LaToya Frazier, a photographer who documents social issues and inequalities across the United States, spoke in the Anderson Center‘s Chamber Hall on Thursday evening in an event titled “Art, in Defense of Equality.”
Frazier, who was born and raised in Braddock, Pennsylvania, started photographing her hometown when she was 16 years old. An industrial city, Braddock was mainly supported by the steel industry during the first portion of the 20th century. Following the collapse of several large steel companies during the 1970s and 1980s, the town was left in a financial depression. Much of Frazier’s childhood was marked by poverty, racism and environmental damage.
At 18 years old, Frazier left her hometown to attend college at the Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. There, she met Kathe Kowalski, a professor who became one of her earliest mentors. Frazier graduated with a bachelor’s of fine arts in applied media arts, and went on to gain her masters of fine arts in art photography from Syracuse University.
“While I was studying, I was challenged to learn and unlearn, and re-examine my identity and place in society,” Frazier said. “It was a very formative time for me.”
Following college, Frazier continued to photograph Braddock. She photographed the Campaign for Braddock Hospital protests, which were incited following an announcement by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center stating that the hospital would be closing and demolished. She has also photographed the Braddock Inclusion Project, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the recent Flint water crisis.
These events have led her to tie her art into social justice and use it as a visual representation of the struggles of everyday Americans.
“It is my responsibility to understand that once [my photographs] are placed on the wall, that’s when the work begins,” Frazier said. “It is about education on social inequalities, not my personal accomplishments.”
Frazier’s first book, “The Notion of Family,” was published in 2014 and has received numerous awards, including the International Center of Photography Infinity Awards, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the Guggenheim Fellowship. She is currently an assistant professor of photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her work has been exhibited internationally.
Vivian Batista, a first-year graduate student studying public administration, also attended the event. She said she was inspired by Frazier and hopes that she can use Frazier’s experience to influence her work.
“I am impressed; she’s definitely an inspiration to me,” Batista said. “I am an artist and this helped me understand how to make art. I have a ton of ideas now.”
Joe Thomas, an undeclared freshman, said he felt that Frazier’s experiences were comparable to his own. He said he identified with Frazier’s work and her reference to how a popular TV show signified an escape from a tough childhood.
“When she was describing how she grew up watching ‘The Cosby Show’ to escape her poverty, I thought that it exemplified how I grew up in the Bronx,” Thomas said. “I think it’s great that she was able to use her platform to make people aware of the line between those who have privilege and those who do not.”
Frazier said she plans to continue using her work to promote social activism, both in Braddock and in other cities across the United States.
“We don’t see images like the ones from Braddock in museums,” Frazier said. “I’m trying to be a responsible artist standing in the gap between the working class and the creative class. My responsibility is to speak to both sides and find a way to rectify the situation.”