LaToya Ruby Frazier’s Flint is Family in Three Acts – The Brooklyn Rail

LaToya Ruby Frazier
Flint is a family in three acts
(Steidl and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2022)

In 2016, LaToya photographer Ruby Frazier was commissioned to photograph Flint’s water crisis for She magazine. It all started on April 25, 2014, the day the city began using discolored river water from Lake Huron instead of water from a Detroit-based treatment facility. Tasked with showing how residents coped with what quickly turned into an emergency, for six months Frazier forged a connection to the city through a local resident named Shea Cobb, a bus driver and poet who grew up in Flint’s Fifth Ward, a historically black neighborhood. Frazier documented Cobb’s daily routine: his bus route, his hair-braiding business, his caring for his daughter Zion. The images in this black and white series are the first of three acts that make up his new photo book, Flint is Family in Three Acts. In a way, this latest photobook is a continuation of themes that Frazier has explored throughout his career.

Frazier immediately bonded with Cobb over their similar background. Frazier grew up in the steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and knew the feeling of seeing a city decline, a phenomenon she documented — alongside her mother and grandmother — in her 2014 photobook. The concept of family. In Notion she examined American labor history through intergenerational stories of a family’s connection to a Rust Belt town. In Flint is a family it shines a light on the work of some of America’s most misunderstood working women, black women, again with a focus on generational storytelling. The creative partnership Cobb and Frazier forged to produce Flint is a family gives voice to the cultural experiences of black women in testimony to their role as cultural workers. Like hinges, they are an essential but often overlooked part of the community structure – flexible, reliable – that holds the world together. “I’ve seen photos and images of underwater monuments dedicated to slaves and those lost at sea,” Cobb explains in the book. “If that didn’t kill us, neither did it.”

In Flint is a family, images appear in conversation with each other or are shown side-by-side with texts from community members about illness, high water bills, and the mental and physical cost of living in a constant state of emergency . In “Act I”, it is the voice of Cobb, in “Act II”, that of Cobb’s father, and in “Act III”, a choir of voices from the Flint community.

When news first broke that Flint, Michigan was facing a water crisis, media coverage treated Flint residents as nameless props to replace larger ideas of environmental racism. , industrial pollution and government neglect. The glare of the camera “triggers a whole set of survival modalities that black Americans have,” whether or not there is a black photographer behind the camera, Arthur Jafa explains in a 2017 conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist. “It’s the recording of the testimonies of people who speak; so there are some things you can say, some things you can’t say. For Flint is a family, LaToya Ruby Frazier had to carefully examine her own gaze and rethink the camera as an instrument, not a surveillance one – after all, the origins of the camera as an object are tied to imperialism and anti-Blackness – but of enlightenment. Photography has historically conditioned viewers to inscribe powerlessness on black people, all the more so when they come from low socio-economic backgrounds. Frazier, on the other hand, conditions our eyes to see the resilience of the people of Flint. Everywhere, care work is made visible through their collective work. The first image in the book, an aerial portrait of Cobb standing halfway across a bridge over Flint River, acts as a visual mission statement for the project. For Frazier, Flint is a subject, not a show. The kind of subject that deserves the kind of nuance that time and attention uncover.

Notably, in “Act II” – the only section not set in Flint – we follow Cobb as she decamps to her father’s many acres in Newton, Mississippi, from 2017 to 2019. This is the first section devoted to color photography. It shows Cobb and Zion in a rural setting: riding Tennessee walking horses and working the land. A photograph captures Zion on a horse flanked by his mother and grandfather and we learn from accompanying text by Cobb’s father, Douglas R. Smiley, that the breed of horse they are riding was one used by overseers on slave plantations. Smiley’s narration of his life story offers a look at Cobb from a new perspective. Her father, hearing about her troubles in Flint, explains how he gently pushed her to move by reminding her of an easier life. He sent Cobb an old photo of herself drinking from one of her land’s pure spring heads as a child, along with a simple text message: “This water won’t kill you. . Come home.” “I thought, ‘If I can get him the picture, that picture is worth a thousand words,'” Smiley says. In Newton, we are shown a different kind of life, air and d And then we go back to Flint for “Act III.”

The book’s final act takes us back to Flint, featuring portraits of and with Flint residents as they collect clean water in jars and bottles from the Atmospheric Water Generator donated by a veteran of the Texas-based army. Again, Frazier opts for color. The military green generator is flanked by posters emblazoned with red lettering that read “Free Water” – both an advertisement of needed community goods and a sort of two-word plea that encapsulates the community’s mission to return the access to drinking water possible for all.

The camera can testify and it can imply. Frazier isn’t interested in testifying dispassionately. She set out to register a community taking responsibility after the government tasked with doing so let them down. She also decided to help. “I see the role of photographs as a means of empowerment and bringing about visible change,” she explains in the introduction to the book. Amber Hasan, the artist manager who connected Frazier to Cobb, shares that when the city refused to cover the transportation costs of the atmospheric generator, Frazier stepped in to make it happen. The cost—which Hasan estimated at $50,000—was partially funded by sales of Frazier’s photographs related to the Flint Project. In the book, his presence is minimal at first, as the opening acts belong to Cobb. But as the story in pictures unfolds, Frazier becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of her subjects, culminating in her inclusion in the series of community portraits alongside the generator and drinking water that ‘she helped provide them. In Flint is a family Frazier asks us to see the solidarity in his photos, not just the art.

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