One of the nation’s most acclaimed photographers, LaToya Ruby Frazier’s work depicts the unsettling reality of today’s America: post-industrial cities riven by poverty, racism, healthcare inequality, and environmental toxicity. By featuring voices and perspectives traditionally erased from the American narrative, MacArthur “Genius” Frazier not only captures our cultural blind spots—she teaches us how art is a powerful tool for social transformation.
“With her camera, Frazier has captured the years-long effects of racism and economic erosion in small towns, such as her native Braddock, Penn. Frazier … has an all-seeing eye that informed her award-winning debut, The Notion of Family.”— Ebony
Treating art as activism, LaToya Ruby Frazier’s extraordinary body of work includes a New York Times cover story on the devastating effects of a GM plant closure in Lordstown, Ohio; a piercing chronicle of the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan for Elle Magazine; and an aerial photography series depicting Memphis, Baltimore, and Chicago in The Atlantic’s Martin Luther King issue. Of those projects, her groundbreaking series “Flint is Family” was named one of the ‘25 Most Influential Works of American Protest Art Since World War II’ by the New York Times. “Frazier spent five months with a family encompassing three generations of women, chronicling daily life at the heart of a man-made ecological disaster. The project was a natural extension of her already well-established commitment to social justice,” the paper writes, noting that Frazier donated the proceeds from her exhibition to help aid the people in Vehicle City. Frazier was also recently selected as one of nine Storytelling Fellows for National Geographic, where she will complete a year-long project titled ‘Living with Lupus Under COVID-19 in America.’ In it, Frazier will use a personal lens to explore the intersection of racial justice, environmental racism, and the unequal access to medical care in America, as the country faces one of the largest public health crises in modern history.
Frazier’s award-winning first book The Notion of Family offers a penetrating look at “the legacy of racism and economic decline in America’s small towns, as embodied by her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania.” A haunting photographic account of three generations of Frazier women, The Notion of Family is simultaneously personal and political; investigating the impact of deindustrialization on working class Black families in the Rust Belt—a once-prosperous area of steel production in the Northern United States—through the “labour-consumed bodies” of her relatives. Her talks, like her breathtaking work, betray a sobering reality: the American dream has not, and does not, work for Black people. As long as environmental injustice, healthcare inequality, and economic racism continue to thrive, the country is failing its Black citizens. With clarity and insight, Frazier shines a light on how art can be used as a tool for transformation and social good across the nation.
Frazier has received the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. She was chosen by Ebony as one of their 100+ Most Powerful Women of All Time. Her work has been exhibited widely in the US and internationally, with solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, Seattle Art Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Frazier also shot the movie posters for the Grand Prix-winning Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman, which tells the true story of an American detective who infiltrated the Colorado Springs KKK. Legendary American critic Jerry Saltz writes about her work: “The films, texts, and photographs of this MacArthur ‘genius’ give us one of the strongest artists to emerge in this country this century.”
Frazier holds a BFA in applied media arts from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an MFA in art photography from Syracuse University. She has studied under the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program and was the Guna S. Mundheim Fellow for visual arts at the American Academy in Berlin. She is Associate Professor, Photography, at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and has previously held academic and curatorial positions at Yale University School of Art, Rutgers University, and Syracuse University.
Art as Transformation Using Photography for Social Change
Each day, we’re bombarded by images: on billboards, on screens, in schools and in our bedrooms. And these images, largely corporate in origin, carry power—power to shape, control, and constrain—even when they offer a fantasy, or an outright lie.
That’s why, as LaToya Ruby Frazier argues, photography is a battleground of representation. We cannot control the material circumstances of our birth, our families or our economic circumstances. But in order to change society—to seed real change and cultural transformation, especially for the marginalized and the forgotten—we must change the picture we have of ourselves and our communities.
In this talk, Frazier discusses how she has used photography to fight injustice—poverty, healthcare and gender inequality, environmental contamination, racism, and more—and create a more representative self-portrait. Drawing from her book The Notion of Family as well as from works of art by Frederick Douglass, August Sander, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Langston Hughes, she relates her conscious approach to photography, opens up more authentic ways to talk about family, inheritance, and place, and celebrates the inspirational, transformative power of images.