Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier documents the unhealthy relationship between industrial cities and the people who live in them

City Paper

For years, photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier has been documenting the life she shares with her family, which, in the mill town of Braddock, Pennyslvania, has been fraught with disease and limited access to proper health care. With intimate portrayals of herself, her mother, and her grandmother Ruby (until she passed away in 2009), Frazier documents the effects of this inequity on individual people, building a strong bridge between activism and art.

In one half of Frazier’s black-and-white diptych ‘Epilepsy Test,’ the artist’s mother sits on a hospital bed with her back to us. A single wire crosses over her left shoulder and down her bare back, joining a cluster of wires that go from her head to a machine. The wires, tangled up in her hair, mimic the wires in the photograph on the right, which shows the partially demolished wreckage of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Braddock hospital. This hospital, Frazier explains in a video on the Aperture Foundation’s website, was “significant to the community, which is predominantly elderly or underemployed African-Americans. And [UPMC Braddock] was our largest employer and our only health care provider, so it was necessary to document the loss.”

Frazier will be a panelist at the The Contemporary’s lecture “Talking Shop: Health + Inequity” on June 29, along with Dr. Lisa A. Cooper of Johns Hopkins, who has spent a large part of her career finding ways to make health care more accessible and equitable, “overcoming racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare.” The Contemporary’s Curatorial Advisory Council member Elissa Blount-Moorhead will moderate the discussion, which will address environmental racism and classism in health care. Frazier—who now spends her time between Braddock, Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York City, and France—and I talked over email about the effects of industrialism, depictions of pain, and how art interacts with policy and society. (Rebekah Kirkman)

City Paper: What was it like growing up in Braddock?

LaToya Ruby Frazier: By the 1980s when I was born, the Reagan administration policies of the trickle down effect and removal of social services caused me to be raised in a community that was abandoned socially and economically at the local, state and federal government levels. This disinvestment caused our infrastructure and environment to fall into disrepair.

CP: Was there a specific moment that prompted you to start making work about Braddock and how it has affected you and your family?

LRF: As a youth I knew something was wrong with the conditions my family and community were living in, the sight of the steel factory and constant trips to the hospital and all the silence concerning our existence made me turn to making work.

CP: Most of your photographs depict you and members of your family in domestic spaces, and the images feel very intimate. At the same time, you connect these scenes to broader issues, such as race, class, and health care inequity and how those issues intersect. Can you talk about how you use this “personal” or intimate approach to expand and talk about broader issues?

LRF: Experience is a criterion for knowledge. As a society, we must move beyond outsiders and the privileged creating works and narratives about the working class. People who carry burdens of discrimination and racism should be given the platform to speak for themselves. This is not personal, this is the humanization of a difficult situation. Universally we all suffer under the system of industrialism, environmental degradation and corporate exploitation. Images of myself and my family become metaphor and symbols of this brutality.

CP: The poet Anne Boyer has written a lot about the effects of breast-cancer treatments on her body and mind, and how ultimately capitalism is to blame for this. What can you say about your way of depicting hardship and poverty, pain and disease?

LRF: Until we eradicate these problems and break the caste system that prevents all people from getting equal and fair medical treatment I see no reason to ever look away or not to confront these crimes against humanity. The body in pain should haunt capitalism.

CP: In artist talks and interviews, you’ve talked about collaborating with your mother on many of these portraits. What is this process like? Do you plan the photos together or is it more candid?

LRF: We simply use the bedroom as a studio by blocking the domestic settings with our beds and draping the beds with our comforters. Once it becomes a backdrop we take turns making portraits of each other, documenting our bodies, health and illness. In the portrait ‘Huxtables, Mom and Me’ 2008 my mother is making a portrait of me wearing a hospital robe with a faded Cosby t-shirt underneath.

CP: Your work is also a document of specific people in a specific place and time. What is the relationship between your art and history?

LRF: First, in the history of photography the books I studied never portrayed artists relinquishing their camera / power to their subject. With my mother as my collaborator I become subject of the work. This is vital to breaking the privileged notion that only the educated elite [can] make an artwork. Second, when it comes to painters and photographers making work about industry never has there been an artwork that contests idolization of industrialism by putting forward a personal narrative account of its human cost, especially a narrative by women. Third, when it comes to women and performance, with works by an artist like Hannah Wilke who documented her passing with cancer, both my grandmother and mother have dealt with cancer. I myself have lupus.  Lupus is viewed as a woman of color’s disease and our condition, since it is an autoimmune one, is never taken seriously. Instead of being victims we have found a creative way to deal with our illnesses.

CP: How do you see art influencing policy or society, or encouraging activism? Do you see yourself as an activist?

LRF: I believe the way Lewis Hine made photographs that portrayed the living and working conditions of humans in his 1907-1908 Pittsburgh Survey is crucial to understanding the living and working conditions of families and individuals today existing in the midst of gentrification and rustbelt revitalization. I see myself as a conceptual documentary artist whose work has a social justice cause. Through photography, performance and video I am building my own archive that addresses the intersection of industrialism, rustbelt revitalization, environmental degradation and healthcare inequity.

CP: Braddock has a specific history involving Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, but there are overlaps in Braddock’s story and those of other cities. How does your work change when you spend time in different places?

LRF: When I spend time in other places my work evolves. The United States Steel Corporation has branches in most major cities across the country and if you follow the railroads and money trails it leads to global economy which reveals the effects these companies have had on various communities abroad. Our lives, bodies and even our mobility and physical movement are regulated by industry, it is not something of the past or post-industrial, it is still present. This is so crucial to understanding the disparity between the working class and the creative class that have come revitalization, redevelopment and neocolonial rule. ν

For more information on the lecture, visit
contemporary.org/speakerseries.

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