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TED2015

LaToya Ruby Frazier: A visual history of inequality in industrial America

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For the last 12 years, LaToya Ruby Frazier has photographed friends, neighbors and family in Braddock, Pennsylvania. But though the steel town has lately been hailed as a posterchild of "rustbelt revitalization," Frazier's pictures tell a different story, of the real impact of inequality and environmental toxicity. In this short, powerful talk, the TED Fellow shares a deeply personal glimpse of an often-unseen world.

- Photographer
LaToya Ruby Frazier focuses her camera lens on her family and her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, to explore themes of family, inequality, health care and environmental racism. Full bio

Along the ancient path
of the Monongahela River,
00:13
Braddock, Pennsylvania sits
in the eastern region of Allegheny County,
00:17
approximately nine miles
outside of Pittsburgh.
00:22
An industrial suburb,
00:28
Braddock is home
to Andrew Carnegie's first steel mill,
00:30
the Edgar Thomson Works.
00:34
Operating since 1875,
00:37
it is the last functioning
steel mill in the region.
00:39
For 12 years, I have produced
collaborative portraits,
00:45
still lifes, landscapes and aerial views
00:50
in order to build a visual archive
to address the intersection
00:54
of the steel industry,
00:59
the environment,
01:01
and the health care system's impact
on the bodies of my family and community.
01:03
The tradition and grand
narrative of Braddock
01:11
is mostly comprised of stories
of industrialists and trade unions.
01:14
Currently, the new narrative
about Braddock,
01:20
a poster child for Rust Belt
revitalization,
01:25
is a story of urban pioneers
discovering a new frontier.
01:28
Mass media has omitted the fact
that Braddock is predominantly black.
01:34
Our existence has been co-opted,
silenced and erased.
01:41
Fourth generation in a lineage of women,
01:47
I was raised under the protection
and care of Grandma Ruby,
01:51
off 8th Street
at 805 Washington Avenue.
01:56
She worked as a manager for Goodwill.
02:01
Mom was a nurse's aid.
02:07
She watched the steel mills close
and white flight to suburban developments.
02:08
By the time my generation
walked the streets,
02:16
disinvestment at the local,
state and federal level,
02:19
eroded infrastructure,
02:24
and the War on Drugs
dismantled my family and community.
02:26
Grandma Ruby's stepfather Gramps
02:33
was one of few black men to retire
from Carnegie's mill with his pension.
02:36
He worked in high temperatures,
02:40
tearing down and rebuilding furnaces,
cleaning up spilt metal and slag.
02:43
The history of a place is written
on the body and the landscape.
02:49
Areas of heavy truck traffic,
02:57
exposure to benzene and atomized metals,
03:00
risk cancer and lupus.
03:04
One hundred twenty-three licensed beds,
652 employees,
03:10
rehabilitation programs decimated.
03:15
A housing discrimination lawsuit
against Allegheny County
03:23
removed where the projects
Talbot Towers once stood.
03:27
Recent rezoning for more light industry
has since appeared.
03:33
Google Maps and Google Earth pixelations
conceal the flammable waste
03:39
being used to squeeze the Bunn family
off their home and land.
03:45
In 2013, I chartered a helicopter
03:53
with my cameras to document
this aggressive dispossession.
03:57
In flight, my observation reveals
thousands of plastic white bundles
04:05
owned by a conservation industry
04:10
that claims it's eco-friendly
04:13
and recycles millions of tires
04:15
to preserve people's lives
04:18
and to improve people's lives.
04:21
My work spirals from the micro
to the macro level,
04:25
excavating hidden histories.
04:30
Recently, at the Seattle Art Museum,
04:33
Isaac Bunn and I mounted this exhibition,
04:36
and the exhibition was used
as a platform to launch his voice.
04:40
Through reclamation of our narrative,
04:46
we will continue to fight historic erasure
and socioeconomic inequality.
04:49
Thank you.
04:56
(Applause)
04:58

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About the speaker:

LaToya Ruby Frazier - Photographer
LaToya Ruby Frazier focuses her camera lens on her family and her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, to explore themes of family, inequality, health care and environmental racism.

Why you should listen

TED Fellow LaToya Ruby Frazier uses photography, video and performance to address issues of industrialism, rustbelt revitalization, environmental justice, healthcare inequality, family and communal history. Some of her work, which features images of her mother and grandmother (Grandma Ruby) was published in her first book, The Notion of Family, which received the International Center for Photography Infinity Award.

She has exhibited her work widely in the United States and elsewhere, with solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, Seattle Art Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. She is an assistant professor of photography at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, having previously taught at Yale, Rutgers and Syracuse University.

LaToya received her BFA in applied media arts from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and her MFA in art photography from Syracuse University. She was the Guna S. Mundheim Fellow for visual arts at the American Academy in Berlin in 2013 and won a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 2014. She is also a 2015 MacArthur Fellow.

More profile about the speaker
LaToya Ruby Frazier | Speaker | TED.com