LaToya Ruby Frazier: What Is The Human Cost Of Toxic Water And Environmental Racism?

Aug 7, 2020
Originally published on August 7, 2020 2:01 pm

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Our Relationship With Water

Flint, Michigan is the site of one of the worst ongoing water crises in recent U.S. history. Artist LaToya Ruby Frazier has spent years capturing the stories of life living with toxic water.

About LaToya Ruby Frazier

LaToya Ruby Frazier is a visual artist. She is a 2015 TED and MacArthur Fellow, and earlier this year she received the Gordon Parks Foundation/Steidl Book Prize.

Her first book, The Notion of Family, received the International Center for Photography Infinity Award. She is also known for Flint Is Family, portraits of three generations of women surviving the man-made water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Following the Flint Is Family project, Frazier partnered with AWG Contracting and Moses West to bring an atmospheric water generator to Flint so that residents could produce their own supply of clean water. It is in its second year of use.

Notable solo exhibitions of Frazier's work have run at Brooklyn Museum, Seattle Art Museum, and Institute Of Contemporary Art, Boston. Her work can also be found in public and private art collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art.

Frazier is currently an associate professor of photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has previously held academic or curatorial positions at Yale University School of Art, Rutgers University, and Syracuse University.

She received her BFA in applied media arts from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and her MFA in art photography from Syracuse University.

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DAYNE WALLING: Here's to Flint.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: To Flint.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hear, hear.

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JEREMY HOBSON: When I say Flint, Mich., do you think General Motors, or do you think bad water?

ROBERT SIEGEL: The state of Michigan announced more criminal charges today in connection with Flint's lead-tainted water.

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BILL SCHUETTE: People of Flint have died as a result of the decisions made by those responsible to protect the health and safety of families.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

Flint and water. Those two words are synonymous now because Flint is the site of probably one of the worst water crises in recent U.S. history.

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ARI SHAPIRO: In 2014, the state switched Flint's water supply in an effort to save money. Water from the Flint River came out of people's taps looking brown and smelling like sewage.

ZOMORODI: It left nearly 100,000 people without clean water.

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TERRY GROSS: This is the story of a government poisoning its own citizens and then lying about it.

ZOMORODI: And it brought up a lot of big questions about whether we even have a right to this natural resource.

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RACHEL MARTIN: Government officials argue they're not liable because clean water is not a constitutional right.

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LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: I want you all to imagine, you know, how you would feel - mind, body and spirit - not being able to have comfortable access to water or have a comfortable relationship with drinking water.

WALLING: This is LaToya Ruby Frazier.

FRAZIER: When we all wake up in the morning, the first thing you're going to do is get in the shower, right? The second thing you're going to do is brush your teeth. Well, imagine what that feels like when you can't do that.

ZOMORODI: LaToya is a visual artist and a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Much of her work focuses on the lives of working-class families in the Rust Belt.

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FRAZIER: When I first arrived in Flint the summer of 2016, there were well over 29,000 homes that were impacted. And I think that's what struck me the most - which is where Shea Cobb and her mother, Ms. Renee, and her daughter, Zion, who were 8 years old at the time, they were living in the midst of this.

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ZOMORODI: Shea is also an artist and a school bus driver. And LaToya spent several years with Shea, her mother, Renee, and her daughter, Zion, documenting their lives in Flint.

FRAZIER: Yeah. I remember the first time I met Shea. It was quite beautiful. We met at a diner, her favorite diner, called Captain Coty's, where she liked to go get buttermilk pancakes at the end of her school bus route in the mornings. And upon meeting each other, sitting down in the booth just looking at each other, it felt like a double portrait in a way. You know, she's in her early 30s and a really diligent, hard-working artists. And so I felt that it was my responsibility to document and cover what it's been like, you know, raising her daughter during this ongoing water crisis.

ZOMORODI: For people who maybe don't quite understand exactly what Shea's day-to-day life was like without having easy access to water - because it's not like you could just boil the water in Flint, right?

FRAZIER: Well, the water quality was so bad that she couldn't inhabit her family home at 303 Mary Street. When I arrived, she was living in another apartment with her mother. And, you know, the water contamination was so severe that she couldn't brush her teeth. You know, you take a shower and brush your teeth. Well, with contaminated water, you can't do either of those two things.

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SHEA COBB: We get a bottle of water. And we waterfall it. You brush your teeth. You spit it out. You waterfall your bottle. And you brush some more. We don't ingest the water on any level.

FRAZIER: You know, one of the standout images in the photo essay is seeing Shea pouring water from a plastic water bottle into Zion's mouth to gargle with it. And I shoot it with a fast shutter speed so that it freezes the water drop just before it touches Zion's tongue. And you see the toothbrush at the bottom right-hand part of the frame - so brushing her teeth with bottled water, having to bathe with bottled water, having to cook or not cook at all.

COBB: Since the water situation, I'm discouraged to cook in my house and use my kitchen. We'll go out to eat. And we'll eat on the outskirts of the city.

FRAZIER: We would go to a restaurant called Badawest to eat dinner there. And even there, you know, they were serving glasses of water. And, you know, Shea would never drink it. And she would forbid Zion to drink it.

COBB: The Flint River is toxic, has been toxic for years. Fecal matter in the Flint River, toxic chemicals and waste dumped in the Flint River. We know not to drink out the Flint River. We won't swim in it. We don't mess with it. We don't even like the smell of it. When it get hot outside, downtown Flint, you can smell the Flint River. It stinks. Why would we drink it?

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FRAZIER: It is 2020. This started six years ago. Flint might not be headline news any longer. But the water crisis is still going on. We can't forget about the men, the women and children and the families in Flint.

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ZOMORODI: In a minute, LaToya Ruby Frazier on why Flint's water crisis felt personal. On the show today, restoring our relationship with water. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And we were just hearing from artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, who spent several years documenting the life of a Black working-class family in Flint, Mich., and their relationship to water.

How has documenting life in Flint, spending time with Shea and her daughter, changed your relationship, would you say, to water?

FRAZIER: Yeah. For me, it certainly makes me hyperaware of water. If it's not necessary for me to take a long shower, I won't do it. I don't leave the water running when I'm brushing my teeth. When I go to places, I do not drink from the tap. So it really has made me hyperaware. But I grew up being worried about the environment, so this wasn't new to me.

ZOMORODI: LaToya Ruby Frazier picks up her story from the TED stage.

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FRAZIER: It was natural for me to go to Flint because industrial pollution, bacteria, contaminated water, were all too familiar for me growing up in my hometown, Braddock, Pa., where my mother and I battled environmental racism, health care inequity and chemical emissions that were being deregulated and released from the United States Steel Corporation. From the Monongahela River to the Flint River, in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, the town, the whole valley, has turned its back upon the river. It has used it as a sewer, as a drain, as a place for throwing their waste.

What I saw Shea, Zion and Ms. Renee going through is exactly what I went through, what my mother and grandmother went through in our hometown in Braddock, Pa. Our water was contaminated with bacteria, and they never told us. I was enraged, and I was horrified and traumatized because I was reliving my childhood by looking at what was happening in the Flint water crisis.

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FRAZIER: This is personal. This is political. And I'm not about to let it happen again to an 8-year-old girl who is innocent. Zion is innocent. She has yet to begin to dream dreams and aspire to be what she wants. What she wants - to be an actress. So it became expedient to make these human documents of what her and her mother were going through so when she becomes an adult, when she becomes my age, she can look back at this history and realize not only is she a survivor; she's a victor. She's a champion. And no matter how much this country under its capitalism, its patriarchy, its hatred of Black women, no matter, what she overcame that. And she will continue to move forward. And now she'll have a human document archive of how she survived this moment in her life.

ZOMORODI: But you didn't just take photos of Shea. I should point out that the audio that we've been hearing of Shea, you recorded that with her, too.

FRAZIER: That's right. I decided in order not to lose her voice that I needed to take those photographs, print them out, sit down with her at her dining room table and have her speak about what those images mean to her. And that's where it turns into an 11-minute video, and it opens with Shea's poem that she wrote called "NOFILTER."

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COBB: When you think about water, you don't consider government. In fact, you don't consider people at all. Even though we've built plants and machines to alkalize and purify, when you think about it, you only in your most remote mind, if at all, think about God, something nature intended. When you think about water, you don't consider poison because poison isn't something you consider for yourself. You don't think about murder.

So when you think about water, you never consider self-destruction. And even though these considerations are not to be had, it is the reason I am becoming the Tin Man - stiff, hollow and heartless - because that's the destiny of a dry body, clang and tap dances and emotional breakdowns because the tears is the closest to lubrication that you'll get without the oil can. We're just sitting, singing "Let My People Go," another freedom song, because the echoes of them old fields been long gone, but we remember them. We think about them backs that harvested our future irrigations, and we consider only masters' plantations and how keeping them [expletive] in one place without fair law and fair play just mixed for good old-fashioned American life.

And I'm pointing the finger because I read them inconvenience letters, and I read them notices. And before I even ever paid a bill, I was still treated like a bottom feeder, like my taxes don't contribute to their vacations and secret sanctions. I was treated like I ain't American. Because when you think about water, you think about Flint, and you line it up the Willie Lynch and you place that name on Snyder's face, the noose that faced only to watch yourself hang. What would I do if I could taste God? What would I do if death wasn't served by a steel rod? What would I do if my baby was going to be safe and sound. What would I do if disease wasn't plaguing my town? What would I do if I could feel water trickle down my spine without drying me out? What would I do if I were to self-destruct? Then what would I do if I could feel?

ZOMORODI: LaToya, you've always described your work as art. You have been really clear that it is not photojournalism, even though you're documenting the lives of people living in a crisis.

FRAZIER: Yeah, I stay clear of journalism because the method and the approach to how I make my work can't be journalism because it actually is a violation of all the ethics of objective journalism.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

FRAZIER: I am highly influenced by 1930s social documentary work, which we would all know the "Migrant Mother," which is the most famous portrait during the Great Depression era in the 1930s in the United States. The photograph was of a woman and by a woman, and both women were silenced. So I'm very invested in, you know, who gets to author the image, who gets to author the story and who are those images then used for to redistribute power and equity.

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FRAZIER: You know, I mean, this is why artists play a very important role in American society. It is our job, it is our obligation and duty to hold a mirror up to our fellow citizens, holding a mirror up to the country about its corruption, about how it falls short under capitalism and government neglect to provide for a community that it clearly has abandoned. And I think this is a very important detail because that's what Ralph Ellison and Gordon Parks did in their series for Ellison's book "Invisible Man."

And so I'm also updating this long legacy and history of Black photographers and poets coming together to tell a humane story because outside media doesn't see our humanity enough, and we can't trust them to do it for us. So we'll do it ourselves.

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ZOMORODI: That's LaToya Ruby Frazier. She's a visual artist and a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her book "Flint Is Family: In Three Acts" (ph) comes out next year. You can hear her full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.