LaToya Ruby Frazier’s Social Practice

I’ve known about La Toya Ruby Frazier for several years now and I was most familiar with her work involving her mother and grandmother where she made photographs of her family in Braddock Pennsylvania. After reading this article in the NyTimes about her titled LaToya Ruby Frazier, American Witness I realized I knew almost nothing about her or her larger practice. I may have found my new favorite artist. There were so many aspects of this article that had me thinking “YES!” when they would describe how she worked or when they would quote her on the way she thinks about socially engaged art making. I particularly liked her response to being pigeon holed as being a Black artist making working about being Black. She says, “I’m really sensitive about people saying that I’m a Black artist making work about being Black,” she said. “No, I’m not. I’m an American artist making work about America and the crisis in this country.” This is exactly how I’ve felt about making work about social issues for a long time now. Her distinction about herself (and others) leaves a lot of room for others to make work that engages with and addresses the problems we have in our society. There’s no divisions except those being affected by issues and those in power who can do something about it. It also creates solidarity with her subjects who might be from communities where she might be an outsider but all of them are Americans.

The article starts with a description of how she gained access and started working on a recent project in Lordstown Ohio where a General Motors plant was going to stop making a certain model car and slash it’s workforce. Her initial interest or I should say outrage that led to this project was seeing that the stock price of GM soared 5% upon the news that the company was laying people off. The project ultimately began with the union members taking a vote on letting her in to photograph what was happening to them. A literal vote by the union on whether to grant her access or not. It’s a really wonderful description of a photographer getting access in such an explicit way. Many times permission or access isn’t so explicit but in this case the way in which the project took form seems really meaningful. Union members voting to let a photographer in and photograph their lives in a collaborative way specifically because their employer had decided to lay many of them off with no consideration of them or consultation with them.

Another description of her practice that really resonated with me was that “Socially conscious artistic practices may be in vogue these days, but Frazier goes beyond hollow claims of “raising awareness” with an essay in a magazine or a show at an art museum. She is the rare photographer who approaches relationships with her subjects as lifelong commitments, and who tries to make substantial, material differences in their lives.” Lifelong commitments…. I’ve never thought of my practice this way but I can’t seem to not stop talking with & engaging with the people I meet and photograph. I’m not really in a position where I’m able to make a “substantial, material difference” in someone’s life that I’ve worked with in a project but I’ve always felt that pull wishing that I could. There’s certainly a big difference from the “objective” fly by night photojournalist approach where you don’t engage with your subjects for more than the time it takes to get your picture and story. It’s a substantially harder way of working as projects take longer, take more of you and can become much more personal but it’s much more rewarding. It’s probably why I can’t put an end date to any of my projects and my impulse is to keep adding new ones. How does one stop making a project when they’ve made such deep and lasting connections with people? I know this was something that Sasha brought up in our SPE panel but it’s still a difficult and personal question I believe and something a socially engaged artists has to address individually.

Something that I think really sets Frazier apart from myself and probably most people is her isolation and single minded commitment to her work above even personal relationships. Frazier lives alone in the South Loop neighborhood of Chicago. She seldom dates, texts or uses social media. “I just think life is so short,” she said. “Why spend it on distractions when you could … make this place better than it was when you arrived? I don’t see any other reason to get up every morning.” Romantic companionship seems fundamentally incompatible with her ability to work. To be in a relationship is to “intentionally occupy yourself and distract yourself with other people’s stuff,” and that makes it impossible to realize your true purpose, she said. Hers is to serve others through her art. “I can’t really do that if I’m living, you know, in a very status quo kind of way.” I can’t even imagine living this way though, it seems so incredibly lonely. I can’t make work unless I have those personal relationships both connected to my work and not. I really admire this conviction of hers though to live and work like this. I wonder sometimes if how much time I spend on my work will ultimately cause problems with me and my wife. When I was in grad school I hardly saw her and I know it was incredibly lonely for her and while things have changed quite a bit since then including with covid-19 making us spend more time together, I often wonder if my practice could get to a point where it’s negatively affecting my relationships with people and most importantly my wife. Regardless, I have nothing but respect for Frazier after reading this article on her practice. She’s truly an inspiration.

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