LaToya Ruby Frazier: Flint Is Family In Three Acts - Other - The Gordon Parks Foundation

LaToya Ruby Frazier is a visual artist known for collaborative storytelling with the people who appear in her photographs, videos, texts, and performances. Her use of the photograph as a platform for social justice and visual representation for working-class families is rooted in her commitment to expose the violation of basic human rights and promote environmental justice, access to healthcare, education, employment, and migration and immigration equity.  Her photographs often become a source of empowerment that leads to creative solutions.

Frazier’s Prize culminated in the publication of Flint Is Family In Three Acts, which chronicles the ongoing man-made water crisis in Flint, Michigan from the perspective of those who live and fight for their right to access free, clean water. Featuring Frazier's photographs, texts and poetry by Shea S. Cobb, Amber N. Hasan, Douglas R. Smiley, and Flint community members, as well as scholarly essays by Frazier, Leigh Raiford, and Michal Raz-Russo, this five-year body of work, begun in 2016, serves as an intervention and alternative to mass-media accounts of this political, economic, and racial injustice.

In 2014, as a cost-cutting measure, the Flint City Council switched the town’s water supply from a Detroit treatment facility to the industrial waste-filled Flint River. Forced to consume and bathe in water contaminated with lead at 27 times the government’s maximum threshold, Flint’s citizens—predominantly Black and overwhelmingly poor—fell ill almost immediately and many battle chronic medical conditions as a result.

Frazier first traveled to Flint in 2016, as part of a magazine commission to do a photo essay about the water crisis. During that trip she met Shea Cobb, a Flint poet, activist, and mother who became Frazier’s collaborator. Divided into three acts, Flint Is Family follows Cobb as she fights for her family’s and community’s health and wellbeing. Act I introduces Cobb, her family, and The Sister Tour, a collective of women artists. Cobb lives with her mother and her daughter, Zion. She works as a school bus driver and hairstylist, while launching her career as a poet, singer, and songwriter. To protect her daughter’s health, Cobb makes the critical decision to leave her mother and friends behind and make the reverse migration to Mississippi, where her father resides on family owned land. Act II follows Cobb and Zion to Newton, Mississippi, where they move in with Cobb’s father, Mr. Douglas R. Smiley. There, they learn how to take care of his horses, as well as the land and fresh water springs they will one day inherit. Due to segregation and discrimination in the Newton County school system, Cobb and Zion eventually return to Flint. Act III documents the arrival of a 26,000-pound atmospheric water generator to Flint in 2019 that Frazier, Cobb, and her best friend, Amber Hasan—a hip-hop artist, herbalist, and community organizer—helped set up and operate in their neighborhood.

Spurred by the lack of mass-media interest in the impact of this ongoing crisis, and inspired by the collaborative work of photographer Gordon Parks and writer Ralph Ellison in 1940s Harlem, Frazier’s collaborative approach ensures that the lives and voices of Flint’s residents are seen and heard, and that their collective creative endeavors provide a solution to this man-made water crisis. Flint is Family In Three Acts is a 21st century survey of the American landscape that reveals the persistent segregation and racism that haunts it. In equal measure, it is also a story of a community’s strength, pride, and resilience in the face of a crisis that is still ongoing.

LaToya Ruby Frazier was born in 1982 in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Her artistic practice spans a range of media, including photography, video, and performance, and centers on the nexus of social justice, cultural change, and commentary on the American experience. In various interconnected bodies of work, Frazier uses collaborative storytelling with the people who appear in her artwork to address topics of industrialism, Rust Belt revitalization, environmental justice, access to healthcare, family, and communal history. Her work is held in numerous national and international museum collections. Frazier is the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (2015) and Guggenheim Fellowship (2014), among other honors and fellowships. Her first book, The Notion of Family (2014), received the International Center for Photography Infinity Award. 

LaToya Ruby Frazier is the 2020 recipient of the Gordon Parks Foundation/Steidl Book Prize.

Link to Steidl