Jemma Jacobs: The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis

Jemma Jacobs is an arts researcher focusing on climate communication within the Anthropocene and its relationship with art, and drawing attention to those suffering disproportionately from climate change impacts. Her essay on the Flint Water Crisis and visual culture is the first in our new Longer feature, where members share longer works that haven’t appeared online elsewhere and don’t fit easily into the regular ClimateCultures blog; Longer provides space to explore in more detail creative and critical responses to our ecological and climate crisis. Jemma’s essay exploring visual culture and its value in exposing environmental racism in the Flint Water Crisis was originally produced in April 2021 as part of her MA Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths, London University. See her introductory piece for our blog, Seeing the Flint Water Crisis, reflecting on the essay and on her course.


The visuality of the Flint Water Crisis and how it exposes the racial undertones of environmental neglect

Introduction

Western colonial pursuits instigated and continue to maintain contemporary environmental issues. Through this, geological harm intensifies the disproportionate maltreatment of poorer communities, contributing to racial and social injustice. As seen through physical climate impacts and environmental neglect – such as droughts and untreated toxic water, respectively – poorer nations are expected to experience an imminently greater impact than their richer counterparts1. It is important to note, however, that said communities have been facing these effects for many years; namely mass flooding destroying the harvest, cattle, and homes in Malawi and erratic seasons causing the displacement of villages in Eastern Uganda2. Contemporary spatial distributions of black communities were driven by colonial regimes and their forced displacement of bodies and land for slavery and extraction3. This exposes the physical disasters of the climate crisis to depend upon one’s geographic placement and financial cushioning. Environmental neglect is also based on those factors but can be explored in a micro manner, with the ability to trace its cause through the revelation of power imbalances.

The nature of environmental neglect in the case of the Flint Water Crisis draws attention to governmental negligence within lower income communities. Residents were encouraged to drink unsafe, lead-contaminated water from Flint River. The water was causing sickness, skin rashes and hair loss, which the government refused to both recognise and admit despite condemning evidence4. Subsequently causing long term health problems and changing Flint’s demography through increasing fetal deaths and decreasing fertility rates, the crisis served as an example of a ‘sacrifice zone’5. Naomi Klein coined the term to define areas where residents were deemed as of secondary importance below the push for economic advancement6. This notion is relevant when recognising that the crisis occurred as a consequence of governmental cost saving measures7.

It is imperative to underscore the racial narrative at play within this. In Flint, 54.1% of the population are black or African American, and 38.8% are in poverty. Debate has, thus, been steered toward the slow governmental response as an outcome of historical, structural and systemic racism8. Here, one can identify persisting colonial relations. Kathryn Yusoff’s exploration of a Black Anthropocene draws lines between contemporary environmental issues and past colonial pursuits of power9; thus, emphasising the omnipresence of racist imperialist structures. Environmental neglect has its roots in colonial ideas of power and possession. It questions governmental priorities, and often verifies economic progression as taking precedence over the welfare of low income, black communities and the environment in which they live.

Inverting this imbalance of power, LaToya Ruby Frazier documented the Flint Water Crisis to draw focus toward marginalised experiences. Her 2016 photographic series Flint is Family works to capture the strength and endurance of a struggling community; replacing the normalised images of black suffering and struggle10. Frazier’s photographs are useful for confronting environmental racism. Deployed against the backdrop of Yusoff’s Black Anthropocene, they reveal the Flint Water Crisis as part of a larger concern of racial injustice. Documentary photography has the power to portray social events intimately, allowing for an understanding that photojournalism within the media is unable to fully render. It is this aspect which constructs a sense of allyship amongst Frazier’s viewership.

Frazier’s visual references work on a micro and macro scale, speaking to a larger narrative surrounding the water’s semiology. Amongst Postcolonial authorship, water resonates as a fascinating point of discussion. Édouard Glissant’s The Open Boat (1990) establishes the sea as one of the three abysses, an unknown aspect within the transatlantic slave trade11. Christina Sharpe deploys the term ‘wake’ to a variety of means. Specifically, its definition regarding ‘the track left on the water’s surface by a ship’ works to two meanings: it describes the racially unjust consequences of colonialism that impact contemporary society, while also directly referencing the slave ships which aided in creating the injustices seen today12. Taken with Paul Gilroy’s concept of The Black Atlantic, these theories can ground Frazier’s imagery and its context within a deep-seated history of environmental racism. Her series has three sections to it as she follows a family as they move out and then return to Flint. Frazier’s first collections of images, Act I, focuses on the experience in Flint in the wake of the water crisis; I will be exploring this section due to its close chronology to the event in question. As a case study, I will use Flint is Family, Act I as a base from which issues of racial injustice along environmental lines can be traced. My argument will conclude that the visualities of such expose the racial undertones to environmental neglect, highlighting the need for an alternative to the covert, historically dominant narrative of colonialism.

Flint and Frazier

Racial injustice manifests itself in governmental environmental neglect. When those in positions of power dismiss issues arising within low income and black communities, they are actively choosing to diminish the very people who rely on their governing. The Flint Water Crisis is a prime example of this. In 2014, emergency managers (EMs) were appointed into local government to put in place cost-saving measures to ‘re-establish fiscal solvency’13. In temporarily moving the city’s water supply to the Flint River before later plans to move it to the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline, the EMs exposed Flint residents to unsafe substances14. The water was not treated to the level suggested by private contractors, with the plant’s team lacking in both experience and training15. Corrosive water consequently eroded the infrastructure in its travels from the plant to outlets16. Residents were therefore left with water that had an unsafe amount of lead content and bacteria. Members of the community reported a change within their water – one that could be seen physically in the liquid’s dark brown colour and internally through its immediate health implications. Research carried out at the time pointed toward the high lead content: notably in paediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s substantial detection of the element in the bloodstream of Flint schoolchildren17. However, governmental recognition remained absent.

The nature of the EMs meant they could override local officials, making decisions on their own accord. They authorised the poor water treatment plant and subsequently ignored public complaints18. Governmental dismissal can be noted in the statement issued in 2015 by the governor’s office, who worked closely with the EMs. It claimed that the water was “safe to drink, but some families with lead plumbing in their homes or service connections could experience higher levels of lead in the water that comes out of their faucets [emphasis added]”19. This is one of many examples where authorities distracted residents from governmental mistakes, placing blame on individual circumstance. The emphasis of potentiality within the statement also highlights the lack of accuracy; therefore, pointing to administrative oversight. Their disregard references Flint as being a sacrificial zone. Those in positions of power prioritised financial progress to the extent that not only were the legitimacy and respect of the EMs risked, but the health and welfare of the population. Environmental injustice created from the top underscores the contemporary imbalance within power structures. Flint is Family works to upturn this, allowing visual rhetoric to home in on the strength of the community.

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s upbringing in Braddock, Pennsylvania and resulting series The Notion of Family somewhat prepared her visuality for the crisis in Flint. With the two series sharing similar names, there is a direct reference and thus understanding that Frazier injects into her Flint series. Her earlier images capture a declining city set within an ensuing drug crisis. It is based on her personal recognition of “what it means to be marginalized, dehumanized and invisible” within society20. With the focus on family, Frazier was able to portray a visual account of endurance: Flint is Family carries this forward. She stayed in Flint for five months with the Cobb family21. Showing direct attention to the family authenticates her narrative, while equally guiding a viewer-subject relationship where greater intimacy, and therefore sympathy, can be initiated. Frazier’s personal understanding of what it means to be black within a deteriorating city allowed her to present notions of neoliberal disposability – citing the notion of the sacrifice zone. Henry Giroux argues that the Flint Water Crisis exhibits this aspect through a politics where governing bodies violate the vulnerable and defenceless populations ‘considered disposable’22. Through the image’s intimacy with these very sectors of society, Frazier fosters a visuality that seeks to simultaneously reveal and oppose the notion of disposability.

The struggle of living in Flint during the years of the crisis is portrayed with a force of solidity. Frazier captures the mundane tasks of everyday life, refusing to visualise the crisis as a distraction or cause of suffering. In one image, Shea Cobb helps to brush daughter Zion’s teeth with the use of a plastic water bottle (figure 1). The blurred toothbrush in the foreground, against the action of water being poured from a bottle in the focal midground, seems incongruous when out of context. With knowledge of the danger of Flint’s water system, however, the photograph becomes rich in its notion of perseverance. Of course, viewers with safe access to water may spend longer pondering the scene’s narrative, within which tones of sympathy will arise; but then the overriding theme within Frazier’s series comes to the fore. The very nature of following the life of activist Shea Cobb highlights the photographer’s determination to display Flint residents outside the typical victimisation that documentary photography tends to tie with catalysing justice. In doing so, Frazier disrupts the imagery presented by the mass media, with her works commissioned by and presented within Elle magazine23. It is important to note that Flint is Family captures predominantly black people. Within a city where the majority of residents are black, Frazier successfully emphasises the crisis as one of environmental racism. The consistent reference to notions of perseverance therefore becomes a citation to the history of black struggle in America.

Relevant to the Flint Water Crisis is this idea of imposed victimisation. This can be noted on two pertinent levels: firstly, how the switch of water source to the Flint River was authorised without the consent of the public, or locally elected figures; and secondly within the governmental rhetoric pushing responsibility to the residents. Both placed the Flint populace in a position where their access to safe water, as a basic human right, was quashed. As part of the United Nations General Assembly in 2010, the United States agreed to the Human Right to Water and Sanitation principle24. The environmental injustice in Flint was thus a direct violation of the citizens’ rights, adding weight to its colonialist link and its act of forced victimisation. Exploring the public relations along racial lines, Nkeka Logan argues that the state’s initial denial deployed a ‘symbolic reality’ to override the ‘material realities’ of the suffering community25. Two years following the water source switch, Governor Snyder publicly apologised in his Michigan State of the State address; taking full responsibility and outlining future plans for change26. Frazier’s imagery of protest, published within months of the address, takes on a meaning of success. The sense of endurance discussed earlier imprints into the fabric of the photographs through political redress. Impacts of the water crisis did and will continue to impact Flint for years; therefore, it is imperative to see the address as a turning point, but not the end of the struggle.

Frazier deploys the deadpan aesthetic within some photographs of the series. Pictures lacking surface expression can ironically arouse emotional curiosity amongst viewership. Frazier captures Shea on the Flint River Trail over the Flint River in a traditional deadpan scene (figure 2). This style of emotionally void visuality became prevalent through images of landscape and architecture in the 1990s27. Flint River works to incite questioning through its initial uncommunicative nature: the relevance of a single figure on a bridge with an extreme wide bird’s eye shot is intriguing. Deadpan images often wait for viewer analysis to unpick its narrative, as opposed to visual or textual overt statements28. Frazier is relying on audiences to breakdown the contextualised rhetoric of the image: the affected stands over the cause of effect. Shea’s visual engulfment by her surroundings, when paired with her centrality, might be seen to represent Flint residents’ lack of involvement in the crisis’s causation but ultimate susceptibility to its devastating impacts. The deadpan aesthetic can also be recognised within more intimate shots. Zion completes homework, lacking expression, with Shea escaping the shot (figure 3). Referencing previously discussed notions of persistence, Zion stares solidly and confidently. To the right of the shot two water bottles are visible: acting as a visual reminder maintaining the crisis’ existence and pertinence. With focus on Shea’s daughter, Frazier inverts the contemporaneous power structure. Space is, therefore, defiantly claimed for the black community within a politics which deems them disposable.

The Wake

Despite pushes towards collective equality, colonial paradigms remain within contemporary society. The instigation of the Western imperialist mindset, arguably in the 15th century, began the rhetoric that would leave black communities in a paradoxical position: pushing for equity through the thick sea of their unjust past29. Sharpe’s 2016 text In the Wake refers to a variety of manifestations of colonial ruptures in the present30. Analysing the present through what she deems ‘wake work’ allows for an understanding of how the lives of black people can be consistently traced back to their colonial oppression31. The forced displacement of Black persons during the Middle Passage automatically adds a new definition to modern characterisations of the wake; emphasis gets placed on ‘the track left on the water’s surface by a ship32. As discussed earlier, this alludes to the ships which physically sustained the transatlantic slave trade, while simultaneously visualising the impacts it has on black people today. The methodological concept of wake work seeks to dissect slavery’s mutating presence despite its abolition. Within this recognition Sharpe advocates for a consciousness of post-slavery blackness; thus, inciting another denotation of the wake: the act of being awake33. The Flint Water Crisis contextualised within this concept allows for a reading of racialised injustice. It expands on a truth where the current geographical placement, political treatment, and financial status of black persons trace back to colonialism. Since the industrialisation of the 1830s, pollutants have been entering into the Flint River. With no imposed regulations, water pollution continued in permittance of industrial processes and financial income34. This, therefore, directly cites notions of the wake where past occurrences have a long-lasting impact on contemporary modes of living. Families, like the Cobb family, did not get caught in such a crisis by chance, but by white supremacy and its hold over past, present and future narratives.

The unjust disposability of black life, put forward in the Flint Water Crisis, is inextricably linked to Sharpe’s engagement with the hold and her commentaries on contemporary desensitisation to black death. She references institutional programmes that are supposed to illustrate to black youths the risks of gun violence. At ages as young as thirteen, said programmes not only expose children to intense images of dead bodies but they mark on their students’ where their bullet wounds would sit if they were those in the shown images (see figure 4)35. Sharpe’s criticism of this outlines the label of replaceability placed on black life. With institutions guiding youths to recognise their own life as homologous to those that share their skin colour, racism settles within the mutating violence of the hold. The very programmes put in place to end black trauma work to renew it, bringing youths closer to the idea of death and disposability36. The Flint Water Crisis resembles this exploration through the role of the EMs: brought in to help the city, but with the result of extending the troubles further. The lives of the populace came under direct harm and the lack of immediate governmental recognition branded those bodies as disposable. A sacrifice zone: the money supposedly to be saved was more important than the lives put at risk.

Frazier’s photographs of protest draw attention to the consciousness discussed by Sharpe. One image portrayed a scene where the typically depicted ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) sign was altered to read ‘Flint Lives Matter’ (figure 5). This inextricable link to the BLM movement places the crisis within the context of police brutality. Flint citizens are consequently deemed aware of the racist roots of their suffering; they are awake within the wake. The BLM movement confronts institutional racism. Through the association with this, the crisis is shown as a top-down issue with its roots in colonialist attitudes. The ‘broken window theory,’ utilised by police institutions to instigate a racially disproportionate war on crime, claims that the visibility of violence and crime breeds further violence and crime37. Arguments point towards this racially stimulated police strategy as pushing the BLM movement into existence. Within this rhetoric, the visual metaphor joining the protests of Flint to that of BLM emphasises the role of the institution. It executes a negligent attempt to help the welfare of a city, resulting in the endangerment of black lives. Again, highlighting the manifestation of neoliberal disposability. Frazier’s photograph therefore resonates with a broader spectrum of political protest, and her specific choice to publish that photograph above others confirms her belief in its relevance. It is within this that the notion of consciousness ignites.

It is important to also view this within the context of environmental injustice. Despite the Flint Water Crisis not being directly tied to climate change, the environmental neglect it portrays speaks to the anthropogenic tendencies within political structures of responsibility and power. Here, it is useful to cite the geological ‘racialised relations of power’38. Yusoff’s proposal of a Black Anthropocene explores various powers along the lines of ownership and control of land. Where the Anthropocene is inscribed with colonialism, environmental decisions within the wake fall into a pattern of white authoritarianism which overrides the safety of black persons39. Since the start of Western colonialism, white supremacy has demanded dominance over the use of land and people. The forced displacement of persons and land for the use of slavery and extraction enticed colonisers to feel a false sense of responsibility. This unjust force of supremacy carried forward and can be noted within contemporary society. Yusoff highlights the sense of paternalism within White Geology’s notion of the Anthropocene: ignoring the deep-seated history of racial injustice, there is a tendency to claim a sense of innocence through a focus on present and future environmental rescue40. Former Governor Rick Snyder and eight other officials were charged with 41 counts, including 34 felonies41. Two were also charged with nine counts of involuntary manslaughter in response to the nine that died of Legionnaires’ disease as a result of the water switch42. This recent partial retribution, along with the $641 million settlement, points toward a slight sense of justice; therefore, acting as a recognition of harm and an avoidance of undeserved innocence43. If convicted, this will become more pertinent. Although, it is important to note that this does not officially account for environmental racism along the lines of neglect. It simply speaks to a larger framework of retribution that environmental injustice tends to lack.

Within both Sharpe and Yusoff’s theories, there is an imperative reference to water which ties together environmentalist notions of racial injustice. Wake work holds a clear citation to it with regard to its definition of water’s ‘disturbed flow’ by either a ship or body44. The concept of a Black Anthropocene follows the first enforcement of slaves, and first shipment, as part of a wider rhetoric of colonialist pursuit assembling European powers45. The role of water provides the structure unto which a vessel can transport the movement of persons and material goods; thus becoming essential in the instigation of human-caused geological change. Frazier’s photography captures the significant symbolism of water in a variety of her shots. The deadpan image, Flint River, holds obvious connections to the role of water within the crisis. The figure is surrounded with the very substance which has caused her and the community so much struggle. It envelops her in the image as it does in reality. However, her stance on top of the bridge narrates the endurance of the community to remain undefeated; persevering and persisting to achieve normality (as referenced in figure 1). The imagery of the bridge can be tied to colonialist notions of travel over water. However, Frazier continues to demand a power shift. She visually reverses colonial narratives of dominance, placing the black community literally above that which tries to harm them. In some respects, Flint is Family works within Yusoff and Sharpe’s models to invert the very power structures that they depict. Her use of water, echoed more generally through this study with its relevance in the crisis as a whole, points to a connection between humanity and nature. Read under Bruno Latour’s distinction between society and nature, greater significance can be applied to the role of politics within the two’s distinction. Frazier’s photographs therefore take on a uniting role. She successfully draws semiotic links between the binary role of politics. Particularly in how it pulls human society away from nature, here through environmental neglect; but through capturing protest, politics is shown to aid in environmental justice.

Water

The racialised rhetoric of water within the Flint Water Crisis can be explored through theoretical notions of its significance. As explored earlier, concepts of the wake bring to focus the historical narrative of water through its violent colonial references. This is the context in which the crisis in Flint sits. With it having its roots in such a referential substance, it is useful to draw lines between its contemporary, historical and theoretical meanings. Frazier accentuates a narrative where water is both the protagonist and antagonist. If read under the hermeneutic of symbolism, Flint is Family explores the function of water in environmental injustice but also in its wider relationship to the black community in America. Permeating narratives exist due to the colonial structure that American society was built upon. The role of water is therefore imperative and useful in its evidentiary mode of signification. 

Within the context of colonisation in America, water had a twofold position. It acted as a barrier to signify the edge of land, providing a sense of independence. Yet it simultaneously permitted the travel of European colonisers; in essence, enabling imperial expansion to spread to the Americas. Water, in its expanse, both protected and endangered the inhabiting Indigenous peoples and to-be-enslaved African and Indian communities46. This is not to take blame from European settlers, who both instigated and violently continued colonisation at the expense of oppressed communities. Water simply played a symbolic role. It can express the various aspects that colonial slavery played in its relationship to, here specifically, African-American communities. Most notably, Glissant’s exploration of slavery used the visualisation of the sea and moving boats to expand on the notion of ‘the abyss’47. Arguing there to be three aspects ‘linked to the unknown,’ Glissant splits enforced African slavery into three stages: entering the boat on departure from Africa; the Middle Passage, drawing attention to the sea; and the sense of disorientation on arrival in the New World48. Referencing the intense role of water, one can begin to comprehend the traumatic experience that was caused by colonisers on their quest to colonisation. Water and black struggle are intimately tied. The first abyss compared the slave ship to an ineffective ‘womb’49. The structure, created to allow a sense of safety amongst the expanse of water, condemn to die those held captive within it; either on the boat, in the sea, or within the New World through enforced slavery.  These three points symbiotically refer back to the stages of the three abysses. Water is therefore positioned within a colonial narrative that can be explored in symbolic manners.

The Flint Water Crisis, with its tight engagement with racial injustice, can simultaneously reinforce and challenge these notions. Similar to the juxtaposing role of the boat as a womb intended for safety, the EMs were introduced to help the city and yet caused complications that left Flint worse off than before. This sense of mothership is repeated within Frazier’s imagery. The muses are predominantly black women, with a distinct focus on the Cobb family and thus the matrifocal narrative. With images such as Teeth Brushing and Homework, Shea as a mother is not the focus but is nonetheless present. This therefore cites the underlyingly continual role of motherhood, supplying a sense of safety which those in political, economic and social power never could. More overtly, Dinner Out (figure 6) depicts Shea’s role as a mother with distinct reference to the creation of safety. The photographs thus work to reinforce a sheltering of protection, referring back to earlier discussions of perseverance and self-reliance.

The relationship between water and motherhood is extended within the context of miscarriages caused by the crisis. Nakiya Wakes experienced multiple miscarriages due to the contaminated water she had been drinking50. During her second loss, she almost lost her own life. Glissant’s ‘belly of the boat’, in all its juxtapositions, can be noted within the belly of the mother51. This note of irony crops up again; a space where a foetus is meant to be nourished and encouraged to grow becomes uninhabitable. The abyss of the sea signifies its perpetual power. Water, as an integral element for human existence, holds the ability to extend and end life. Its paradoxical essence infiltrates the crisis’ rhetoric through the ironic role of the EMs, but predominantly through the visuality of water. Overlooked due to its Western expanse and accessibility, its sudden reversal highlights a fragility within humanity. A fragility which directly sits within its own sense of abyss. The children of Flint endured long-term brain damage, their hair fell out, their skin developed rashes; they lived within the abyss that questions their reliance on the very substance which is said to bring them life52. Flint residents are living within the wake of the boat which carried their existence overseas. Their abyss lies within the governmental power that overshadows their unpretentious drive to live. Flint is Family seeks to unearth this nature of the ordinary, and Frazier’s capture of motherhood underscores this concept through protection and its instability.

The Flint Water Crisis can alter this notion of the abyss with its exposure of governmental neglect: environmental stemming into the racial. Glissant draws focus to the abyss as a “projection of and a perspective into the unknown [emphasis added]”53. It renders aspects of the slave trade visible to those who have not experienced it, through a direct reflection and form of passage into it. In the case of the Flint Water Crisis, the consequence of governmental neglect exhibits environmental racism; simultaneously, this allows an entrance into aspects, more generally, of environmental racism. This twofold exploration of the crisis creates a sense of understanding in how incidents can both project and reflect. Frazier’s photographs abide to this within the visuality of exhibiting the unknown, but deeper through her entrance as a black female with a matching experience. In Braddock growing up, the local steel mill emitted toxic pollutants leaving members of the community, and members of Frazier’s family, with terminal illnesses54. Her personal relation to environmental racism compounds her photographs with a specific perspective; one which enters into the Flint Water Crisis with an empathetic point of understanding. Thus, carrying Glissant’s twofold notion.

Theoretically, the abyss alludes to a sense of oblivion. An infinite unknown which one should be open to, from the unknown place to which the boat is travelling to the unknown identity of those being forcefully displaced. Where Glissant views the connection between what is known and unknown as a transference of knowledge as value, the happening in Flint stresses the ignorance from those holding power. Their denial was a rejection of knowledge. The crisis, therefore, questions this emphasis on the abyss through highlighting governmental knowing and subsequent neglect. Although unconscious racial bias exists, it is important to distinguish white privilege as sitting within an environment of purposeful oblivion: not innocent ignorance. There is an active turn away from the struggles experienced by the races they dominate. So, it is imperative to view the Flint Crisis as an illustration of black struggle which is not unknown in the sense of an abyss, but a cumulative example of white privilege in its active state. It is a ‘projection of and a perspective into the unknown,’ but simply for those who enthusiastically decide to not know.

Referencing water as a site of modernity, the Flint Water Crisis could be viewed within an exploration of developing social existences. The crisis sits within a site of modernity due to the relevance of the water system, which itself marked a point of progression into the modern. European global expansion relied heavily on colonial pursuits. The shared memory of slavery, therefore, exists at the correlating intersection between ‘racial terror’ and European modernisation and hegemony55. Flint River can thus be read as a visual representation of the colonial past, how it built Western modernisation, and how contemporary events transpire from early moments of expansion. Perhaps it is right to see Frazier’s shot as a symbolic reference to the forced travel and struggle that ancestors of the black Flint community experienced, which led them to where they are today. This, therefore, incites discussion on the existence of black lives within the wake.

This notion can be extended within Gilroy’s exploration of The Black Atlantic. Giving solidity to the developments produced by Transatlantic travel, his understanding of black identity sits within a wider context of European modernity. Within this, he explores the ship as a chronotope of transnational black modernity; a vessel which opened travel from Africa and around the Atlantic, thus inciting a conception of the slave trade’s middle passage56. The imagery of water becomes prominent within the idea that ships provided a solution to the barrier that was the ocean57. They enabled a multitude of expansions, namely slavery, handing European powers hegemony on a global scale. This visuality can accordingly view water as a chronotope, opposing that of ships, due to its arguable role as an obstacle toward such a development of powers. Water becomes the problem. When explored in this manner, Flint River takes on another meaning. A direct link lies between the problematic water of the Flint River and the water of the Atlantic, both of which are symbolic and material in their role within the racial imbalance of power and subsequent inequity. According to Gilroy, slavery is what instigates the underlying transnational black identity that exists beyond the boundaries of the Atlantic. It is within this that the significance of water is realised in its transition from historical to contemporary presence, underlying notions of modernity and black identity.

Environment

Environmental racism can be read under the contemporary notion that the world currently exists within the epoch of the Anthropocene. This recognises humanity’s impact on the environment, centering human force on a geological basis58. With environmental neglect having its roots in earlier colonial pursuits of power, it can expand on the concept of the Anthropocene in correcting its assumption of humanity as cohesive. The basic understanding of this epoch endorses a sense of anthropocentrism. It is useful in emphasising the colossal impact human activity has had on the changing climate, but it willingly refuses to acknowledge the power imbalance operating within it. Colonialism and environmental degradation are inextricably linked. The perspective of a ‘Black Anthropocene’ recognises the racialised divisions within humanity, whereby white supremacy claims hegemony on the Earth’s resources and vulnerable communities59. This viewpoint can also underscore the narrative which identifies the geographic distribution of black communities as affected by prior colonialist displacement of bodies and land for the use of slavery and extraction60. African-American communities in Flint can therefore be argued to have experienced environmental racism through the contemporary impacts of governmental controls; but also through the historical tracings of their geographic placement as being enforced by the same powers. However, it is important to refrain from a deterministic perspective where black communities are viewed within a space of complete vulnerability. It is much less about their character as it is about the unrelenting force put forward through systematic racism built within a colonialist framework.

Within the notion of a Black Anthropocene, the concept of the wake becomes even more pertinent. Events of the past become reimagined in the present context. Klein’s notion of the sacrifice zone illustrates contemporary labelling where certain groups are deemed less valuable than others. Within the context of the water crisis, Flint was a sacrifice zone. The ultimate pursuit for monetary progress preceded any consequential impacts of toxicity; rendering those affected as disposable. Set within the context of the Black Anthropocene, non-white populations are more likely to experience an imminently greater impact than white populations due to the intimate link between global inequality and race61. The racialised nature of environmental effects highlight the implementation of the sacrifice zone globally. Nations built on the back of colonialism can turn a blind eye as the crisis has little impact on them: they decide where and who the sacrifice zone affects to continue their blinkered, environmentally and socially corrupt lifestyle. The EMs of the Flint Water Crisis labelled the area, and those within it, as a sacrifice zone. Granting unsafe water to enter the homes of its residents and then proceeding to ignore complaints on the water’s safety emphasises the intense role of power at play. The contextualisation of the Black Anthropocene recognises this, highlighting the tones of racial inequity that have its roots in colonialism62.

The notion of disposability comes to the fore in the discussion of sacrifice zones. Frazier’s imagery plays a corrective task within this dialogue. As discussed earlier, Flint is Family presents a sense of solidity and strength that inverts documentary photography’s typical victimisation in an attempt to evoke sympathy in exchange for justice. Frazier, however, uses her visuals to question ‘historic erasure’63. Sharing the narrative of the marginalised community contributes to the public knowledge and rhetoric on the Flint Water Crisis, but also issues of racial injustice at large. Where reports of racial discrimination, injustice and inequality are often overlooked, Frazier successfully captures the racialised nature of disposability through the storytelling of hidden perspectives; therefore, correcting the historical tendency of the dominant narrative. The protagonists being predominantly black women supplies Flint is Family with a quality of fervour. The images outrightly speak against historic erasure and racial injustice through directly exposing it. Frazier’s challenging of the disposability within the Black Anthropocene is enhanced through her visual references to strength, solidity and perseverance – such as in Flint River and Teeth Brushing. The American imaginary and understanding of its history and current affairs are so often sustained by the mass media64. Frazier’s intervention within this provides Flint residents with visibility. Flint is Family recognises governmental failures along the lines of environmental neglect; draws attention to the marginalised community which it has impacted; and simultaneously overrides the white, anthropocentric aspects that the Anthropocene wrongly makes prominent. Argued to be working within the structure of wake work, Frazier successfully provides a fresh and alternative perspective that recognises the existence of the wake while seeking to overturn it.

Utilising the perspective of a Black Anthropocene allows entry into contemporary climate issues from the view of marginalised communities. Environmentalist movements have long been infused with a white-saviour complex: a sense of paternalism originating from colonial modes of thinking, taking responsibility in a way that retains a sense of innocence65. The recognition of needed solutions for the changing climate is undoubtedly constructive. The demand for justice, however, is overlooked despite its equal importance. Pushing for progression therefore sits within a narrative of accountability and attendance. Past colonial pursuits forced black people from their homes in Africa, through the middle passage and to American land. Later geographical movements, such as the Great Migration, saw African American communities displaced based on the destructive moves by white powers66. African American residents in Flint can be placed within this context. Their geographical location, making them vulnerable to the toxicity of the Water Crisis, sits within the wake of colonialism. As suggested earlier, this is not to place a sense of determinism upon black communities within America; rather, it exposes the unrelenting force of past colonial contexts in contemporary circumstances within Sharpe’s model. Environmentalism today, therefore, needs to take accountability for the imposition of the wake while attending to the narrative of the marginalised communities.

Flint is Family visualises the Black Anthropocene in its rendering of black visibility. Frazier’s personal association with the experiences of Flint provides an imagery associated with that of the Black Anthropocene. She hands viewers the perspective of a marginalised community, highlighting the significance of environmental neglect as an issue to be overcome within society – drawing the narrative away from those in power. The role of the EMs has an interesting relationship to the power relations exhibited during the slave trade. Perhaps signalling the role of the coloniser: they were unelected, pursued ultimate profit, and ignored harm enacted on those under their authority. Frazier’s active choice to draw focus from them and toward the inflicted community provides the same redirecting that Yusoff does within the Anthropocene context. Responsibility is shown to be undertaken by the Flint community; but distance remains regarding the accountability of the crisis, with the residents portrayed as victims who refuse to engage in the typical rhetoric of suffering vulnerability. The photographs thus avoid notions of white paternalism. They take responsibility through modes of attendance. Flint is Family equally challenges the ‘racial blindness’ of the Anthropocene by emphasising the modes of power at play67. Thus, visuals such as Flint Lives Matter and Teeth Brushing prove to unearth environmental racism through its valuing of black humanity.

The inextricable link between race and class makes contemporary environmental justice movements a force of racial justice. Marginalised communities most vulnerable to environmental racism often correspondingly lack the resources necessary to fight back68. Frazier provides an aesthetic that acts as a force of justice. Flint is Family portrays aspects that can be recognised within grassroots movements: an identification and attempt to expose injustice through a form of widespread communication. Frazier’s visuality thus presents a potency greater than typical documentary photography. The series avoids harsh shots depicting the consequences of the crisis; but, rather, captures the ‘soft power’ that contrasts harsh and coercive modes of government69. This output of power recognises ideological dissemination over military force. In doing so, this identifies art as effective in its ability to incite change. This corresponds with the series as originating in 2016 from a lack of public dialogue on the Water Crisis70. Flint Lives Matter specifically seeks to isolate the distribution of responsibility through the recognition of justice and victimisation. Frazier captures a scene of protest. It directly inserts the Flint community and their suffering into the discourse on environmental and racial justice; an issue they were already involved in, but that the public rhetoric failed to nationally recognise. In an earlier interview, Frazier affirms her use of the ‘camera as a weapon’71. Utilising photography in a combatant manner, as opposed to a documentary or journalistic narrative alone, gives the images the space to explore environmental justice upfront. Essentially, Flint is Family seeks to insert marginalised communities into the public national consciousness, while simultaneously working to confront environmental racism in its ultimate push for justice.

Conclusion

To conclude, the Flint Water Crisis provides an important insight into the presence of colonial paradigms. It permits an exploration of the relation between modes of governing and the community; and accordingly, reveals existing fractures within society. With the Flint community largely being of low-income and black households, the crisis exposes the experiences of marginalised communities. The event, thus, highlights environmental neglect and its unjust characteristics. Inflections of power emerge to represent the colonial undertones of such; therefore, presenting environmental racism, and those impacted by it, as visible.

Frazier’s series, Flint is Family Act I, works on this aspect of visibility. Her images emphasise the normalcy of racial discrimination in its deadpan aesthetic and visual representations. It is undeniable to regard the Water Crisis as unjust. Deplorable mistakes were made by those in power. Frazier’s shots, therefore, insert themselves into the media-controlled public consciousness, while simultaneously inverting the typical power structure which places emphasis on dominant narratives. The photographs depict the black community in Flint as having solidity and perseverance. This, accordingly, works to destabilise contemporaneous discourse on low-income black communities in America, while undermining the typical imagery of suffering vulnerability.

Placing the visuals within the framework of the wake is useful in contextualising the Water Crisis within a wider narrative of colonialism. It recognises the intimate link between past and present modes of governing. In doing so, the experiences of those subject to colonial violence are indicated as extending beyond the timeline of its narrated historical close. Wake work is therefore the distinguishing of slavery’s manifestation in the present. It successfully highlights the pervasiveness of white supremacy and its dominance over land and people. Imperialist and colonialist frameworks can thus be recognised within the Flint Water Crisis. It is therefore necessary to read Frazier’s photographs within this hermeneutic to reach a greater understanding of life within the wake.

It is imperative to be aware of the risk of determinism. Within the practice of wake work, one must avoid viewing situations in a manner that recognises black people as mere puppets. Past and present environments are entwined, indeed. There is a fine line, however, between recognising long-term impacts and existing notions of colonialism within society and rendering the identity of those inflicted by it as passive. It is therefore an intriguing line of study to read Flint is Family on this basis. Frazier seeks to unearth that dominant historical narrative by providing a voice to marginalised communities, and challenging historic erasure. Her shots arguably seek to counter the risk of determinism that wake work holds. It is therefore the theoretical downfalls that ultimately contribute to this intriguing line of visual exploration.

This thesis has evaluated how one’s class and race can not only be intertwined but can impact one’s experience and perception of the environment in which they live. The subjection of art must, therefore, be taken into account. I am part of the western white bias that is equally caught in the discussed colonial modes of thinking. The decoding of images takes influence from one’s orientations, and despite drawing off of a large array of literature exposing class and racial bias, this thesis may still be trapped within the underlying prejudice of a white western disposition. This exploration essentially places the Flint community and Frazier into a space of enquiry: arguably objectifying and trivialising their experience in the case of academic investigation. Considering the significance of this matter, however, can work to extend this line of inquiry. It points to the importance of theoretical concepts to grounding subjectivity within the context of past and present perspectives. Perhaps it is, thus, this approach to the visuality of the Flint Water Crisis which essentially seeks to unearth prejudicial notions of colonialist frameworks.

Theoretical notions of water and the abyss effectively explore the symbolic value of Frazier’s series and therefore the crisis’ happenings in general. Their significance sits within its capability to draw distinct representational links between histories. Utilising the symbolic aspect of theories can lead onto the geographical concept of the sacrifice zone with neoliberal disposability. Taken together, they can interpret Frazier’s capturing of marginalised communities within a context that seeks to deem them of less value. Flint is Family can thus reveal and reflect racially-charged fractures within contemporary society.

Placing this within the wider context of the Anthropocene allows further exploration of imbalances of power and equity on a global scale. It speaks to the dominant narratives within society; seeking to expose and simultaneously subvert them. A large gap exists between those who benefit from and those who are at a disadvantage within the contemporary climate crisis. In addressing these global divisions, historical traces of colonialism can emerge. The Flint Water Crisis within this framework draws greater recognition to the environmental racism which it exhibits. On that account, governmental neglect proves to sit within a broader framework of racial injustice.

Ultimately, the Flint Water Crisis, read through Frazier’s series, exposes the racial undertones of environmental neglect. The visuality of this unearths colonial structures, expanding on the experience of black communities living in the wake. An alternative to this covert, but pervasive, narrative is therefore necessary. Where contemporary modes of governance define human value, it is imperative to readdress given visibility by voicing those who lack the equity necessary to be heard.


Images cited 

Unfortunately, we are not able to share the images of LaToya Ruby Frazier that Jemma has cited here but you can see her series (and video) Flint is Family, and other works, at her website. Jemma’s ClimateCultures post, Seeing the Flint Water Crisis, also provides links to a number of other resources on the issues in this essay.

Latoya Ruby Frazier on the Flint Water Crisis
https://latoyarubyfrazier.com/work/flint-is-family/

Fig 1. Teeth Brushing (from Flint is Family Act I, 2016) Photograph by LaToya Ruby Frazier
Fig 2. Flint River (from Flint is Family Act I, 2016) Photograph by LaToya Ruby Frazier
Fig 3. Homework (from Flint is Family Act I, 2016) Photograph by LaToya Ruby Frazier
Fig 4. ‘Scott Charles, a trauma outreach coordinator at Temple University Hospital, places red stickers on Justin Robinson, thirteen, an eighth-grader from Kenderton School, to show the bullet wounds suffered by Lamont Adams, a local teenager who died violently in 2004, during the Cradle to Grave program at the hospital in Philadelphia, February 1, 2013. The program brings in youths with the hope that a look at the effects of gunshot wounds can help them reject gun violence. Photograph by  Jessica Kourkounis/The New York Times/Redux’ appears in Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham and London: Durham University Press, 2016), 88.
Fig 5. Flint Lives Matter (from Flint is Family Act I, 2016) Photograph by LaToya Ruby Frazier
Fig 6. Dinner Out (from Flint is Family Act I, 2016) Photograph by LaToya Ruby Frazier

Notes & Bibliography

  1. Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach, Climate Change Justice (Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2010), 11.
  2. Mary Robinson, Climate Justice: A Man-Made Problem with a Feminist Solution (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 16.
  3. Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 6.
  4. Nneka Logan, “The Flint Water Crisis: An Analysis of Public Relations as a Mediator Between Human and Corporate Persons,” Public Relations Review 44, no. 1 (2018), 47.
  5. Logan, “The Flint,” 49.  Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (London: Penguin Random House UK, 2015), 169.
  6. Klein, This Changes Everything, 310.
  7. Logan, “The Flint,” 48.
  8. “Flint City, Michigan,” United States Census Bureau, last modified December 10, 2020, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/flintcitymichigan/RHI225219#RHI225219.
  9. Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 10.
  10. Mary Pena, “Black Public Art: On the Socially Engaged Work of Black Women Artist-Activists,” Open Cultural Studies 3, no. 1 (2019), 611.
  11. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1990), 6.
  12. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham and London: Durham University Press, 2016), 3.
  13. Benjamin J. Pauli, “The Flint Water Crisis,” WIREs Water 7, no. 3 (2020), 2.
  14. Pauli, “The Flint Water Crisis,” 2.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Logan, “The Flint,” 48.
  18. Pauli, “The Flint Water Crisis,” 3.
  19. Govenor Rick Snyder, “Comprehensive Action Plan Will Help Flint Residents Address Water Concerns,” Michigan Government News Release, October 2, 2015, http://www.michigan.gov/flintwater/0,6092,7-345-73947_73999-366287–,00.html.
  20. Jabari Asim, “A Conversation with LaToya Ruby Frazier: “My Camera As A Weapon”: Art and Social Justice”,” The Crisis 121, no. 2 (2014), 28.
  21. David Frankel, “LaToya Ruby Frazier,” Artforum International 56, no. 7 (2018), 227.
  22. Henry A. Giroux, “Poisoned City: Flint and the Specter of Domestic Terrorism,” truthout, published March 3, 2016, https://truthout.org/articles/poisoned-city-flint-and-the-specter-of-domestic-terrorism/.
  23. Pena, “Black Public Art,” 611.
  24. “Water for Life Decade: The Human Right to Water and Sanitation,” United Nations, last modified May, 2014, https://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/human_right_to_water.shtml.
  25. Logan, “The Flint,” 48.
  26. Ibid., 49.
  27. Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art, third edition, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2014), 81.
  28. Ibid., 88.
  29. Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 43.
  30. Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 43.
  31. Ibid., 13.
  32. Ibid., 3 (italics in original).
  33. Christina Sharpe, “Black Studies: In the Wake,” The Black Scholar 44, no. 2 (2015), https://doi.org/10.1080/00064246.2014.11413688, 60.
  34. Tomeka M. Robinson, Garrett Shum, Sabrina Singh, “Politically Unhealthy: Flint’s Fight Against Poverty, Environmental Racism, and Dirty Water,” Journal of International Crisis and Risk Communication Research 1, no. 2 (2018): 309.
  35. Sharpe, In the Wake, 88.
  36. Christine Okoth, “Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” European Journal of American Studies 1, no. 1 (2018), http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/12485, 3.
  37. Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton, “Introduction,” in Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, ed. Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton (London: Verso, 2016), II.
  38. Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 10.
  39. Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 19.
  40. Ibid., 27.
  41. Kathleen Gray and Julie Bosman, “Nine Michigan Leaders Face Charges in Water Crisis That Roiled Flint,” New York Times, January 14, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/14/us/rick-snyder-flint-water-charges.html.
  42. Gray and Bosman, “Nine Michigan”.
  43. Winter Keefer, “Proposed Flint $641M Water Crisis Settlement Includes 30 Claim Process Categories,” The Flint Journal via MLive.com, November 18, 2020, https://www.mlive.com/news/flint/2020/11/proposed-flint-641m-water-crisis-settlement-includes-30-claim-process-categories.html.
  44. Sharpe, In the Wake, 21.
  45. Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 15.
  46. Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (New York: Liveright, 2016), 5.
  47. Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 6.
  48. Ibid., 6-7.
  49. Ibid., 6.
  50. Nakiya Wakes, “The Flint Water Crisis,” Anglican Theological Review 100, no. 1 (2018): 143.
  51. Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 6.
  52. Wakes, “The Flint Water Crisis,” 143.
  53. Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 8.
  54. Asim, “A Conversation,” 31.
  55. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 16.
  56. Ibid., 17. Gilroy uses the term ‘chronotope,’ directly referencing Mikhail Bakhtin’s coining of the term to reflect the relationship between space and time as expressed within artistic endeavours. Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1984).
  57. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 17.
  58. TJ Demos, “Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology: An Introduction” Third Text 27, no.1 (2013): 6, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09528822.2013.753187.
  59. Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 61.
  60. Ibid., 6.
  61. Posner Weisbach, Climate Change Justice, 11.
  62. Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 19.
  63. Clorinde Peters, “Visualizing Disposability: Photographing Neoliberal Conflict in the United States,” Afterimage 144, no. 6 (2017), 6-11.
  64. Pena, “Black Public Art,” 611.
  65. Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 27.
  66. Suzanne C. Eichenlaub, Stweart E. Tolnay and J. Trent Alexander, “Moving Out but Not Up: Economic Outcomes in the Great Migration,” American Sociological Review 75, no. 1 (2010): 101.
  67. Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, xiii.
  68. Robinson, Shum and Singh, “Politically Unhealthy,” 315.
  69. Jennifer Li, “Soft Power,” ArtAsiaPacific 117, no. 1 (2020), 94.
  70. Peters, “Visualising Disposability,” 11.
  71. Asim, “A Conversation,” 30.

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