With Her Camera, MacArthur 'Genius' Tells An African-American Rust Belt Story Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier is the third generation of her family to grow up in Braddock, Pa. For years, she says, African-American contributions to the town have been "overlooked and ignored."

With Her Camera, MacArthur 'Genius' Tells An African-American Rust Belt Story

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Throughout the show today, we are talking with the latest MacArthur Geniuses. One of them is LaToya Ruby Frazier. She's 33 years old, a photographer and video artist. Her work is set in her hometown, Braddock, Penn. It's a small town outside Pittsburgh, built on steel, now struggling to get by. LaToya Ruby Frazier, welcome and congratulations.

LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER: How are you doing? Thank you so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Your photos document African-Americans in Braddock, but focus a lot on your family as well - yourself, your mother, your grandmother. Tell me about the decision to turn the camera lens inward.

FRAZIER: In my work, I'm retelling the history of Braddock and the collapse of the steel industry and the subsequent 30 years of disinvestment through the bodies and the perspective and voices of my grandmother Ruby, my mother and myself. And my grandmother grew up in Braddock in the '30s and the '40s when it was prosperous and a melting pot, a city. And my mother grew up there in the '50s and the '60s during segregation and the beginning of white flight and the start of the collapse of the steel industry. And I grew up there in the '80s once the steel mills had downsized and they began to demolish them. And so because this type of narrative and perspective has never been told or seen, I felt obliged to, you know, use my camera to document what was actually happening to us.

SHAPIRO: We're going to post some of your photographs online at NPR.org so people can look at them. But there's an image of your grandmother who we watch getting more and more sick and dying over the course of your photography. And you document her decline, and there's one image of her in her recliner. It's very intimate. It almost feels intrusive to look at. Can you tell us about that?

FRAZIER: Yes. So my grandmother Ruby was a woman of very few words, was very serious, didn't like to talk about the past. You knew you were in trouble if she gave you this very intense look. And so...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That look that we see in that photograph.

FRAZIER: Exactly. She really didn't like me to make photographs. She only cooperated on maybe five or six, and this was one of them. And so it's a Saturday afternoon where I'm leaning over her with my 35mm camera. And we just pause and she actually looks into the lens, but she's really looking through the lens directly at me, almost like she's transferring some type of history without speaking a word. And as she looks at me intensely with that pensive stare, I clicked the shutter.

SHAPIRO: Did documenting the town you grew up in change your relationship to the town?

FRAZIER: Well, my curiosity about it - my - all the questions - you know, wanting to understand why did I live in this dilapidated house with my grandmother on this shrinking street? And because I had so many questions about my displacement and my plight and the disenfranchisement we were facing, I turned to the camera to try to get a little bit of distance to really look at it and understand head on what was actually occurring. Like, what was the crisis that was affecting my family socially, economically and politically?

SHAPIRO: Does it make you feel powerless to be documenting a crisis that you cannot change?

FRAZIER: Well, I actually feel the opposite. I feel very empowered by it because when you can take a strong look at a crisis and be able to understand all the different layers of how this is stratified and how it's structured, it helps you to deal with the loss and the struggle and the pain. And it also helps you to create a human document and archive and evidence of inequity, of injustice, of things that have been done to working-class people. And it's also a way of me writing people who were kept out of history into history and making us a part of that narrative, making us a part of the story of the steel industry.

SHAPIRO: That's LaToya Ruby Frazier, one of this year's MacArthur Genius fellows. Thank you and congratulations.

FRAZIER: Thank you.

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