While I Breathe

An online project about environmental toxicity and the social determinants of health


Fields of Knowledge
  • Health / Sustainability
  • Memory
  • Politics / Economics
  • Public culture
  • Social Justice

Organizing Institutions



Elizabeth Ambler, Anastasia Colzie, Colin Foley, Aaron Levy, Arthur Sabatini, Olivia Terzian

Process initiated


Opens to public



4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104


0% Formal - 100% Informal

Slought is pleased to announce "While I Breathe," an online project about environmental toxicity and the social determinants of health launching on July 1, 2016. The project features a selection of photographs by artist and activist Bill Ravanesi and marks the 25th anniversary of his foundational exhibition Breath Taken: The Landscape and Biography of Asbestos.

In the early 1980s, Ravanesi compiled oral and visual testimonies of sick and dying asbestos workers from Manville, New Jersey, Asbestos, Quebec, and elsewhere. These testimonies convey the profound vulnerability and social abandonment that affects these workers and the suffering that extends to their families and communities. In so doing, Ravanesi's work demonstrates how toxicity pervades the environments and spaces in which we live and work, and the power of social structures and systems in determining individual well-being. "Breath Taken" memorializes and expresses solidarity with those forgotten, and is a platform for action.

Our project, "While I Breathe," builds upon Ravanesi's groundbreaking work as well as contaminated water crises in cities such as Flint, Newark and Philadelphia. Scholar Rob Nixon has discussed such instances of toxicity as forms of violence that slowly and invisibly affect lives and communities, particularly those already struggling with poverty. Nixon argues for a new aesthetic language that can help us visualize this process as it extends across geographies and generations, and to hold accountable those responsible.

Across the United States and more globally, individuals and communities live, learn, and work in spaces constructed with potentially harmful materials. From lead paint and asbestos in our homes, schools and civic institutions, to corroded pipes, contaminated water and industrial pollutants in our urban landscapes, the pervasiveness of these environmental variables compels us to rethink toxicity as a general condition rather than an isolated risk. In this new landscape of toxicity, who is responsible for our health? How is our commitment to and trust in institutions and governmental structures changing? Even as numerous agencies and campaigns work to bring awareness and demand environmental justice, it is imperative that cultural institutions contribute to these efforts by helping to make legible the persistence of toxicity within a complex social web.

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"Today many people consider the asbestos problem behind us. But, what about the thirty-million tons of asbestos fibers that remain in place in our society? Asbestos is in buildings like schools, homes, offices and the workplace; in automobiles; in the more than 200,000 miles of transite asbestos drinking water pipe, pipe that has been underground for over 40 years, that is now deteriorating?

We, therefore, continue to be faced with important decisions regarding the public's health and safety. Will our public policies regarding this health menace add to the quarter million deaths already projected for the next 20 to 25 years from asbestos-induced lung cancers alone? Will all this breath taken be in vain?"

-- Bill Ravanesi

View the catalogue for Breath Taken: The Landscape and Biography of Asbestos (1991):


"How can we turn the long emergencies of slow violence into stories dramatic enough to rouse public sentiment and warrant political intervention, these emergencies whose repercussions have given rise to some of the most critical challenges of our time?

How do we bring home—and bring emotionally to life—threats that take time to wreak their havoc, threats that never materialize in one spectacular, explosive, cinematic scene?"

-- Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor