Photojournalism in the Flint Water Crisis: Uncovering Racism and Negligence
by Aarya Mishra
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
–The Pledge of Allegiance of the United States
Every morning, thousands of American children recite this standing up with their hand over their heart facing the flag hanging in their classroom. They are taught from a young age that their nation is one of the finest and most just societies in the world, but there are spindling cracks and hidden truths that lie beneath the foundations of this country. Not everyone gets equal liberty nor equal justice, especially in cases that present themselves as public health issues such as gun violence, opioid abuse, and the COVID-19 pandemic. One public health crisis refused to be ignored a few years prior: the Flint water crisis. It is a government disaster that continues to be documented and explored by journalist Jake May. His photojournalism series Flint Water Crisis: The Mistakes Made, The Lives Affected (ongoing) communicates much more than the devastation of the Flint public health catastrophe. His photos reveal the crisis’s primary causes: environmental racism (i.e. harmful race-based environmental policies) through his use of repetition and governmental negligence through comparison.
The water crisis began in April 2014 and continues to affect Flint, although the city is currently excavating water service lines and replacing lead pipes (progress in this field has been slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic). In 2013, appointed by then Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, an unelected government official favored a cheaper alternative of temporarily pumping Flint River water into its residents’ homes instead of providing treated water from Detroit. The river water was highly corrosive and was not treated, leading to lead leaching out from the water pipes into Flint’s water supply. Many of Flint’s children experienced unsafe blood-lead levels, a devastating outcome because their age group is irreparably negatively affected by increased lead levels. This was not the only issue Flint water created: government officials maintained that the water was safe to consume even after residents complained of the discoloration and taste. Later, Flint experienced the third largest outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in U.S. history, killing twelve people (Denchak). The context of May’s series is extremely grim.
Why is a photojournalism series not only appropriate but an exemplary tool to analyze this crisis? Photojournalism presents a unique opportunity to explore a narrative that usually serves to promote a clear argument. Visual culture can represent a narrative just as well as a textual artifact can. It has similar rules to written language that lend to its ability to tell a story. As Jonathan Silverman and Dean Rader claim in The World is a Text, the notion of composition makes visual culture readable: “…the composition of a work of art is the plan or placement of the various elements of the piece” followed by “…the various components of a painting or a photograph contribute to the piece’s effect” (Silverman and Rader 203). Examples of the visual components the authors aforementioned are color, texture, balance, and proportion. These elements translate to components like syntax, grammar, repetition, and other rhetorical devices in text. It is through this parallelism that we prove visual culture can tell a story the way written language can. Thus, photojournalists can use artistic elements in their comprising images to portray a narrative. Compared to other analytical tools, like essays or TV interviews, images offer more room for interpretation by the audience through the freedom of visual culture but still presents a concrete rhetorical situation as would any other analytical tool. We can use this methodology to employ the components of the visual culture of photojournalism to analyze it visually and textually.
May’s series provides insight into the lives affected in Flint, including people from various socioeconomic backgrounds, age ranges, racial backgrounds, sexualities, and “sides” of the government versus the people. Each of the forty-one images is accompanied by an in-depth caption providing context from oftentimes the subject themselves. The series captures moments of anguish, fury, and indescribable pain in Flint, leaving a strong impression on its audience. It has received numerous awards and was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Feature Photography, speaking volumes of the caliber of the work. The rhetor himself is a Flint native, a wholly appropriate title for the person creating a collection of photographs that encompasses his city’s narrative.
Narratives are what make photojournalism such a potent mechanism in rhetorical analysis. Narratives as Bazerman claims in What Writing Does and How It Does It: an Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices, are stories that have an “argumentative function” and that “[S]torytelling is both a matter of consensus building and of what is lately called distributed cognition, cognitive frameworks that allow people to think and work together” (Bazerman 38). May masterfully utilizes a single image to promote a particular narrative about a single Flint family or resident or uses a whole string of images grouped together to enhance either one of his two main arguments: the presence of environmental racism or the presence of governmental negligence in Flint. In this series, the images come together to establish a narrative in helping people act together to fight for their water rights against the government.
“Environmental Racism Is a Big Problem” Is an Understatement
America has a dark past with environmental racism, which is typically defined as “the disproportionate exposure of blacks [and other racial minorities] to polluted air, water and soil” (Eligon). May uses several rhetorical strategies to highlight environmental racism as a leading cause of the water crisis, including repetition and emotional appeal.
A specific example in the series brings attention to May’s message regarding race in the crisis. In the 40th photo in the series, an African American woman, Amanda Chatman, stands looking exhausted in the foreground with her seven-year-old grandson coming up to her shoulder and her four-year-old granddaughter standing barefoot with a bright pink dress on. Her house is in disarray in the background: the fence no longer stands upright, the lawn is unkept, and a solitary water bottle stands tilted near the front porch. Her family is part of the 53.7% African American population in Flint (U.S. Census), a demographic May doesn’t shy away from depicting to further his message about environmental racism in Flint. In this photo, May captures a single impoverished black family in Flint, one of many, that has to face the daily trials and tribulations of the water crisis. May’s work shows that all Flint residents, regardless of race, are affected by the crisis, but he suggests a larger issue of race at hand with the subjects he primarily chooses to portray. Over half of the photos in the series depict black families and residents in Flint: an African-American man has tears rolling down his face as he describes how he has lost his faith in the government (May 17); two young black children dressed up in Halloween costumes walk past warning signs to not drink from their school water fountains as they walk through the hallway (May 18). The composition of May’s photos are raw and leave every motif of race, poverty, and suffering laid out bare. May’s repetition of African American subjects in his series also highlights an important message. While both black and nonblack Flint residents suffered because of the health crisis, a majority of residents were African American. It is suspicious that a health disaster of this magnitude occurred in a town where a national minority (African Americans) was its racial majority and the poverty rate was 40.4 %, well above the nation average of 10.5 % (U.S. Census). An ugly yet necessary question arises: would this crisis have even occurred or have reached this degree of severity if Flint was less impoverished and more white?
Several others have tried to address this question and the role of racism in Flint. The general argument made by Carla Campbell, Rachael Greenberg, Deepa Mankikar, and Ronald D. Ross in their article A Case Study of Environmental Injustice: The Failure in Flint, is that environmental injustice strongly contributed to the water catastrophe in Flint, Michigan. More specifically, the authors quote previous studies regarding environmental injustice and environmental racism to argue for the detrimental presence of environmental injustice based on race present in the Flint crisis. They write, “He [Dr. Robert Bullard, dean of the School of Public Health at Texas Southern University] continues, ‘It takes longer for the response and it takes longer for the recovery in communities of color and low-income communities.’ He explains that regional EPA officials and state officials in Michigan responded first with a cover-up, ‘and then defensively—either trying to avoid responsibility or minimizing the extent of the damage’, as contrasted with handling of other environmental problems in predominantly white communities” (Campbell Greenberg, Mankikar, Ross 4). The authors believe the delayed response and initial attempt to ignore the water crisis in Flint was a result of environmental racism as previous cases have shown the time to respond to environmental disasters in predominantly white communities is much shorter. The authors’ ideas echo May’s message with his decision to reflect the racial majority of African Americans in his series. More specifically, May’s series explores the cause and effect of environmental racism as outlined by the authors by referencing Flint’s racial demographics. Although the authors may object that the chosen subjects of a photojournalism series may not best reflect the impact of environmental racism, I maintain that May’s decision to primarily depict African American Flint residents and their struggles only strengthens his argument about environmental racism through repetition. May repeats his racial message not only through repeating depicting a specific racial demographic, but with motifs highlighting racial injustices in Flint. May repeatedly depicts the conditions of his black subjects as depressing and reminiscent of images of poor African Americans throughout American history facing racial inequality by society and the U.S. government from the Reconstruction era up to the 1960s. Even the rallying cry for the Flint crisis is related to black Americans: Flint Lives Matter, similar to Black Lives Matter, a movement advocating against racially motivated violence against black people. May captures black Flint residents wearing Flint Lives Matter in protest in several of his photos, a decision meant to steer the audience to consider the racial aspect of the crisis in the same way they view the Black Lives Matter movement- both as chronicles of racism.
When a City’s Pleas For Help Are Ignored
One of the most direct messages May communicates through his series is one of governmental negligence and how it contributed to escalating the water crisis in Flint. May achieves this through comparing the literal images of those in control and those control less. Government officials had control over Flint’s water and over how the devastation following was handled while Flint residents had no control over where their water was coming from and had to fight for their rights as a consequence of being at the mercy of a government that simply didn’t care about them enough.
Arguably the most powerful visual comparison in May’s series is made between a Flint resident and the former governor of Michigan. The focus of the 17th photo in the series depicts Gerry Woodberry, a Flint resident suffering from the water crisis that has overtaken his city. The whites of his eyes are no longer white as tears roll down the cheeks of his pain hardened face. He looks away from the camera and towards something to the side as he shares how he has lost his trust in the government and the way he suffers from lichen planus, a condition Flint water has only made worse. May captures Woodberry’s leg earlier on in the series: several patches of hardened metallic-looking clumps litter his dark skin. His lichen planus looks like liquid mercury taking over his body. The government failed him and the others affected by the crisis when it chose to go with a cheaper and more dangerous alternative to supplying water to their city and then going on to ignore their initial pleas for help.
The portrait May paints of Woodberry starkly contrasts with the one he does of Governor Rick Snyder, thus highlighting governmental neglect in Flint. May’s 4th photo shows Governor Snyder at a hearing about the water crisis in Washington D.C. His white hair is neatly combed over his head and his bright red tie stands out from his crisp suit. He is about to be questioned for the crisis, but he is still in control of his own body. The whites of his eyes are still white as not a single tear rolls down his cheeks on his blank face. He most likely doesn’t have to worry about lichen planus attacking his body. He doesn’t need to worry about his children suffering from lead poisoning or dying from Legionnaires’ disease. He looks uncomfortable, but all he has to do is answer to the failure on his government’s part on taking action to save Flint and its people. The difference between the struggles of this man who swore to advocate for the people he represents and a man who suffered from the former’s actions is striking. The carelessness of a few leads to a disastrous effect on many.
The message of governmental negligence contributing to the Flint crisis is not a new one. However, May’s argument regarding it may be seen as nearing too loose as being based on interpretation, but it is backed by several other sources. Following NPR’s Merrit Kennedy’s timeline of the Flint crisis, Lead-Laced Water in Flint: A Step-By-Step Look at the Makings of a Crisis, it is clear to see the blatant carelessness on behalf of the government. In October 2014, General Motors stopped using water from the Flint River “fearing corrosion in its machines”; in February 2015, tests showed dangerously high lead levels in homes; in July 2015, Flint families were told to “relax” regarding the concern about lead levels (Kennedy). The rest timeline goes on to list several other studies that had to be done before the government began to attempt to control the health disaster. Like May shows in his series, Flint was at the mercy of a group that didn’t care enough about them to help early enough when the crisis could have been averted.
Another point that supports May’s argument for governmental negligence as a cause of the crisis includes the legal consequences of the disaster. The main summary point made by Theresa Waldrop in her article for CNN Flint residents can sue the federal government over water crisis, judge rules, is that residents of Flint, Michigan can file lawsuits against the federal government in connection to the water crisis because of the government negligence present in the public health disaster. She quotes a federal judge, “… the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] learned that State and local officials were misleading residents to believe that there was nothing wrong with the water supply” (Waldrop). She clearly states the government purposely misled Flint residents into believing their water supply was still safe, which was deemed by nearby universities that it was not. Waldrop reports on the blatant case of extremely harmful negligence by the government in Flint, Michigan, with evidence as the federal court ruling allowing residents to sue officials relating to the water crisis. The hard facts of this investigative reporting pair well with May’s message on the matter as he presents the injustice and the negative impact of such negligence the court rulings were partly based on. May’s implied message in his series about the government’s failure to ensure the safety of Flint is only backed by the court ruling Waldrop describes in her article. The court ruling serves as a legal form of evidence that points to how Flint was ignored and misled by the government.
Flint Isn’t a Single Story
While photojournalism encompasses many different visual and textual modes for analysis, it still has parameters. One story/photojournalism series should never be the sole story for an individual or a group of people, and it is important to acknowledge this. The rhetor has his own biases including his own motives. He chooses what he wants to capture and what stories he wants to perpetuate and publish. These are all valid concerns, but May’s series is still a unique, multidimensional amalgamation of different pictures and narratives: the audience sees the people who hold the power (the government) and were responsible for the crisis and they see the people who had no power and suffered from the consequences of former (Flint residents). Greater importance should be placed on exposing the wrongdoings of the people responsible for the disaster rather than the concern of the narrow scope of the lens, which isn’t narrow considering the diversity of the series’ subjects and messages.
We Can Do Better
The importance of examining the Flint water crisis cannot be stressed enough. Flint, Michigan isn’t the only place in the U.S. that suffers from a public health crisis. Unfortunately, there are countless parallels between Flint’s story and similar narratives in the country like the water shortages in the Navajo Nation where an estimated 30% of the population has no access to running water. The Flint crisis brought much needed attention to other ongoing health crises in the country as it opened Americans’ eyes to the reality that their country needs to improve in certain areas. May’s series in particular shows its audience images they would have never associated with such a developed country as the United States. The photos not only bring surface-level attention to the pain caused by the crisis, but also to the lack of environmental justice in the abundance of environmental racism and to the catastrophic impact of governmental negligence on Flint. May’s work brings awareness to the common people of America of what is happening to people like them in Flint, how something like clean water isn’t being guaranteed to all in their own country.
According to Natalija Fisher in Lessons learned from Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, one of the main things the American people have learned from the crisis is that “investing in infrastructure is about protecting lives” (Fisher). My analysis examines how lives were not protected in Flint by analyzing May’s series and its messages exploring the failures of the government. Ultimately, a lack of interest in infrastructure contributed to the overall governmental bluster. America needs to reinvest in itself today for a brighter future for tomorrow.
The true story of Flint isn’t only found in articles, hearings, statistics, and timelines. It is in the faces of those who have lost their loved ones. It is in the communities that have been broken. It is in the voices of those who were silenced and ignored for so long. Jake May elevates these faces, communities, and voices through the power of photojournalism, providing an example of how powerful the art form is in bringing awareness to social injustices. He delivers a more complete understanding of the water crisis to his audience, something essential in combating decades-old policies and practices of environmental injustices and negligence. It is important to move forward armed with the knowledge that no nation is perfect, but by continuing to raise the voices of those with no voice and listening to those voices, perhaps one day the United States can become a country where there truly is liberty and justice for all.
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Aarya Mishra is a sophomore at the University of San Francisco and a recipient of the J. Paul Getty Scholarship in the Honors College. On the premed track, Aarya is majoring in biology with minors in neuroscience and chemistry. She is extremely passionate about bringing awareness to the lack of accessible healthcare and exploring equitable solutions.
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