Michael P. Smith Fund For Documentary Photography 2017 Grantee Stacy Kranitz, First Place Stacy Kranitz: First Place, MPS 2017I recently began working on a project about Cancer Alley, a 100-mile, pollution-ridden industrial corridor along the Mississippi River, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The communities affected by the pollution are predominately African American. Alsen, Louisiana is a town established in 1872 by the Freedman's Bureau to help former black slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War. In the 1950's, the Baton Rouge city council voted to rezone the land from Agriculture to Industry. The re-zoning faced little opposition because there were very few registered voters of color. Nine polluting facilities quickly grew to surround the community of Alsen and St Irma Lee.
Alsen was the first community to rise up and complain of health and quality of life impacts. This led to a lawsuit in 1987. The resulting settlement was the first of its kind and signaled the beginning of an environmental justice movement.
When I went to Alsen, I thought there would be no smells since the offending facility had shut down long ago. I was shocked to learn that last year the city approved a permit for the Ronaldson Field Debris Landfill to open in the center of Alsen. Racism, greed by debris entrepreneurs and mismanagement by city and state officials has plagued this community for more than 60 years.
I reached out to local non-profits with years of organizing experience. They told me they organized a meeting but it failed to achieve any result. I reached out to lawyers, who have the power and resources to fight the corporations but they requested air and water testing before they would commit to the case. The media occasionally presents the narrative of environmental racism to a mass audience but they can only afford to spend a handful of days investigating the issue. Often this results in a surface level narrative that captivates an audience for a few minutes until they have moved on to some other significant cause facing disenfranchised people.
This caused me to dig deeper into my own abilities to come up with something useful I could do. I began having meetings with members of the community. I realized there is value in documentation beyond journalism and lawsuits. I asked the community if they would be interested in working with me to create a document that will include oral histories, photographs, smell reports and health questionnaires. We will commission environmental testing because even if it does not change anything, the community has a right to know if the dump is contributing to their health issues. Even if they don't get any money and the government refuses to close the landfill, the families living in the community will have a record of the damage.
It is an act of resistance to illuminate an ignored history. Funding from MPS will allow a community who has only been shown they don't matter, that they do. I realize that all I have in the face of something so wrong is a passion for documentation and the equipment and skills to produce an inclusive community document.
My work explores history, representation, and otherness within the documentary tradition. I use photography to open up a narrative that confronts our understanding of culture; one poised between notions of what is right and what is wrong. I am interested in carving out a path that explores the subjective relationship to the people I photograph, resulting in images that are meant to implicate the photographer as well as the viewer.
I was born in Kentucky and received a BFA from New York University and an MFA from the University of California, Irvine. My work has been featured in publications including Adbusters, Elle, Granta, Mother Jones, New York Times Magazine, Oxford American, Rolling Stone, Vice, and Wired.