Critical lens

Photographer’s family album confronts racism and poverty in small town America

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s striking portraits of herself, her mom, and her grandmother show the effects of economic decline and health care inequity in her hometown

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Growing up in Braddock Pennsylvania, photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier felt the direct effects of racism, poverty, and toxic pollution. Once a booming industrial town, Braddock slipped into economic decline with the collapse of the steel industry. Frazier’s family was one of those left behind as the local economy struggled. Several members of her family suffered with terminal illnesses and they had limited access to medical care. Tired of being ignored, Frazier took out her camera to document her family’s plight. Her photo book, The Notion of Family, includes everything from intimate moments to the demise of the local hospital. The book tells her story as a family album might, but it also makes a politically-charged statement about a community that continues to be overlooked. On the occasion of Frazier’s exhibition at Aperture gallery, Women in the World sat down with her to discuss the project.

Women in the World: What was it like to grow up in Braddock, Pennsylvania?
LaToya Ruby Frazier: I was born in 1982 and at that point, the industry had left Braddock for the most part. Today, the steel mill is still functioning, so it’s still very much an industrial town, but in 1982, most of the infrastructure was collapsed and abandoned. A majority of the media coverage described Braddock as a ghost town of people that weren’t worth living or caring for. I happened to be a little girl being raised there, so I grew up very aware that I was a castaway, living below the poverty line, and I knew that there wasn’t going to be any help or opportunity for me. Growing up there, the first thing I would see when I came out of my front yard was the factory hovering to the left, the railroads in front of me, and the abandoned school to the right. I always had questions, but I was too young to articulate it, and I knew something was wrong with the environment, and the fact that my grandmother was raising me in a house that was also starting to deteriorate and fall apart.

WITW: What were the biggest issues facing Braddock when you grew up there?
LRF: There’s a systemic domino effect that happens. First the industry abandons the workers in the town, then there’s white flight, which causes businesses to leave, creating disinvestment and then, of course, there’s the influx of the drug wars. We did not create that. That is something that arrived on our doorstep, and was part of a strategy and a tactic to criminalize the poor. It was either we were going to die from the environment, from the toxicity from the factory, or we would be exterminated by the war on drugs. So, it was a very uphill battle. There was a large probability that a majority of us would not survive.

WITW: How was your family life impacted living in Braddock?
LRF: The one thing was a constant, everyday factor was being in the hospital. That’s something that was very tangible and obvious. We were always in the hospital. At that point they didn’t even know I had lupus. They weren’t running any tests to tell me anything. What I was learning as a young girl was that health care inequity is real. My mom has been battling cancer and a neurological disorder that we also can’t get any answers for. She goes into these seizures, but the doctors don’t know what it is. Instead of them treating what’s happening to her physically, they claim it’s psychological. They’ve claimed that we’re making these things up. My grandmother had diabetes and pancreatic cancer. They’re both very strong, courageous women. And these are women who are suffering at home, because doctors are discriminating against them. Health care inequity is real, whether people want to accept it or not. When I was going through her death records, the side effects of the medicine are actually written on her death record as a cause of death.

WITW: Why did you feel it was important to document your family and their stories?
LRF: I wasn’t getting any answers, and I didn’t believe what the reporters and journalists were saying. It wasn’t true. I wasn’t a stereotype. What they were doing was stereotyping us. If you grow up always being told negative things about your community, that it’s a ghost town and a dump site, but it’s home to you, you would want to contest it. To start making your own record of what life was like, how you existed, and how you were surviving in spite of the fact that the whole city, and society, wrote you off. We had lives. These are women that cared for the men that worked in the steel mill down the street. These are women that birthed the labor force for the steel mill. Women who were abandoned for over 30 years while the country looked away, and we were being contaminated, dying of these terminal illnesses that are direct results of the environment.

Migrant Mother

An inspiration to Frazier, Florence Owens Thompson is the subject of this iconic image by Dorothea Lange, which would come to be known as “Migrant Mother.” Library of Congress

WITW: At what point did you realize you were qualified to tell your own story, and that of Braddock? 
LFR: One of the examples that was brought into my photo class was Dorothea Lange’s migrant mother. I remember that image being passed around, and people kept saying Dorothea Lange’s name. But I knew that wasn’t the name of the woman in the photograph. No one knew her name, until the teacher told us it was Florence Owens Thompson. It was that very moment that I connected the fact that she died destitute without any royalties from a portrait that is now an iconic American image. And so all of the sudden it became clear to me. The question I asked myself was, “what would Florence Owens Thompson’s images look like had she photographed herself?” And so I wanted to make images dealing with the economic depression that me, my mother, and grandmother were in, in honor of that idea.

WITW: Why did you include your mom and grandmother in the process?
LRF: We assume that people who don’t have a higher education or access to universities and museums can’t make art. That they can’t make visual representations of themselves. That they can’t author their own story. That’s why I appear in front of the camera, and my mother is behind it, directing the shots. It became urgent for me to be that bridge between the institution and daily life in Braddock. I needed to straddle the two to debunk that privileged notion that under-represented people can’t represent themselves. Of course we can.  And we can rise above our circumstance, and I was able to do that with my camera. And sharing that with my mother was really important.

WITW: The Notion of Family is like a family album. How did you take that concept and build upon it? 
LRF: It was my own personal need to create a record of my family’s existence. For African Americans in Pittsburgh in particular, especially coming out of the steel industry and its decline, families were completely dismantled. And so I didn’t have a solid family album growing up. I don’t know anything beyond my grandmother and some distant cousins. There’s no real solid album for me to look back to to understand where I come from.

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Former Braddock Hospital Site, Series: A Despoliation of Water: From the Housatonic to Monongahela River (1930-2013), 2013. LaToya Ruby Frazier

WITW: The portraits of your mom and grandmother are very intimate. Why was it important to also include aerial shots? 
LRF: I’m looking at the intersection of industrialism, environmental degradation, and healthcare inequity. In a way, I’m creating an archive of the community. In order to ground it, it needs to move from very personal intimate moments, to the street, where you see the community sharing the same protest against the closure of the hospital, to, on an even more macro level, Braddock from above. Ultimately the work isn’t about me, my mother, and my grandmother, it’s about this whole crisis that’s occurring during this revitalization of the rust belt.

WITW: What’s Braddock like today, and how are you working with the community there?
LRF: Braddock is majority elderly people, single parent households, and underemployed working class men. That’s Braddock today. Even though it’s being gentrified, and being rewritten in the media as a hip new place. The population decreased from over 20,000 to less than 2,500. They replaced the hospital with an urgent care. It’s like fast food healthcare for people with terminal illnesses. This place, this heavily toxic place not even a mile long, is in serious need of real doctors and environmentalists. There are other families there that want a platform and a way to amplify their voices so they can talk about the injustices they’re still facing now. I want to create, by collaborating with residents, a way to make images, tell their stories, and generate some type of revenue through art sales, to send aid back to help. Gentrification only focuses on buildings, not people. My work is focused on people.

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