Flint is Family in Three Acts
(Steidl and The Gordon Parks Foundation, 2022)
In 2016 photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier was commissioned to photograph the Flint water crisis for Elle magazine. It began April 25, 2014, the day the city started using discolored river water from the Flint River instead of the water from a Detroit-based treatment facility. Assigned to showcase how the residents were coping with what had rapidly developed into an emergency, over six months, Frazier forged a connection to the city through a local resident named Shea Cobb, a bus driver and poet who grew up in Flint’s Fifth Ward—a historically Black neighborhood. Frazier documented Cobb’s daily routine: her bus route, her hair-braiding business, her caring for her daughter Zion. Images from that black-and-white series comprise the first of three acts that make up her new photobook, Flint is Family in Three Acts. In a way, this latest photobook is a continuation of themes Frazier has been exploring her entire career.
Frazier bonded with Cobb immediately over their similar backgrounds. Frazier grew up in the steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania and was familiar with the feeling of watching a city decline, a phenomenon she documented—alongside her mother and grandmother—in her 2014 photobook The Notion of Family. In Notion she looked at the history of American labor through intergenerational storytelling about one family’s connection to a Rust Belt town. In Flint is Family she spotlights the work of some of America’s most unheralded laborers, Black women, again with a focus on generational storytelling. The creative partnership Cobb and Frazier forged to produce Flint is Family gives voice to the cultural experiences of Black women as a testament to their role as cultural workers. Like hinges, they are an essential but oft-forgotten part of the structure of the community—flexible, reliable—that hold the world together. “I’ve seen pictures and images of underwater monuments dedicated to the enslaved and those who were lost at sea,” Cobb explains in the book. “If that didn’t kill us, this won’t either.”
In Flint is Family, images either appear in conversation with each other or are presented side-by-side with texts by community members about illness, steep water bills, and the mental and physical toll of living in a state of constant emergency. In “Act I,” it’s Cobb’s voice, in “Act II,” Cobb’s father’s, and in “Act III,” a chorus of voices from Flint’s community.
When news first broke that Flint, Michigan was facing a water crisis, the news coverage treated the residents of Flint like nameless props to stand in for larger ideas of environmental racism, industrial pollution, and governmental neglect. The glare of the camera “triggers a whole set of survival modalities that Black Americans have,” whether there’s a Black photographer behind the camera or not, Arthur Jafa explains in a 2017 conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist. “It’s recording evidence of people speaking; hence there are certain things you can say, certain things you can’t say.” For Flint Is Family, LaToya Ruby Frazier had to carefully examine her own gaze and rethink the camera as an instrument, not of surveillance—after all, the origins of the camera as an object are entwined with imperialism and anti-Blackness—but of illumination. Photography has historically conditioned viewers to inscribe helplessness onto Black people, doubly so when they are from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Frazier, by contrast, conditions our eyes to see the Flint residents’ resilience. Everywhere the work of care is made visible through their collective labor. The first image in the book, an aerial portrait of Cobb standing on the midway point of a bridge over Flint River, acts like a visual mission statement for the project. To Frazier, Flint is a subject, not a spectacle. The kind of subject that is deserving of the kind of nuance that time and attention uncover.
Notably, in “Act II”—the only section not set in Flint—we follow Cobb as she decamps to her father’s many acres in Newton, Mississippi from 2017–19. It is the first section featuring color photography. It shows Cobb and Zion in a rural setting: riding Tennessee Walking Horses and working the land. One photograph captures Zion on a horse flanked by her mother and grandfather and we learn from the accompanying text by Cobb’s father, Douglas R. Smiley, that the horse breed they are riding was one used by overseers on slave plantations. Smiley’s narration of his life story offers a look at Cobb from a new perspective. Her father, hearing about her problems in Flint, explains how he gently nudged her to move by reminding her of an easier life. He sent Cobb an old picture of herself drinking from one of the pure spring heads on his land as a child alongside a simple text message: “This water won’t kill you. Come home.” “I thought to myself, ‘If I can get the picture to her, that picture is worth a thousand words,’” Smiley explains. In Newton, we are shown a different kind of life, air, and water. And then, we return to Flint for “Act III.”
The book’s final act returns us to Flint, staging portraits of and with Flint residents as they gather clean water in jars and bottles from the atmospheric water generator donated by a Texas-based Army veteran. Here again, Frazier opts for color. The military-green generator is flanked by posters emblazoned in red print that read “Free Water”—both an advertisement of necessary goods for the community and a sort of two-word plea that sums up the community’s years-long mission to make access to potable water possible for all.
The camera can testify and it can implicate. Frazier is not interested in dispassionately bearing witness. She set out to record a community taking responsibility for itself after the government charged with doing so failed them. She also set out to help. “I see the role of photographs as empowering and enacting visible change,” she explains in the book’s introduction. Amber Hasan, the artist manager who connected Frazier with Cobb, shares that when the city refused to cover transportation costs for the atmospheric generator, Frazier stepped in to make it happen. The cost—which Hasan estimated at 50,000s dollar—was partially financed by sales of Frazier’s photography related to the Flint project. Within the book, her presence is minimal at first, as the opening acts belong to Cobb. But as the story-in-images unfolds, Frazier becomes more and more entangled in her subjects’ lives, culminating with her inclusion in the series of community portraits alongside the generator and the clean drinking water she helped deliver to them. In Flint is Family Frazier asks us to see solidarity in her photos, not just art.