There’s no room for navel gazing in LaToya Ruby Frazier’s definition of a good artist.
“Stop looking for approval and for people to pat you on the back,” said Frazier. “Stop saying, ‘How can I be successful?’ and say, ‘How can I make something meaningful?’”
As an artist, Frazier believes there is an urgency to speaking out against injustice, from collapsing industrial economies to the high-profile poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply.
The documentary photographer challenged young artists to follow her lead at a recent visit to campus for the Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture Series.
“We’re always asking ourselves what is my role? And am I doing justice to the role and service that I’m playing?” she said.
When she started taking photographs at age 16, Frazier thought she was making art about herself, her grandmother and her mother. Eventually, she realized that, in documenting her own family, she was simultaneously chronicling the decay of her Rust Belt town of Braddock, Pennsylvania.
“It hit me that my work was bigger than me,” said Frazier.
A recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant, a Guggenheim fellow and an assistant professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, Frazier first gained praise for her “The Notion of Family,” a look at her own history as well as racism and post-industrial decline in her hometown.
Frazier has continued to photograph the plight of Braddock’s mostly black population, even as the town’s mayor labeled it a poster child of post-industrial success.
But, said Frazier, “The history of a place is written on the body of the landscape,” and she’s committed to calling attention to the town’s wounds.
According to Frazier, Braddock faces a steady stream of injustices. With little warning the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center shuttered and razed its hospital in Braddock, leaving the poor and aging population with only an urgent care center.
Frazier kept her lens trained on the hospital and the people affected by the closure, some with terminal illnesses, as well as the university’s new hospital constructed 12 miles away. The resulting series, “Campaign for Braddock Hospital (Save Our Community Hospital),” mixes images of the hospital and protesters with Levi Strauss’s “Go Forth” ad campaign.
While the hospital closed, Levi’s branded Braddock as a “new frontier” with giant billboards in New York City’s SoHo.
The company did not, according to Frazier, make any significant contribution to the financial stability of the town, and the images were a glossy, inaccurate ode to the working class. One photo showed a pastoral image of two men and a horse in a field.
“We don’t have pastures. I can’t even make this stuff up — how rude, ignorant and insidious it is,” she said. “I’m hoping the work becomes a vehicle to open up equity and opportunity.”
Artists need to question everything, Frazier said.
“You have to start to decode when companies and politicians start using art in disguise of their own agenda,” said told students. “I decline to ever be a part of this.”
Water, water everywhere
One of Frazier’s most recent projects is a five-month study of Flint, where many low-income neighborhoods remain without potable water.
“I can’t believe that in this country everyone has turned their back on this town,” she said. “It didn’t even feel like America.”
Commissioned by Elle magazine to revisit the town, Frazier found that affluent neighborhoods and big businesses such as General Motors have resumed life as normal while residents of impoverished areas still need bottled water to brush their teeth.
Flint’s problems resonated with Frazier as she documented the three generations of the Shea family. She also lamented the absence of major media outlets covering the conditions in the town.
“You should be holding all these magazines, all these things like Twitter, social media, accountable,” Frazier said.
The best way to do that, she said, is to stop waiting for someone else to volunteer.
“You have to stand up and use your art and talent to speak about these types of iniquities and injustices,” Frazier said.
That has come with a price at times. Frazier and her family have received threats as a result of her work, but she said it is dishonorable to remain silent.
“There is no safe place. There is no hiding place,” she said.
Frazier didn’t have many words of comfort for her audience, just a call to respond boldly and with empathy.
“When a country is in turmoil and divided, it’s artists that rise up. There’s no reason for you not to put your talents to use,” said Frazier. “If anything, the time is now, and the time is always now.”