Image Analysis – MC

The image chosen for my image analysis assignment is a photograph of Newark residents picking up free water filters at the Paradise Baptist Church during the month of October in 2018. This photograph is a good fit for my environmental justice project because it shows Newark residents grappling with the problem of lead in the water by picking up free water filters to fit over their faucets. The Newark water crisis first came to attention when water fountains in thirty Newark schools tested positive for lead.[1]The parents of Newark children were then notified of the results but reassured that “drinking water alone is not typically associated with elevated blood lead levels”.[2]Furthermore, the city still insisted that Newark’s water was “absolutely safe to drink” and robocalls further spread this message that the lead problem was not an emergency. However, this tone of reassurance changed when the city conducted a study of the water in 2018 and found that because of a change in the Pequannock water treatment plant, lead was and had been leaching into the water of at least “22,000 household taps” since 2017.[3]In addition, the Natural Resources Defense Council or NRDC alongside the Newark Education Workers Caucus, filed a lawsuit against the city government for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act on June 2018.[4]The city has been accused of denying the problem of lead in the water rather than acknowledging it and trying to solve it in a timely manner. While this was going on, many observers started to draw parallels between the water crisis here in Newark and the crisis in Flint, Michigan. Despite initial denials of the severity of the problems, the city finally began to address the issue and started the distribution of free water filters on October 2018.The photograph of Newark citizens picking up free water filters at the church shows how their resilience and faith in the city government, as well as in the American dream of prosperity, is being tested as they struggle to deal with a seemingly third world problem in a first world country. 

The photograph was taken by Sarah Blesener for The New York Times article titled “In Echo of Flint, Mich., Water Crisis Hits Newark” written by Liz Leyden on October 30, 2018. This photograph was meant to accompany the article which compares the water crisis of Flint’s to that of Newark. The intended audience was those who read The New York Times and are interested/interested in the Newark water crisis and its parallels to Flint. To find out more about the photographer, Sarah Blesener, I went on her personal website, In the section titled images commissioned by New York Times, Blesener, takes photos that center on people. Often times, they are a close up, capturing the intimate, real life moments of a person. The pictures are not staged, but rather taken to capture an intimate and very personal image of the person. The people who often appear are often deep in thought or in emotion, not just with a plastered smile. There is a good mix of people of color and women and they appear to be going about their everyday lives. This is important to note because Blesener’s photograph of the Newark crisis also captures the tension and concern of the people of Newark in a honest and authentic manner. 

The main color present and most apparent in this picture is blue. The water filter boxes are the dark blue, the table cloth is a darker shade of blue, almost like a navy blue, the walls of the church has a blue border, the seats behind the pulpit are painted blue, and the poster of Jesus is blue (because he is walking on water, one of his miracles). The color blue represents water most obviously, which is most significant because the issue on the minds of the people in the picture is the issue of the lead in the water system. The color blue serves to tie in the theme of water and how people are tense and worried about how to have access to this precious resource in a safe and healthy manner. The color blue can also represent melancholy and sadness and a certain moroseness that the people in the picture are probably feeling. Usually gatherings in places of worship are full of joy, laughter and calmness but the blue motif in the picture suggests the opposite of that. The color blue in this photograph also suggests a sense of seriousness as the people in the picture all have serious expressions and are clearly focused on the boxes of water filters. Thus, the prevalence of the color blue and the seriousness,  in addition to its traditional association with water, demonstrates that the water crisis is testing the people of Newark and is requiring them to come together as a community but not for positive reasons. 

            The contrast of high activity in the foreground compared to the lack of activity in the background suggests that Newark residents must find strength within themselves, within their own community to deal with the problem and not the city government. The people, both men and women, are standing around the water filters and all seem to wearing the same type of casual clothing, something one would wear when on errands or on the weekend. They see to be around the same age, middle aged adults who are mature and focused on the task at hand. The flurry of activity in the foreground of the photograph serves to starkly contrast with the lack of activity in the background of the photograph: the empty pulpit, the poster on the wall and the American flag standing to one side. This suggests that the leadership, as symbolized by the empty pulpit, is lacking because there is literally no leader or organizer that is there directing the distribution of the water filter. The American flag, symbolizing the country perhaps, is off to one side and is there in name only. The qualities that one associates with the flag, such as freedom, access to resources and prosperity does not match the concerned and tense atmosphere in the photo. The poster of Jesus on the water, symbolizing one of his miracles, seems to beckon to a crowd of people who are not focused on him but rather at the problem at hand. His welcoming gestures, with his arms outstretched, seems to be ignored. This contrast also relates to the environmental justice portion of the project. While the city, in the beginning, denied or tried to downplay the health effects and the reality of the lead in the water, it was the Newark citizens who had to pay the price, quite literally. They were the ones who continued to drink from their tap waters and feed it to their children, both in school and in their homes. Most residents had trusted their city government but probably felt that their trust was broken when the city finally acknowledged the severity of the problem. Thus, the lack of authentic leadership is symbolized by the empty pulpit and American flag standing to the side while the flurry of activity in the front shows the resilience of Newark citizens in the face of this current predicament.

            Furthermore, the lack of a leader or one person who could have been be seen in the front of the room in charge of this water filter distribution may also suggest a lack of leadership. The people are who are present in the picture seem to be working together at an equal level, as concerned citizens. However, the emptiness of the front of the room symbolizes the lack of proper and adequate leadership, especially when dealing with the ramifications of the crisis. I think one of the takeaway messages that is presented here is the lack of leadership present visually and metaphorically in this water crisis. The community is there, trying to deal with the problem of the water crisis together but the lack of a person directing this distribution seems to be symbolic of the city’s response to the water crisis. It is in alignment with what actually happened, when the city first denied the lead issue. Only after much pressure by environmental groups and the teachers caucus as well as parallels drawn with Flint and the commissioned study did the city finally acknowledge that the water crisis may be much larger and more severe than originally claimed. This initial denial of the problem is often associated with inefficient and underfunded local governments in third world countries. However, Newark is the largest city in the state of New Jersey, in one of the most prosperous nations in the entire world. Thus, this lack of access to resources as basic as clean and pure water paints a more painful picture for the citizens of Newark in their struggle to gain access to safe water. 

            As one can see, the specific elements pointed out regarding the photograph helps to support the argument that the people of Newark’s faith in the city government and the promise of the American dream and prosperity is being tested as they encounter a problem that is commonly associated with third world countries which lack equal access to natural resources like water. The setting of the church reinforces the importance of community that the crisis is promoting while the lack of a leadership figure alludes to the lack of adequate leadership and responsibility from the city government. As mentioned in the introduction, this type of problem is not an isolated one as the Flint crisis seems to be a precursor to the Newark crisis. Both cities have a lot in common, such as an ineffective city government, minority and populations of color and lack of expediency in solving the issue. Despite being in the post-war time period and environment, populations like those in Newark and Flint continue to be marginalized and face barriers in regards to equal and safe access to basic resources like water. Overcoming these barriers is often an uphill battle and requires the coalition and cooperation of various local groups in order to force the government to address and take responsibility for the issue.