Community, Corrosion, and the Flint Water Crisis

Shea and Zion at the Badawest Restaurant on Corruna Road (2016–2017)

The Village Voice
January 26, 2018
by Siddhartha Mitter

In early 2016, the photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier spent five months in Flint, Michigan. The city — a deindustrialized shell long past its automotive glory days — was reeling from the water crisis that began two years before, when a state-appointed emergency manager decided to save money by drawing water from the heavily polluted Flint River. The poorly treated water, catastrophically high in lead, made residents severely ill and degraded local pipes. By the time Frazier arrived, Flint had reconnected to the Detroit water system, but the corrosion had left the water suspect, and public trust in government officials was demolished.

In Flint, Frazier embedded with Shea Cobb, a young school bus driver and poet, her daughter Zion, and her mother, Renée. Flint Is Family, the resulting black-and-white portfolio, depicts the water crisis — where just brushing one’s teeth is a resource decision with health and cost implications — from the point of view of this resilient matrilineage. It is the core of Frazier’s vital three-part exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, in Harlem, and a masterclass in collaborative work based on attention and intimacy. When President Obama came to Flint in May 2016 — the zenith of media attention to the crisis — Frazier was around, but she didn’t go to see him. Instead she visited with Shea’s aunt Denise and uncle Rodney, watching the president’s appearance in the gentle clutter of their family room. In her photograph, Denise and Rodney stand as they watch Obama, onscreen, take a sip of Flint water. They face three-quarters away from Frazier’s lens, leaving us to divine from their posture what they make of the scene.

Two days later, Frazier documented the wedding of Cobb’s niece Nephratiti. “Nobody thinks about water crises in marriage,” Cobb comments in a montage that screens in the show. “You don’t think about lead pipes and poison, all you think about is love and the bride and the groom.” The ceremony, in Frazier’s capture, is a bolt of joy rending the fluorescent tedium of the courthouse setting. She portrays Cobb with Zion and Ms. Renée outside the reception. Though her images also show us protesters in hazmat suits, a home vacated because of contamination, the city of Flint water plant — Frazier rented a helicopter to get aerial views — the experience is rigorously, empathically grounded in the life of this one family.

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Courtesy of: The Village Voice