From Braddock, Pennsylvania, photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier uses her lens to capture the true essence of the Black experience in America. Her work tells the story of struggle but also that of resilience and strength as she exposes the cracks in the American water sanitation and health care system that marginalized populations fall through all too often.
Her photo essays Flint is Family, The Notion of Family, Campaign for Braddock Hospital and The Grey Area touch on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for Clean Water and Sanitation and Industries, Innovation, and Infrastructure. Undoubtedly, consistently depriving specific groups of access to healthcare, water, and fundamental human necessities can unquestionably be considered as a form of violence. By advocating for equitable and accessible healthcare for the Black community, Frazier’s work also aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development goal of Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
In her 2019 Ted Talk Frazier describes the story behind Flint is Family while dissecting environmental racism and healthcare inequity. Recounting her experience visiting a public school in the area she says, “It rocked me to the core to see that in America, we can go from fountains that say ‘Whites’ or ‘Blacks only,’ to today seeing fountains that say, "Contaminated water. Do not drink." And somehow, that's acceptable?”
The history of environmentalism in the United States has been deeply embedded with racism since its beginnings. The all too predictable patterns of history come to light once again when looking at the Flint water crisis of 2014. It is a repeated failure of institutions to implement the necessary infrastructure to support marginalized groups thereby pushing these people deeper to the margins of society. The social, political, and historical cannot be separated from the empirical evidence.
The mishandling of the Flint water crisis despite outbreaks of disease, lead poisoning and numerous complaints by the community’s citizens demanding the city’s attention, should come as no surprise at all. Against this backdrop, and drawing parallels to her experience growing up in Braddock, Pennsylvania, Frazier’s work - particularly Flint is Family, Campaign for Braddock Hospital, and The Grey Area - confronts environmental racism and healthcare inequity in the United States.
Environmental racism can be classified as the means by which institutions exercise colonialism under the guise of environmentalism. Take, for instance, the plastic industry and their exploitation of First Nations land as disposal sites in the name of “recycling plants”. In the same vein, the 2014 Flint water crisis is an outcome of this same inequitable system of environmentalism. For years preceding the crisis, large corporations used the Flint river as a dumping ground for industrial waste. In the plight of consumerism and the lust for profit, large corporations, such as General Motors, turned the “spirit of life”, as Frazier refers to water, into waste.
After living in Flint for five months, Frazier was able to compile a photo essay called Flint is Family in 2016. It follows a family of three - Shea Cobb, her mother Ms. Renee and her daughter Zion - to show the daily life of those impacted by the Flint water crisis through the perspective of three different generations. The project brings together creatives - Shea Cobb and Amber Hasan together as the artistic collective The Sister Tour, Moses West, Tuklor Senegal, and Dexter Moon - to address the Flint water crisis through the eyes of the victims of an inequitable system where institutions have stacked the cards against those it promises to protect.
Using the commission from Flint is Family, Frazier was able to fund the installation of an atmospheric water generator, invented by Moses West, bringing 120,000 gallons of free, clean drinking water to the people of Flint. Frazier should be taken as an example and should set the precedent for institutions to take initiative to, “achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.” The means by which Frazier utilized her creative spirit to uplift and make tangible improvements to the lives of the people of Flint enacts the United Nations goal to “develop quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure [...] with a focus on affordable and equitable access for all.”
Another photo essay, photographed between 2001 and 2014, The Notion of Family looks at the Black experience in the face of the American healthcare system. In this project, Frazier shares her personal experience growing up in Braddock, Pennsylvania and her experience as a victim of the unjust healthcare system. Battling cancer, as did her mother and grandmother, Frazier was exposed to a healthcare system deeply embedded with racism.
A Ted Talk by Dorothy Roberts describes the problem of race-based medicine where race in biomedicine is used as a proxy for underlying features that are present in certain social categories of people, but are not themselves racial. As in, socioeconomic factors such as healthcare inequity, water crisis, etc., that shape the health of marginalized groups are ignored and reframed as matters of race, something biologically constituted to these groups.
As a result, victims of an unjust system are conveniently blamed for their inadequate health while the institutions entrenched in discriminatory values perpetrating injustice reign freely. Frazier’s work urges institutions to take accountability for their histories of injustice towards marginalized populations and take initiative to, “promote and enforce non-discriminatory laws and policies for sustainable development.”
Similar issues are also touched on in her 2011 project Campaign for Braddock Hospital (Save Our Community Hospital), and her 2010-2012 project The Grey Area. Both photo essays document the establishment of University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre (UPMC) in Braddock. In 2010, UPMC closed down Braddock Hospital uprooting the community and leaving thousands unemployed. From the captions in Campaign for Braddock Hospital, viewers learn the way in which local residents were impacted by the hospital’s closure.
The newly established hospital pushed local residents into a precarious state. Routine check-ups were no longer accessible for local residents by public transport, local businesses in the premise of the hospital went bankrupt and the overall traffic of the area increased. The Grey Area ends with an image of UPMC on Braddock Avenue. It stands in perfect condition after a series of photos documenting the destruction that took place prior to its establishment.
This juxtaposing imagery tells a powerful story about the way marginalized groups get left in the dust as institutions fiend for development in the name of profit. These pieces are a reminder for institutions to place marginalized populations at the centre of development to, “promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization.”
From the eyes of the people of Flint and Braddock through Frazier’s lens, viewers are pushed to challenge the institutions designated to protect them to do better. By illuminating the dark truths behind the systems of health care, water sanitization, and industrialization, viewers are urged to advocate for inclusive and just institutions that promote health and well-being for all. Where Frazier puts a camera in the face of racism and inequity to empower marginalized groups, viewers too should not be complicit in the face of such injustice.