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LaToya Ruby Frazier Uses Her Camera to Fight For Her Community

LaToya Ruby Frazier Uses Her Camera to Fight For Her Community
By Lauren Cavalli 
Images by Joe Librandi-Cowan

Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier’s first book, The Notion of Family, documents three generations of women in her family: Grandma Ruby, her Mom, and herself. Yet, it is no ordinary family album. After working for ten years on the project, the book was published in September by Aperture, a non-profit foundation that supports photographers.

On Oct. 30, Frazier read several passages from her book during a lecture she gave at the Robert B. Menschel Media Center at Syracuse University. The SU alum is primarily a photographer, but also works in performance art and videography.

In The Notion of Family, she captures the effects of the industrial landscape of Braddock Pennsylvania on its community and conveys this complex dynamic through an intimate portrait of her family. She focused on the social, economic, physical, and emotional toll of growing up with Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, the Edgar Thomas Works, as a neighbor.

“The shadow of the steel mill hovered above us,” Frazier said. The mill, which has operated since 1875, omits toxins that slowly poison the community. “The haze that forms the sky is millions of tiny particles. They pass through my lungs into my bloodstream. Like carbon monoxide, they are odorless and have the potential to kill.”

In Oct. 2009, the community was informed that the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) would close Braddock Hospital, said Frazier. She is unforgiving of the hospital’s abandoning of its people and showcases photos of her family receiving care for their illnesses, people protesting its closing, and now, how the hospital decays from lack of use after it closed its doors and stands as a memorial to economic decline.

She stressed the importance of keeping a critical eye on television, the news, radio, and social media and urged the audience to be aware of how they affect one’s notion of what constitutes us as people – race, class, gender and religion.

Frazier recalled when she first discovered that Andrew Carnegie library in Braddock omits all African Americans from the historic suburb’s history.

“Peoples’ histories and narratives are all constructed. It is important I insert myself into my history,” Frazier said.

Frazier stands up to institutional racism and environmental degradation with her camera. Her photos of her family are a testament to the community’s ability to endure.

“I want to shed light on invisible realities,” Frazier said.

In her hometown new housing projects are being built, more people will be able to live there, but with the closing of the hospital they have nowhere to go for healthcare in a polluted city. She told the audience of the progress that Braddock is making today; artists are moving in; retail stores are opening; cultural capitol is coming in.

“They don’t think I have a right to tell this story – I am making Braddock look bad. They say: we moved beyond this,” Frazier said.

She acknowledges that revitalization efforts are happening in Braddock, but remains critical. “A restaurant was put in the Braddock mayor’s apartment building. What we needed is a grocery store, not a restaurant we can’t afford,” Frazier said.

Frazier intends to continue telling the people of Braddock’s story by “photographing it, seeing it, speaking to it, and trying to educate.”

At the conclusion of the lecture, Frazier expressed her hopes of using the money from her book sales and her prints to one day start a foundation to advocate for, help, and support the families living in Braddock amongst the city’s blatant ironies today.

“This is more than just an art book, a photo book, its my photo history – an American life – my relationship with my family and my community,” Frazier said. “A descendant of Scottish, African, Braddonian, blue-collar, steel workers, I embrace my heritage.”

The Girl Next Door: Visiting Photographer’s Scoop on How She Finds Stories

The Girl Next Door: Visiting Photographer’s Scoop on How She Finds Stories
By Lauren Cavalli

Adjectives. Adjectives and adverbs. When trying to capture a person’s character, professional documentary photographer Melissa Lyttle says to, “Ask people: How would you describe yourself to people who don’t know you?”

Then, she recommends trying to embody one of the adjectives or adverbs the person tells you with your camera.

Lyttle spoke to Syracuse University students and faculty at the Newhouse School while participating in the Fall Workshop, a four-day multimedia marathon where industry professionals mentored students in storytelling, Oct. 16 -19.

While working for the Tampa Bay Times as a staff photographer, Lyttle did a series called Dispatches from Next Door. Lyttle and a reporter showcased the lives of ordinary Floridians.

“Everybody has a story,” Lyttle said.

Inspired by National Geographic’s Zipcodes, a feature that shows people what different communities are like, Dispatches Next Door allowed Lyttle to dig deeper into the lives of people in her own community.

“I want to introduce people to their neighbors,” Lyttle said.

Lyttle sees stories everywhere. “Read the walls,” she suggested. A can at a convenience store counter asking for donations for two little girls’ lemonade stand, a flyer tacked to a bulletin board, the classifieds section of a newspaper, diners, community centers, all of these are places brimming with stories yet, to be explored.

Throughout Lyttle’s career, her earned reputation for photographing people with respect resulted in people reaching out to her and asking for her to cover stories. She ascribes this to her ability to photograph a subject with real understanding.

Once, Lyttle said, she received a call asking her to work on a story involving a feral child who had been neglected for the first seven years of her life by the people who were supposed to be her family. According to Lyttle’s website, the photo series and accompanying article received more responses from the public than any other story for the paper. Lyttle and Tampa Bay Times reporter Lane DeGregory were nominated for Pulitzer Prizes. DeGregory won the 2009 Pulitzer for Feature Writing.

As she spoke to the crowd at Newhouse about this shoot, and talked about the girl who had to learn what love is, Lyttle’s voice was filled with emotion. There was no questioning Lyttle’s passion for photography and her admiration for the resilience of people who may be living next door.

Melissa Lyttle, from  Dispatches From Next Door

Melissa Lyttle, from Dispatches From Next Door

Introducing Lauren Cavalli, Light Work Blog Correspondent

Introducing Lauren Cavalli, Light Work Blog Correspondent

Light Work is pleased to introduce Lauren Cavalli as our new Light Work Blog Correspondent. Lauren is currently a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at the Newhouse School for Public Communications at Syracuse University. She will be contributing several posts a month on a variety of topics of interest to photographers in and around New York State. Posts will be made every Friday.

We look forward to working with Lauren, building new content on the Light Work blog for our vibrant community of photography professionals and enthusiasts.

Contact Lauren Cavalli at lcavalli@syr.edu.

Contact Jessica Posner, Communications Coordinator at Light Work, at jessica@lightwork.org or 315.443.1263.

 

 

Travel Photography is Not About Travel

Travel Photography is Not About Travel 
By Lauren Cavalli

 

“Do you have a moon in America?” asked Alio Balde, a young boy from Guinea Bissau, West Africa.

National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale said that this question has guided her approach to photography ever since. She was amazed that Alio, as he was saying goodbye to her and trying to imagine what her home in America was like, did not know whether Americans lived under the same sky. From that moment on Vitale decided she wanted to capture what it is we share as human beings instead of showcasing how we are all different. For Vitale we are all the same. We are all human.

“We are all so filled with ignorance, on all sides, and it’s so polarizing,” Vitale said. She gave advice to photographers during a talk at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School to a packed auditorium, Thursday, Oct. 16.  “Photographing and showing what is different about us is easy.”

In 2000, Vitale was awarded a grant from the Alexia Foundation, an institution that honors the death of Newhouse School student Alexia Tsairis, 20, who lost her life in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The foundation provides grants and scholarships to photographers working toward exposing social injustices. The grant allowed Vitale to travel to Africa, where she lived for six months, and became friends with Alio Balde.

Vitale has traveled the world; she has photographed in 85 countries. Yet, she claims that travel photography is not about travel. “It’s about getting intimate with people,” Vitale said. “People are the story.”

She advised the audience to slow down when telling a story. “Sometimes the news industry just reacts then moves on, but to tell a good story you need time,” Vitale said.  “If you feel like an image is worth making, don’t be afraid to work for it.”

Vitale describes herself as introverted; the camera empowers her. “The attention is on other people, and it empowers them as well.”

Advice she gave to photographers included not being overwhelmed by all of the amazing technology. She noted that sometimes people let their gear get in the way and they end up missing a great moment unfolding before them.

If you are learning photography Vitale encouraged starting in your own backyard. “There are millions of stories that need to be told and they’re right outside your door.”

When traveling Vitale said that 99 percent of the time she is dealing with poor lighting, a problem almost every photographer is familiar with. Instead of fretting about not being able to control the light Vitale goes indoors to shoot. “When people take you inside of their own homes the interior landscapes can make great moments,” Vitale said.

When talking about safety, Vitale urged the audience to research a place thoroughly before traveling.  She emphasized the importance of establishing a contact in that country because it’s better to know someone who lives locally.  If you don’t have a contact, she suggested asking colleagues if they have any. Upon arriving, her first move is to meet the community leaders of an area. If you do this and explain to them what you are doing then you will be granted greater access into people’s lives.

“Photography shouldn’t always be about taking,” Vitale said. “It’s about giving back.” Vitale tries to always give gifts. Wherever she shoots she finds the closest one-hour photo shop and makes prints, then she runs around handing them out to the people she had photographed as a token of her appreciation and a memento from her visit.