LaToya Ruby Frazier

Art as Transformation: A Lens for Social Change

By: Erica Cardwell

The 2017 Othering and Belonging Conference kicked off with a keynote address from acclaimed photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier, best known for her striking images that shed light on the human and environmental casualties of systemic issues. Entitled Art as Transformation: a Lens for Social Change, the MacArthur Genius Grant recipient made an eloquent argument for the use of imagery in seeding real change and cultural transformation that can fundamentally alter the picture those in marginalized communities have of themselves. In her talk, Frazier detailed how she uses photography to fight injustice and create a more representative self-portrait.

Her book, The Notion of Family, exemplifies such themes by serving as an artistic and intimate post-industrial monograph of her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania from the fraught perspective of the women in her family and the notion of the Black matriarch. Through an aerial viewpoint of Braddock, the steel mills vein their way through the town, tender and taut like “scars on a human body.” Her book “is about showing human pain and what capitalism does to humans and bodies," she said.

Art as Transformation: A Lens for Social Change, a Keynote Address by LaToya Ruby Frazier

Frazier’s work poses such as questions as: What happens to us when water is privatized? Or to our food supply when we are sick and cannot work? Or to the many of us who are overmedicated, wrongly medicated, and left to decay in hospital beds? Frazier shared that her mother had been treated poorly by a US hospital while on life support. Frazier fought—and was even arrested at one point—but refused to acquiesce to the hospital’s plans to take her mother off life support, ultimately ensuring that her mother received the care she deserved. People in marginalized communities are not only removed from history, she said, but their bodies are also polluted with neglect, which can oftentimes mold into autoimmune disorders, mental health challenges, or Lupus, which Frazier herself lives with.

“It’s not just us being gunned down,” she said. “It's a slow kill” as people of color live under a cloud of contaminated air but then continue to be treated improperly when seeking help.

Frazier shared that she was recently commissioned by a Belgian museum to photograph a coal mining village in the region, bringing the town’s most sustainable resource into focus much like she had done with in her own hometown of Braddock. She found that many of the workers at the Belgian factory were from Sardinia, and were working to build better lives for their families, despite struggling under poor conditions for decades—just like the workers she had photographed in Braddock. When Frazier arrived, many of the workers met her with skepticism, saying “Why are you here? You’re a woman, you’re American, and you’re Black. Contemporary art does not respect the working class.”

Yet Frazier sought to do just that: demonstrate that art can be a voice for the disenfranchised when these community’s own stories remain unheard and unacknowledged by those in power or by the larger (capitalist) system itself. Moreover, Frazier argued, it can actually be of service to be Othered. Among people of color, she said, Otherness can transform into belonging, as those who are marginalized find safety, understanding, and a sense of home in those who share their experiences.

Much like the steel mills that weave their way through the town of Braddock, the coal tips in this small Belgian town produce trees. Frazier concluded her address by reminding the audience, “from a coal tip, a tree will rise.”


photo by Eric Arnold, see more photos on our Facebook page.