LaToya Ruby Frazier grew up in the shadow of a steel mill in Braddock, Pennsylvania. The mill, a few miles up the river from Pittsburgh, has been in continuous operation since 1875, and the nearby land has long suffered the ravages of its toxic waste—as have the people living around it. That’s the subject of the 33-year-old Frazier’s unsparing new book, The Notion of Family, which compiles a decade of collaborative portraits of the women in her family alongside photographs documenting Braddock’s broader demise, particularly as it affects its black population. We spoke over the phone about making art in a poor town and how young photographers can learn to wield their cameras like self-protective weapons.
Q. What inspired you to start your project in Braddock?
In my photography class at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, my mentor, Kathe Kowalski, had us read the book Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. He’s a theorist, and he uses two terms to describe the essence and the power of a photograph: a punctum and a studium. A punctum is a thing that you see in the image that pricks you and moves you. The studium is the subject in the photograph. So our assignment was to find an image that had a punctum and a studium and bring it in.
The next class, everyone is circulating their images, and we get to Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo, Migrant Mother. Everyone was saying, “It’s Dorothea Lange, you know, and it comes from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, during the Great Depression, where the Farm Security Administration sent photographers to the South.” But no one ever said who the lady in the photo was. I wanted to know this woman’s name. Here she is in this iconic American image, but they don’t really acknowledge her. In that very moment, the light bulb went off for me.
I identified with her social and economic struggle because of where I’m from. Her name was Florence Owens Thompson. So I set out asking myself one question: if Florence Owens Thompson could make her own self-portraits, what would they look like? I began collaborating and making portraits with my mother and my grandmother, thinking about how to reclaim our agency, and how to impact the narrative and the history that comes out of Braddock. Historically, there are no stories about women—let alone African-American women—in steel mill towns. They don’t exist.