Unresolved contradictions are quintessence to the Flint water crisis. A contaminated river, extracted by the municipality without proper treatment, caused lead poisoning and pneumonia to its locals, and pushed the artist LaToya Ruby Frazier to document the harmful development in a three-part series of mostly black and white photographs titled ‘Flint is Family’. Ruby Frazier, who previously presented in her body of work a non-voyeuristic glimpse into the degradation of the American Rust Belt, was commissioned to produce a photo essay about the ongoing emergency in the city from Elle Magazine. Her glimpse into the public protests and personal joys of the largely poor and socially marginalized black and brown inhabitants of the town is an invitation to take a stroll through its moral landscape where whatever gives life prevents it from actualising. Disjunctures created by incompatible symbolism are more than just an artistic statement; cataclysmic structural failures necessitate communal care and shared giggles. It is the reality of anyone in Flint and elsewhere that is treated as politically undeserving. Even so, is it conceivable for the emotional wealth of impoverished communities to be capitalized because of their deprivation, and use its aesthetic depiction as an agent of social change? Maybe that’s why the photographs in the series are dedicated not to the chemical alteration of a water reservoir that diseased residents, but to the systems of structural harm and corporate greed that allowed for its deterioration and have affected those who gulp and bathe in it. Besides a depiction of a child eagerly anticipating to brush her teeth from a plastic water bottle and two aerial overviews of the contaminated river, most of the images taken in Flint display acts of dissent, desire and dedication between its locals. Parents, neighbors and shop owners front the lens and proceed to look at whoever is watching square in the face. Knowingly or not, photographing the undocumented sparkles in the viewer the question about why is it, that one of the most difficult actions to take in order to reconcile with the ones we hurt is to look at them, as well as realising the created political consequences whenever we refuse to do so. When water is detected in some of the photographs, it exists as a substitute. Maybe it’s simply a written warning on the side of the road. Better yet, a televised spectacle or a piece of used trash that is scattered around bedrooms, public transport or busy sidewalks. If a crisis is marked by a critical shortage, then the choice to refrain from the explicit presentation of water in the photographs is a trial in absentia; causes and their effects are exhibited without a mediation of the transformative agent. Water in Flint exists as a proxy, and remains a potent symbolic substance that is championed in art and literature by the romantic ideal that nature reflects on our mental states. Think for example of pastoral maritime depictions of centuries past, such as the grandeur portrayed in the marine art of East Asia or colonial Europe. Its visual imagination of the human spirit is enticing exactly when it is compared with impressions of vast oceans and distant ports that gush, spill and overflow. If that’s the case, then what do sporadic plastic water bottles depicted in Flint is Family signify? Mothers with their children, as well as neighbors and friends are as contained by their reality as the sealed bodies of water that are adjacent to them. In more ways than one, the emergency of the photographs in the first installment of Flint is Family reiterates the delayed unfulfillment of immediate needs.
Flint is Family: Act III couldn’t be more different. Three years after the publication of the first installment, the conclusion to the trilogy reached its climax by hitting a prophetic note. Ruby Frazier offers a visual testimony of how descriptive warnings of lead contamination have finally been replaced by jubilant exclamatory signs: “FREE WATER” has finally arrived in Flint for the benefit of its townsfolk. This successful achievement was in no way the result of governmental intervention, but rather the result of a long-term social initiative led by artist Shea Cobb and an army veteran by the name of Moses, who had struck water by developing a 26,000-pound atmospheric generator. It is an odd looking machine. Tucked with wires and cables, it humbles and frames the portraits and lives of those Ruby Frazier placed in front of. Whereas the first series examined a natural condition that created abnormal living conditions, the final act bows down to an artificially produced purity. Unlike its predecessors in the series, Flint is Family: Act III is mostly photographed in color. It is life in animation. Its study of a promising and green machine feels like a fitting and literal deus ex machina with which a man-made crisis comes to a technological conclusion. Let the photographs taken by LaToya Ruby Frazier and the inhabitants of Flint show the crushing gravity of whatever is taken lightly, and make amends with a life considered a failure but lived as a victory.
- IMAGE CREDITS
LaToya Ruby Frazier, Ree Johnson Filling Her Water Jug at the Atmospheric Water Generator on North Saginaw Street Between East Marengo Avenue and East Pulaski Avenue, Flint, Michigan, 2019,
courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery