LaToya Ruby Frazier is an artist born of her environment. Raised in the collapsed steel mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, Frazier’s empathy, humanism, commitment to social and environmental justice, and artistic sensibilities were forged by what she witnessed around her from a young age. Throughout her career she has integrated herself into communities to collaboratively document people’s everyday lives during defining moments in American history, altering the narrative and the country.
My work really addresses how geographic location impacts the body…Your environment impacts the body, and it shapes how you perceive yourself in the world. The mind is the battle ground for photography. My mind was totally deceived and deluded with negative images depicted in the media of myself, of my family, and my community, but now my images can change that.LaToya Ruby Frazier, 2012"New York Close Up: LaToya Ruby Frazier Makes Moving Pictures" on Art 21
During the first Great Migration, Braddock, Pennsylvania, attracted African Americans because it was a northern town that offered economic opportunities—specifically the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, Andrew Carnegie’s first mill. Once considered a bustling Pittsburgh suburb, by 1982 when LaToya Ruby Frazier was born there, the steel industry had collapsed. As a young child, Frazier lived with her mother Cynthia, a nurse’s aide, her father McKinley, an artist and interior designer, and her siblings Brandy and Brandon. However, Frazier’s maternal grandmother, Grandma Ruby, and step-great-grandfather, Gramps, raised her from the age of five, because her mother was struggling with drug abuse.
Growing up in Braddock, Frazier experienced industrial decline firsthand and the government abandonment, economic decline, and environmental racism that accompanied it. She angrily witnessed the media portray her community as worthless, which defied her perception of the town and its citizens—including her family and herself. These experiences shaped Frazier and her artistic approach, and they continue to influence her photography and art today. Her sense of intimacy, empathy, and humanity for her subjects, as well as her emphasis on genuine collaboration with those she photographs, is unmatched.
Frazier enrolled in her first photography class at Edinboro University in 1999 at the age of 17, and took an interest in the medium, particularly the work of Dorothea Lange. Lange worked for the Farm Securities Administration during the Great Depression documenting the lives of rural workers living in poverty. Lange’s images helped to build support for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. However, Frazier disliked that Lange’s copious notes on the people she photographed were not published with her images. She felt stripping the people in Lange’s iconic images of their names and stories—such as Florence Owens Thompson and her children in Migrant Mother (1936)—and not compensating them for their likenesses disempowered them in the worst way.
Frazier decided to upset the power dynamics she disliked about documentary photography by turning her lens on her own life, family, and community. Taken between 2001 and 2014, the 108 photographs in the project turned into her first major series, The Notion of Family. It documents three generations of women in Braddock—Frazier, her mother Cynthia, and her grandmother Ruby—and how their environment influenced their daily lives. As Frazier states in a film about the series, the project “…became about making a family album of images, day to day, that defies what I see in the media…I was combating stereotypes of someone, like my mother and I, who are often depicted in the media in the most dehumanizing way, as poor, worthless, or on welfare.” Throughout the photographs and videos in The Notion of Family, Frazier documents intimate moments inside Grandma Ruby’s home through portraits and still lives—Grandma Ruby’s extensive porcelain doll collection lovingly displayed in her living room, Frazier relaxing on a couch while watching soap operas with Grandma Ruby and her cousin J.C., and her mother Cynthia lying in bed with her boyfriend, Mr. Art.
In the series, one of Frazier’s major focuses is her complex relationship with her mother. Since Frazier was raised by her grandmother, her relationship with her mother sometimes felt like a sibling rivalry. Photography became a way for them to confront the tension in their relationship and bond. Cynthia often took equal control in the creative process, coming up with concepts, styling the photographs, and even taking the photographs. By collaborating, Frazier and Cynthia were able to drop their guard around each other and explore the complexities and tensions in their relationship. The collaboration also gave Cynthia agency, rather than making her merely a subject of the photographs.
In the photograph above, Frazier captures an intimate scene illustrating one aspect of her complex relationship with her mother. The image shows simultaneous moments in two different rooms divided by a door that creates a thick line splitting the image. On the left, Frazier’s mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Art, lies on a bed looking out of frame, presumably watching television. On the right, Frazier sits on a bed looking sorrowful and thoughtful. In The Notion of Family, the book caption reveals, “Mom’s boyfriend, Mr. Art, was my rival for Mom’s affection.”
When her beloved Grandma Ruby died of pancreatic cancer and diabetes in 2009, Frazier said in an interview for Art21’s New York Close Up video series, “It became important for me to look at why we’re dying.” The event catalyzed Frazier to explore the environmental racism that likely led to her and her family’s serious health problems, and ultimately her grandmother’s death. Frazier has suffered from the autoimmune disorder Lupus since she was an adolescent, and her mother suffers from neurological issues and seizures. All these issues were probably caused by long term exposure to environmental toxins from the steel mill and exacerbated by a lack of medical care with the closure of the only hospital in the area in 2010 due to financial losses. In an intimate and jarring diptych, Landscape of the Body (Epilepsy Test) (2011), Frazier juxtaposes an image of her mother wearing an open hospital gown with wires running down her back and the ruins of the demolished University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, UPMC Braddock Hospital. By expanding the series to focus on the effects of environmental and economic racism on her community and family, Frazier illustrates the slow destruction of Braddock and the community resources within it, as well as the human cost.
There has to be a deep empathy [to my projects]. There’s a need to be compassionate and [to] want to really, truly see someone’s humanity when they’re at their lowest. LaToya Ruby Frazier, 2022 “Social Agitators, Joyfully Black: The Artistic Heirs of Gordon Parks” in The Washington Post
Frazier found her voice and weapon of choice while creating The Notion of Family. As one of her photographic influences, Gordon Parks asserted in his 1966 autobiography, A Choice of Weapons, “I chose my camera as a weapon against all the things I dislike about America—poverty, racism, discrimination.” In the spirit of Parks and Ralph Ellison’s collaborative photographic essay, “Harlem is Nowhere” (1948), created to combat views of African American life in the popular press, Frazier continued to use her weapon and her art to fight for other social justice issues.
I am showing these dark things about America because I love my country and countrymen…When you love somebody, you tell them the truth. Even if it hurts. LaToya Ruby Frazier, 2021 “LaToya Ruby Frazier, American Witness” in The New York Times Style Magazine
In 2016, when Elle magazine approached Frazier about creating a photo essay on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, she agreed—if she could do the story the way she wanted.
The city of Flint began piping in water from the Flint River to save money in 2014. The water contained fecal matter, toxic waste, and high levels of dangerous bacteria and lead. It made residents extremely sick and forced those who could afford it to purchase bottled water to cook, shower, and brush their teeth with.
Many media depictions of the crisis showed Flint and its residents as impoverished and broken, which is the anthesis of Frazier’s style. To visually tell the story, Frazier wanted to immerse herself in the community, collaborate with the people she photographed, and highlight their humanity, the same approach she used in The Notion of Family. She proposed focusing on a local family—artist and writer, Shea Cobb, her eight-year-old daughter Zion, and her mother, Ms. Reneé—to show the daily lives of three generations of women living in Flint. Initially wary of working with Frazier due to the usual media depictions, Cobb agreed to participate in the story after learning about Frazier’s similar upbringing and her collaborative storytelling approach.
Frazier’s portrait shows three generations of Cobb women on the day of Shea Cobb’s cousin Nephratitis’ wedding—a Cobb family affair in Flint. Cobb, Ms. Reneé, and Zion look directly at the camera exuding strength, pride, and a deep sense of self and place. They seem to know exactly what their history is, who they are, and that this city is where they belong. By celebrating Nephratitis’ wedding in Flint, the family demonstrated that the water crisis did not stop them from continuing with their lives in the place they call home.
The story of Flint, Shea Cobb, and her family runs parallel to Frazier’s own. A northern city that offered economic opportunities and drew African American families during both Great Migrations, Flint declined after the collapse of the automotive industry. Along with the decline, residents—the majority of whom are Black—faced economic challenges, government abandonment, environmental decay, and serious health issues. But like Frazier’s family, that is only part of the story. While visiting Flint for five months, Frazier became part of Cobb, Zion, and Ms. Reneé’s everyday lives. Amidst a public and environmental health crisis deeply affecting them, Frazier witnessed and focused on recording their humanity—their daily joys, laughter, and struggles.
Elle published “Flint is Family” on August 6, 2016. The images, beautifully rendered in black and white, capture the moments of everyday life amidst a crisis with empathy.
The photograph above is the first intimate image Cobb and Frazier took together. In it, Cobb braids her cousin Andrea’s hair for her daughter Nephratitis’ wedding. The two women sit in Cobb’s bedroom in Ms. Reneé’s house. Cobb holds a braid in her mouth, concentrating on her task, while Andrea admires her work in a mirror, and Zion looks out the window. The image shows the strength of the family’s closeness, which is subtly grounded by a pair of portraits on the dresser behind them. The people in the photographs are LeRoy and Hazel Cobb, Cobb and Andrea’s grandparents, who left New York to begin the Cobb family’s life in Flint in 1967, when it was a city in its prime.
While other photographs in “Flint is Family” are more directly related to the water crisis, such as the photo above, the viewer is often too distracted by the beauty of the image to immediately focus on the pain of the crisis. In this closeup of Zion’s face, there is a sense of playfulness and joy in her gaze as she watches her mother carefully pour water into her mouth so she can brush her teeth. Clean water is clearly a precious resource that must be rationed, but the photograph captures the tenderness in a daily ritual between mother and daughter.
Some images in the series capture what looks like a post-apocalyptic world in Flint. In the photo below, people in hazmat-like suits and masks stand around a barrel with a toxic symbol and the word “lead” printed on it with a trash bag full of empty water bottles. The scene is filled with caution tape and messages stating, “Flint Lives Matter.” This photograph of a protest to gain President Obama’s attention about the water crisis is more overtly political than many of Frazier’s others in the series. However, even while documenting the water crisis, Frazier is able to focus on the multiple faces, emotions, and narratives in a single frame, allowing the range of people’s lived experiences to shine through the otherworldliness of the photo and the events taking place.
In 2016, Frazier created a video that sets her photographs from Flint is Family (Act I) to a poem about water written and recited by Cobb. The video, Flint is Family, shows Frazier and Cobb’s collaborative efforts at their finest. In addition to the poem, Cobb narrates Frazier’s images describing what is happening in the photographs—talking about her daily life, describing her family, and confronting the water crisis in her hometown. The combination of Frazier’s images and Cobb’s voice demonstrate the power of a collaborative approach. Viewers are drawn into a visual story told by the photographs, but develop a deep, personal connection to Cobb and her life through her own words. Frazier does not revictimize Cobb by taking over her story but empowers her by helping her tell it.
After Elle published the article, Frazier continued to tell and be a part of Cobb’s story. Cobb made the difficult decision to escape the water crisis and left Ms. Reneé and her beloved home in Flint behind. She moved to Mississippi, where her father, Douglas Smiley, lives, and Frazier followed. Smiley convinced his daughter to make this reverse migration by texting her a photograph of herself drinking straight from a spring on their property in 1997. He followed the image with a message saying, “This water won’t kill you…Come home.” Cobb and Zion lived with Smiley on a 90-acre property in Newton, an hour outside of Jackson, that has been in the family for four generations. Frazier spent time with the family as they cared for Smiley’s Tennessee Walking Horses, worked the land, enjoyed nature, and drank water straight from that same spring. This reverse migration became Flint is Family (Act II).
Cobb and Zion eventually left Newton due to segregation and discrimination in the school system, and when they returned to Flint in 2017, the water was still undrinkable. So, Cobb and her best friend, Amber Hasan, tried a new approach to bring awareness to the situation. Hasan, a hip-hop artist and community organizer, and Cobb formed The Sister Tour, an artist collective that travels across the country speaking about women’s experiences in Flint and creating platforms for female artists, while keeping the crisis in the public eye. Frazier contributed by selling prints of The Sister Tour’s work to send the group around the country to educate people. She also created countdown flags stating how long Flint residents had been living with the water crisis and raised them on institutions across the country to keep the issue in the public eye.
In June 2019, Michigan’s attorney general dropped the criminal charges against the state and city employees responsible for the crisis, denying the people of Flint justice. In response, Frazier showed her true commitment to collaboration and stepped up to help. Hasan found Moses West, a retired U.S. Army officer, who created an atmospheric water generator—a machine that pulls moisture from the air to produce up to 2,000 gallons of water a day when temperatures are above freezing. When Hasan proposed the generator to Flint’s elected officials, they seemed uninterested, and she did not have the funds to move the 26,000-pound machine from Texas to Michigan. Frazier put her money where her art was. She donated the proceeds from LaToya Ruby Frazier, her first solo show at a commercial gallery in 2018, and secured a matching grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation to purchase and move the atmospheric water generator to Flint. It arrived in July 2019 and by September it had already provided 120,000 gallons of free, clean water for anyone who wanted it. The generator is maintained and operated by the community, not the city government, and it is still active.
In Flint is Family (Act III), Frazier’s photographs show the machine’s arrival and residents joyfully using it. Frazier published Flint Is Family In Three Acts in 2022, a 176 photograph record of her five-year collaboration with people affected by the ongoing contaminated-water crisis in the city.
Through photographs, videos, and text I use my artwork as a platform to advocate for others, the oppressed, the disenfranchised. When I encounter an individual or family facing inequality, I create visibility through images and storytelling to expose the violation of their rights.LaToya Ruby Frazier, 2018"LaToya Ruby Frazier" Press Release
Frazier’s identity as an artist-activist was forged by her experiences growing up in Braddock, Pennsylvania. She believes that participatory art can transform communities and society and has proven her belief in numerous ways. By investing her time, energy, emotion, and finances into the communities she works with, and genuinely collaborating with and empowering those communities, LaToya Ruby Frazier creates defining moments in African American history.
Written by Loren E. Miller, Ph.D., Museum Specialist
Published on July 12, 2023