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Artist Calls For Empathy in Visual Media

By Angela N. Fu, Contributing Writer

Audience members of the “Socially Engaged: Public and Private Storytelling” lecture at the Harvard Art Museums witnessed first-hand the importance of emphasizing humanity in visual media Monday night.

Sarah E. Lewis ’01, assistant professor of History of Art and Architecture and of African and American Studies, introduced artist LaToya Ruby Frazier by first invoking the words of President John F. Kennedy ’40. A video of him speaking on the role of art in society kicked off the lecture.

“We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda, it is a form of truth,” he said in the video.

As Kennedy’s words lingered in the room, Frazier, who Lewis described as an artist who “soulfully lives out the ideals that JFK spoke about,” highlighted one of her most recent projects—her photographic work in Flint, Michigan for Elle magazine.

In covering Flint, Frazier said she had hoped to capture a more human side of the water crisis and had wanted to focus on the people who were suffering, an aspect of the story that she argued most major media outlets had neglected.

“The more I watched the magazines send in different photographers, I realized they were sending them in and bringing them out too quickly. These were some of the most prolific photojournalists out there, and they only left them in for a day,” Frazier said. “It’s all spectacle.”

Frazier spent five months in Flint, working very closely with Shea Cobb, a local resident, whom she described as “a divine appointment” who inspired her work. In keeping with her goal to promote the stories of marginalized people, Frazier played a clip from Cobb’s poem “Unfiltered,” which detailed her struggles during the crisis.

“People who are struggling day to day, living paycheck to paycheck, living under the worst conditions—they’re the most educated, smartest people in our society,” Frazier said. “If you want to know what a creative solution is in this situation, ask them because they’ve been living there for decades.”

The lecture was an extension of Lewis’s recent work. At the urging of Frazier, Lewis had accepted an offer to guest-edit an Aperture Magazine issue dedicated to the photography of the African American experience. The issue, “Vision & Justice,” inspired Lewis’s most recent class HAA 176E: “Vision and Justice: The Art of Citizenship” and a corresponding temporary installation at the museum.

Local resident Mu-Chieh Yun who attended the event said that Frazier’s talk would change the way she approached storytelling in her own work.

“It’s propelling me to be more confrontational in the work we’re doing and to not pay attention to building a larger readership,” Yun said. “If we’re able to tell the story and maintain its integrity, then we’re doing justice for the people we are interviewing.”

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