Brittany Greeson: Framing Resilience in the Water Crisis of Flint, Michigan
As part of his morning routine before the school day, Jeremiah Loren, 12, uses bottled water to rinse while
brushing his teeth at his home in Flint, Michigan on January 20, 2016. © Brittany Greeson/The New York Times, 2016.
Courtesy of the artist.
I want to keep the attention on Flint. People are still living with this problem. People still can’t shower. People still can’t drink their water. That’s not going to change for awhile. — Brittany Greeson
BY ALISON REBA| THE WATER ISSUE | SUMMER 2016
For photojournalist Brittany Greeson, the most important aspect of her work is relationship building.
“Embedding yourself in the community is crucial because you offer a pair of eyes that national media don’t have,” she says. “You see what’s going on on a daily basis.”
Greeson’s photography series We Fear the Water on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan captures the intimacy of trauma. That is, the seemingly invisible issues, the things we don’t immediately think about when we hear an entire community lives with lead-contaminated water.
Dennis Walters helps bathe his twin sons Gavin and Garrett, 4, alongside his wife Lee Walters at their home on May 27, 2015 in Flint. The family rotates between having their sons bathe at their grandmother’s, who lives outside of the city, and using bottled water and baby wipes due to their assertion that their tap water had given the boys rashes. © Brittany Greeson/MLive.com, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
She photographs Flint residents in the privacy of their homes: a woman rinses chicken in the sink with bottled water as she prepares dinner, a father bathes his child with baby wipes, and a boy brushes his teeth without turning on the tap. These moments captured on camera evoke the visceral.
However, you see more than anxiety and fear in Greeson’s images. You also witness the resiliency of this community as young people distribute truckloads of water, police officers travel door-to-door to pass out filters to the elderly, and indigenous community members send prayers over the contaminated water and for the people of Flint.
Mona Stonefish, of Detroit, Michigan, pauses to send prayers over the Flint River before a Native American water ceremony and community event in downtown Flint on April 18, 2016. © Brittany Greeson, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
For Greeson, trust is the foundation for documenting these interactions.
“I enter someone’s [life] with the understanding that this is a gift,” she says. “This is a blessing that people let me into this space with them. You want to treat it with sanctity.”
Flint, a city of approximately 100,000 people, is majority black. Nearly half of residents live below the poverty line. However, they receive some of the highest water bills in the country. The water crisis began after Flint’s drinking water source was switched to the lead-contaminated Flint River in April of 2014 in an attempt to reduce costs.
Brick Da Foundation, a native of Flint, now a resident of Toledo, Ohio, rides along with a load of water to be delivered to Flint residents alongside members of New Era Detroit on February 20, 2016. © Brittany Greeson, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
Brenda Briggs, a native of Flint, pushes a grocery cart full of bottled water to her home, which was several blocks away from a water drive put on by volunteers on February 6, 2016. Briggs, a mother of three and grandmother of four, makes the journey to nearby water resource centers every week despite arthritis pains and diabetes. © Brittany Greeson/The Buffalo News, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
Yet, it took until December of 2015 for the city to declare an official State of Emergency. As of May 2016, the state will pay residents’ water bills in full, but only for the month. It’s unclear how and if credits will be applied in future months.
“The water crisis has been happening in Flint for almost two years,” says Greeson. “The water switch was in 2014 and it took people until 2016 to care? It infuriates me to this day. There were people protesting outside of city hall. There were things happening here that people didn’t really know about.”
While a senior at Western Kentucky University, Greeson took time off from school to intern with The Flint Journal in February of 2015. She arrived in Flint after reports of excess levels of the cancer-causing chemical byproduct TTHM were found in the water.
From there she began documenting the stages of the crisis. After completing her internship, the water crisis in Flint continued to heighten. Greeson knew her work was unfinished.
“I connected to Flint,” she says. “I talked to my professors and they agreed the story was really important.”
She dropped down to part-time status at her university, taking two online classes, and moved back to Flint in January of 2016. Her decision to return caused Greeson to reflect on her own connection to water and the responsibility that accompanies telling the stories of the residents she photographs.
Bertha White, 64, of Flint, opens her front door to officials to accept a new filter and jugs of water during a distribution to residents in North Flint by the Genesee County sheriff’s office and by people sentenced to community service on January 7, 2016.
© Brittany Greeson/The New York Times, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
“I wasn’t lead poisoned. I didn’t drink the poisoned water. I will never fully understand exactly what these people have gone through. But what I can do is listen. My goal is to make people care about Flint with my photos, to make them care about this community,” she says. “This isn’t just a Flint issue. This is a national issue.”
Flint’s future remains uncertain. The community is still recovering from economic disinvestment, school closures, and population decline.
As Greeson continues her We Fear the Water series, numerous questions linger: How will the lead impact children’s health as they grow up? Who will pay their medical bills? How will the economy and job market be affected? What will happen to the property values of people’s homes? Most importantly, who is going to replace the corroded and contaminated infrastructure for residents? And when?
“I want to keep the attention on Flint,” she says. “People are still living with this problem. People still can’t shower. People still can’t drink their water. That’s not going to change for awhile.”
Despite this uncertainty, the resiliency of this community is undeniable. Residents are not only demanding accountability, they’re also responding to the effects of the crisis on their own terms. People of all ages and racial backgrounds have come together to begin to rebuild, and are empowering one another in the process. They’re leading protests and organizing efforts, disseminating information and supplies, all the while lending needed emotional support to each other.
Greeson’s photographs present a restorative narrative that focuses on the ways residents are continuously proving to be self-sufficient. Her images serve to counteract much of the media’s news coverage, which concentrates on the tragedy and overlooks the community’s advances towards recovery.
Greeson insists that it’s the people of Flint who are truly shifting the narrative surrounding the water crisis.
“They’re willing to share their stories to benefit a community,” she says. “Those are the real heroes.”
Gail Morton, 64, of Flint, sobs as she watches protestors gather following a scheduled march with the Rev. Jesse Jackson that made its way from the Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle Church over a mile to the front of the City of Flint Water Plant, on February 19, 2016. “As a small child growing up you could almost see what our parents went through. We didn’t have the rights. We didn’t even have the rights to live in certain neighborhoods,” Morton said. “I am so proud today, I mean, I am really proud.” © Brittany Greeson, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
Alison Reba is a native of Gary, Indiana and currently a student at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Her concentration, Power Structures and Agents of Change, focuses on developing new frameworks to address social justice issues.
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