Family Photos and Self-Image

photo by me

In a photo titled “I See Myself in You,” three floating heads are lined up against a black background, each looking as stern as the next. On either side are Deborah Willis and her son Hank Willis Thomas’s faces, and between them is a third head that is half her face and half his face. The lines separating them barely exist. For their joint lecture for Express Newark, by the same name as the photo, the mother and son did an intergenerational analysis of race and gender in photography. Their discussion addressed their overlapping artistic interests that traveled seamlessly from the personal to the familial to the public.

Willis and Thomas’s most immediate presentation was simply in their relationship. They were interesting to watch if only in awe of how much they respect each other. Thomas is just so cool with his mom. They corrected each other, offered each other seats, or suggested the other one tell a certain story. Their collaboration was a model of co-teaching because it was totally natural. The family dynamic was best exemplified when they joked about being called either Deb’s son or Hank’s mom in their respective art circles. Willis added that her husband, who sat in the front row with a smile on his face the whole time, is sometimes referred to as Mr. Willis. Everybody in the audience kinda went “oohhh,” as if it was messed up (instead of the sweet vibe of the mother/son renaming). But that kind of playfulness said something about how comfortable they all were as a unit.

It fit, then, to hear Willis say her primary interest is documenting Black joy. When asked what was missing or what should be focused on now, she answered that she wanted to see more images of kindness. She described selfies as a part of this effort, to which her son added that everyone is a photographer now, though that wasn’t always the case. Thomas described his mother’s research as answering the question: Where are the black photographers? He spoke about how she writes book after book, starting with one about eleven photographers from 1840-1940. What did that mean, he wondered, to be a black photographer?

Downstairs from the event was Willis’s most recent photography project, “Closet.” Walls were covered in pictures of the insides of people’s closets. At the center of this project lies her philosophy on how clothing affects the ways we navigate the world and get treated by others. Especially in the context of blackness, she highlighted how much clothing matters because of people’s attempts to dress in order to be seen as human. She brought up slides of clothing being ripped off black people by police dogs and naked bodies of enslaved people beside various types of portraits to address the complicated humanness of the photography.

Thomas also spoke about one of his previous projects as it pertained to advertising, which happened to also be about clothing. He took off all the information from a few ads to highlight the strange images associated with products. One had a white woman hanging at the bottom of a cliff with two men standing on top keeping her down. It turned out to be an ad for sweaters. He admitted that his interest in these kinds of contradictions depended upon his upbringing. When asked about his mother’s influence on his work, he admitted that, “most of the mistakes I’ve made were because I didn’t ask her [his mother’s] opinion.”

photo by me

Near the end of the night, Willis spoke admirably about a Dreamer jacket in one of her “Closet” photos, which belonged to a young girl who was in the audience. That item symbolized something she spoke about earlier in the evening. Her professional life undoubtedly came with a lot of issues, especially from educators. She remembered a professor accusing her of “taking up a good man’s space” in grad school. He said she’d just end up getting pregnant. And, after graduation, she did. Then she titled a trio of pregnancy photos “I Made a Space for a Good Man.” She also explained that a counselor once told her she’d be a good bedpan nurse. Her main worry was in how her experience marks a trend of counselors and professors that may have guided generations of people away from their calling, a concern that she saw rejected in the word on the jacket.

The event made me think more about how photos make people feel. My son, who is three, loves seeing videos and pictures of himself and can watch a video of himself dancing back to back a million times. He loves taking selfies and other pictures on my phone, partially because it’s the only thing he can do without the passcode. But that interaction between photo and subject, added to the immediacy of phone photography, has become integral to his self-image. The other day, his dad and I were joking around about one of us being ugly. We asked him if he was ugly and he said, “no, I’m black.”

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