A profile of photographer and video artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, whose work follows in the social documentary tradition of Walker Evans and Gordon Parks.
Good evening and welcome to NYC-ARTS.
I'm Paula Zahn at the Tisch WNET Studios at Lincoln Center.
On tonight's program we'll meet photographer and video artist LaToya Ruby Frazier.
Frazier grew up in Braddock, Pennsylvania, where she began photographing her family and hometown at the age of 16.
Her work is steeped in the social documentary tradition of Walker Evans and Gordon Parks.
Frazier's photographs tell the stories of people who are usually forgotten, giving them visibility through her images.
Her project with residents of Flint, Michigan, documenting the effects of the ongoing water crisis there, appeared in Elle Magazine in 2016.
Her work addressing environmental justice, healthcare inequity and racism has recently appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and other major publications.
NYC-ARTS spoke with Frazier last year at a retrospective of her work at Gavin Brown's enterprise in Harlem.
LaToya Ruby Frazier : My work gives a framework to what it's like being a working-class person and family from Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Andrew Carnegie created and established his first steel mill in Braddock: The Edgar Thompson plant.
It's been operating since 1875.
Braddock, it's located 9 miles outside of Pittsburgh, along the Monongahela River, when you talk about America and who built America and the fact that America is built by steel, even if we look at the infrastructure, in the space that we're in today, everything is anchored in steel.
I was raised between these two very strong women: my grandmother, Ruby, and my mother, Cynthia.
My grandmother grew up there in the thirties, and this would have been when Braddock was prosperous, very diverse.
It had a lot of wealth.
My mother grew up there in the sixties; she was someone who witnessed the segregation and the racism.
And I grew up there in the '80s which would be after they closed all the surrounding factories and the unions were broken up, and uh the war on drugs breaks out in the community.
So I was coming of age when that was happening and I was a witness to that.
Just looking at them, is what pushed me to kind of create a family album that most Americans wouldn't want, right?
I think all Americans know the kind of images that are in It's just socially and culturally we're taught never to talk about those.
Once I started coming home with my camera, my mother became immersed and engaged.
She was a collaborator from the very moment.
And I think that a lot of this comes out of my understanding of the Maysles brothers and their documentary films.
They believed if a person who's overlooked and ignored by society all of a sudden has this camera turned on them, that they'll engage.
Because otherwise they would be invisible and voiceless.
We are traditionally taught, uh, in the history of art and the history of photography, that the photographers never relinquish their power to the subjects.
And so I was also trying to bring the same type of vulnerability and transparency out and prove that this has always been a part of that legacy of photographing family and making photographs with social commentary about America - laying that bear to the viewer was essential for me, right?
I'm just as much a part of, of this situation and this crisis.
I consider myself an advocate and not so much an activist.
I think that's very different.
I'm an advocate and a storyteller.
You think about Gordon Parks in 'A Harlem Family', which was published in LIFE Magazine, or you think about his collaboration with Ralph Ellison -- a collaboration between black artists, black photographers, black poets, and writers trying to tell another story and narrative from the inside to the American public, so they can see it clear for what it is.
It is the everyday person, the everyday man, woman, and child that are experiencing the brutality and the pitfalls of capitalism, of inequality, of living in these small towns that have been abandoned by the state.
They're the ones - these individuals and families are the ones - that can express it and articulate it the best.
The water crisis became public knowledge in April of 2014.
Because Obama came on May 4th in 2016 and they had that image of him sipping the water, which was supposedly Flint River water, the American consciousness and psyche, believed that the water crisis was over.
It was in 2016 that I received a phone call from Elle Magazine, a magazine about women, health, and beauty.
To actually have inside of it, b efore you got to the fashion spreads, ten pages uninterrupted of a photo-essay talking about the water crisis.
It was important for me to, kind of, just pivot slightly out of the generational connection between my grandmother, mother, and me,to this other generation of three women, which was Renee Cobb, her daughter, Shea Cobb, and Shea's daughter, Zion.
What it's like now for them to have to figure out their relationship to water and how to live with contaminated and poisoned water.
Shea, she's a school bus driver.
And she was also very active in organizing and public protest as well.
She's a singer, she is a poet.
She had so much charisma and hope and faith, and just such a positive outlook, regardless of this circumstance.
That is completely created.
A man-made disaster because of inequality and racism.
Why not collaborate with her and get her voice and her words and her perspective?
She made it very clear to Hearst corporation and magazine.
She said, you know, 'Don't come here expecting to see a victim.
That's not who we are.'
She understands how the media shapes stereotypes and discourse around black women, black families, and black communities.
And so I really relied on Shea being my eyes, I was simply being an empathic witness, being led by her through this town.
It is a duty, a privilege and an honor to be able to use these cameras to serve others and to bring a real human story forward in a complex situation.