When President Obama drank the filtered tap water in Flint, Michigan, on his visit to the city last May, many took it as a symbolic gesture that the two-year water crisis had been solved. But in his speech, the President predicted that it would take still another two years to replace the city’s corroded pipes. Flint may have switched water sources after its lead-poisoned water garnered national attention–but it would take more than that to undo the damage caused.
“One thing I heard repeated and repeated in Flint was how fast after the debate and Bernie and Hillary and Obama visiting everyone would forget about Flint,” says LaToya Ruby Frazier, a photographer and 2015 MacArthur genius. “We’re now entering the final stages of Federal support for Flint. Once support is cut there are still going to be neighborhoods that don’t have new pipes. This is still going on.”
Frazier recently spent a month in Flint working on a photo and video project for Elle magazine. Instead of capturing the impact the water crisis has had on the city in broad strokes, Frazier narrowed her lens to one family that has lived in the city for three generations. She worked in collaboration with Shea Cobb, a poet, musician, and bus driver in Flint, to capture her family’s continued suffering and resiliency–even as the rest of the nation seems to be moving on.
Frazier met Cobb through her friend Amber Hasan, an activist in Flint as well as Cobb’s manager. Cobb has been living in Flint all her life; her grandparents moved to Flint from Mount Vernon, New York, in 1967 to seek work in General Motors’ factories there. Over the next four decades, the thriving black, middle-class enclave her grandparents moved into fell on hard times along with the decline of the auto industry. For Cobb’s generation, Flint was hit again by the 2008 recession. By the time city officials switched their water supply to the toxic Flint River in 2014, the city’s population had bottomed out at 10,000 and it was often characterized as a post-industrial ghost town.
Once the media caught wind of the conditions of Flint’s water conditions in 2015, Frazier was following the news along with the rest of the nation. But she felt skeptical of the media’s portrayal of the decimated black community in Flint. “It piqued my curiosity because I realized that of all the reporting, we hadn’t really heard a personal story from someone who was impacted by the water crisis,” she said.
Frazier’s work is collaborative and human-centric: she received the 2015 MacArthur genius grant for her project documenting her hometown, the crumbling rust belt city of Braddock, Pennsylvania, through photographs of friends, neighbors and family. After receiving a call from Mattie Kahn, the Elle reporter whose story accompanies Frazier’s images, Frazier decided to take a similar approach toward documenting Flint.
Frazier considers Cobb her collaborator, and points toward a long tradition of black photographers and poets working together to produce art with a social narrative. One example is photographer Gordon Parks, who worked with his friend, the writer Ralph Ellison, on projects in the late ’40s and early ’50s that highlighted racial injustices. Cobb introduced Frazier to Flint’s residents, brought her into her family, and helped her find locations to shoot. The project culminated with a video made by Frazier that is narrated by Cobb, and begins with one of her poems, entitled NOFILTER, that was written in response to the water crisis.
Frazier says that collaborating with Cobb gave her the opportunity to shed light on some of the more nuanced effects of the crisis that are often overlooked by journalists and outsiders. One example, she says, is a mission to organize within the community and do what is in their power to rebuild in the wake of the crisis–something that was afflicted onto them–themselves. She points toward Hasan, Cobb’s manager, who created a line of all-natural hair products to help people deal with the hair loss that came as a side effect of Flint’s toxic water. “It’s inspiring to see this community of creative entrepreneurs who are mobile and have solutions to the problems they are facing,” says Frazier.
On August 14, FEMA’s aid for Flint will expire, and the city will no longer have access to the Federal funding that was allotted to rebuild the city after the crisis. But just switching Flint’s water source hasn’t solved the problems faced by the city, whose infrastructure and pipes were affected by the water and will take years to replace. Frazier hopes that her photos will resurface the issue, and ensure that people understand the water crisis is not over.
[All Photos: Latoya Ruby Frazier, courtesy Elle]