Communication Currents

Portraiture Visualizes Pollution and Precarity in Toxically Assaulted Communities

April 1, 2015
Environmental Communication, Visual Communication

In cities and towns across the globe, poor people and people of color are disproportionately exposed to toxic pollution. Since the early 1980s, when residents of the mostly poor, black, and rural Warren County, N.C., protested the construction of a toxic waste landfill, activists have struggled for environmental justice. Environmental justice activists work towards the democratization of environmental decision-making and for more racially and economically just forms of distributing environmental harms. However, in their efforts to bring attention to the health and environmental impacts of toxic pollution, environmental justice activists and sympathetic journalists confront multiple invisibilities. Not only are toxins themselves invisible, but so, too, are the physical and mental symptoms they may cause, the pain and suffering they sometimes produce, and the political communities they most often impact.

This lack of visible evidence poses substantial, though not insurmountable, challenges for environmental justice activism. In my essay, “Toxic Portraits,” I examine one mode of rhetorically resisting the invisibility of toxic pollution: the production, reproduction, and circulation of photographic portraits of people in toxically assaulted places. By showing human bodies in proximity to industrial polluters, toxic portraits visualize the relationship between toxic pollution and human precariousness, or the social fragility of life. In a typical toxic portrait, a person is shown standing or sitting near an industrial facility that emits toxins into the surrounding community. Since the toxicity of the background is not always self-evident, captions and accompanying stories frequently explain why the industrial facilities in the photograph should be interpreted as pernicious to human and environmental health. Taken together, toxic portraits and their captions illustrate the ways in which lives and livelihoods are diminished and even threatened by pollution in particular places.

Toxic portraits circulate widely within environmental justice discourses. In my essay, I focus on two toxic portraits that appeared on the Collaborative for Health and the Environment website. In a story titled “Corpus Christi: Hillcrest Residents Exposed to Benzene in Neighborhood Next Door to Refinery Row,” Steve Lerner examines the troubled relationship between industrial pollution and residential health in Corpus Christi’s “fence line” neighborhoods, communities that are located dangerously close to sources of toxic emissions. Corpus Christi has a particularly high density of oil refineries in poor communities and communities of color, in part because of historically racist zoning laws. Toxic portraits of Corpus Christi residents and environmental justice activists Horace Smith and Suzie Canales accompany Lerner’s story. In one toxic portrait, Smith, an African-American man who lived in the Hillcrest neighborhood, stands outside, shirtless, with a breathing tube connected to his nostrils. Behind Smith, refinery towers stretch into the skyline above the trees, white smoke billowing from one of the stacks. In another toxic portrait, Canales, a Hispanic woman, stands in the middle of a tree-lined street that leads to another set of refinery towers in the background. Canales glares at the camera, eyes tightly focused, lips pinched in defiance. These are just two examples of toxic portraits; others appear on book covers and websites, and in news stories and documentaries.

Toxic portraits like those of Smith and Canales resist several of the invisibilities noted above through complex articulations. Along with textual narratives, toxic portraits make visible the interconnections between human bodies, toxic pollution, and the pain and suffering that frequently result from their combination. This articulation is accomplished through the amalgamation of various elements within the photographic frame: human bodies, medical apparatuses (e.g., the breathing tube), recognizable environments, industrial facilities, and visible pollution (e.g., smoke) are variously connected to one another in toxic portraits. One consequence of these complex articulations is that the precariousness of life in toxically assaulted communities is visualized for broader audiences, many of whom would not otherwise expose themselves to such places.

In addition to resisting the invisibilities associated with pollution, toxic portraits also invite viewers to recognize the mutability of the very scenes of precariousness they make visible. The people who are shown in toxic portraits do live precarious lives, oftentimes working, playing, and living dangerously close to sources of pollution. However, precisely because they depict these people as living precarious lives, toxic portraits presuppose other possibilities. As Barbie Zelizer argues in About to Die, photographs of people who are about to die activate an “as if” perspective that “creates a space of possibility, hope, and liminality through which spectators might relate to images.” Similarly, although toxic portraits depict a moment of precarious living, this moment does not foreclose political and social action that would alter those conditions. Instead, by showing subjects who are understood to be malingering in toxic environments, new opportunities for ordinary citizens to imagine themselves interrupting dangerous cycles of toxic contamination emerge.

In an age of ongoing environmental crises, exacerbated by continuous globalization and industrialization, the connections between human health and environmental degradation are likely to pose additional challenges. Our collective capacity to recognize when human health is at stake, when environmental degradation threatens the very conditions of human flourishing, will continue to be a key task for activists and journalists alike. Toxic portraits are one form of rhetorical resistance amidst environmental crises that not only illustrate the perniciousness of toxic pollution, but also invite viewers to respond to the fundamentally mutable conditions of these crises.

About the author (s)

Joshua Trey Barnett

University of Utah

Doctoral Candidate