot of what happened right when it happened and gives voice to photographers who usually only tell their stories through photos.