THE NEWS MEDIA HAS MOVED ON, but there is still a water crisis in Flint, Mich. In April 2014, the city switched from the Detroit system and began sourcing its water from the Flint River. The decision was made to save money, despite the fact that the river was notoriously plagued with odor and polluted with raw sewage. Within weeks, locals voiced serious concerns—the water was brown, tasted “rancid,” and was causing sundry health problems. Two years later, FEMA declared Flint a national disaster. The designation—which made it possible for FEMA cover the cost of free water, water filters, related cartridges and test kits citywide—expires soon, on Aug. 14.
Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier spent the month of May in Flint—a poor, mostly black city—documenting the effects of the contaminated water through the experiences of Shea Cobb, 32, and three generations of women in her family. Frazier’s images appear in the September issue of Elle magazine, part of a special project that features lengthy reporting by Mattie Kahn, with contributions from Anna Clark.
Frazier’s black and white photographs reveal the very specific narrative of the Cobb family, capturing everyday moments, domestic images, and shots from a family wedding, along with the wider story of how the city has failed it residents and betrayed the public trust.
The magazine has published extended content online, including “Flint is Family,” a short film by the photographer. The film pairs Frazier’s photographs with audio of Cobb describing her life and how she has navigated the water crisis in Flint, where she was born and raised. Cobb describes herself as a bus driver, coach, singer/songwriter, poet, and student who attended community college and the University of Michigan, Flint. She does hair, too. “It’s the hustle that gets us through. The ability to be multitalented that helps us survive here and not lose our minds,” Cobb says.
“It’s the hustle that gets us through. The ability to be multitalented that helps us survive here and not lose our minds.”
— Flint Resident Shea Cobb, Elle magazine
The Elle project features a film by LaToya Ruby Frazier that opens with a poem by Shea Cobb called “No Filter,” that is a response to the water crisis, the city of Flint, and the media.
Her daughter is 9-years-old and Cobb cautions her against drinking from the school water fountain, instructing her to drink bottled water instead. “She’s aware. “I hate that she’s aware,” says Cobb, who has made her 55-year-old mother—whose hair was falling out in clumps—promise to avoid tap water, too.
Cobb and her daughter brush their teeth with bottled water. “We don’t ingest the water on any level,” she says. Wary of cooking at home, they eat out at restaurants on the outskirts of Flint, despite the cost. The distance offers little comfort. They still don’t trust the water and order Sprite and fruit smoothies with their meals.
The city no longer sources its water from the contaminated Flint River and has reconnected to the Detroit water system. In June, Federal and state officials declared Flint water is safe, if filtered. “But many locals are wary and residents are functionally still limited in how they cook, shower, brush their teeth, and fill a coffeepot or ice cube tray,” reports Elle.
The water continues to flow through lead contaminated pipes. A billboard in the city reminds residents that “Boiling your water does not remove lead.” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver says replacing the pipes will cost $55 million.
FRAZIER IS THE RECIPIENT of a 2015 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and the author of “The Notion of Family.” Through photographs, the book chronicles her own generational family story in her hometown of Braddock, Pa., a once thriving steel town, where the jobs have disappeared, and the health problems fostered by the industry linger.
“Working intimately with Shea Cobb, seeing the city of Flint through the perspectives of her family and creating collaborative portraits that complicate our understanding about the people and landscape of Flint, further deepens my belief that in order to have both social and cultural change in our society we must listen and learn from the residents who have resisted injustice and calamity,” said Frazier in statement from Elle.
“I hope that readers will be moved and inspired by Shea’s resilience, understand that the water crisis is not over and take action by writing letters to the governor’s office in Michigan to demand that funds and resources be released to Flint. Water is a human right.” CT
Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier has built her practice around images of her mother, grandmother and great-grandfather “gramps,” as well as self portraits using their generational story in Braddock, Pa., to convey a larger narrative about social and economic conditions in post-industrial communities around the country. Published in 2014, her first book, “The Notion of Family,” captures these images.
Flint residents, students from Northwestern High School, a young boy holding a “Unwanted” sign that calls for the arrest of Governor Mayor Rick Snyder, await the arrival of President Barack Obama on May 4, 2016. | © LaToya Ruby Frazier, Photo courtesy Elle magazine