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TEDWomen 2017

Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas: A mother and son united by love and art

Filmed
Views 814,781

An art school professor once told Deborah Willis that she, as a woman, was taking a place from a good man -- but the storied photographer says she instead made a space for a good man, her son Hank Willis Thomas. In this moving talk, the mother and son artists describe how they draw from one another in their work, how their art challenges mainstream narratives about black life and black joy, and how, ultimately, everything comes down to love.

- Curator, photographer
Deborah Willis is a photographer and writer in search of beauty. Full bio

- Artist
Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to identity, history and popular culture. Full bio

Hank Willis Thomas: I'm Deb's son.
00:12
(Laughter)
00:14
Deborah Willis: And I'm Hank's mom.
00:16
HWT: We've said that so many times,
00:18
we've made a piece about it.
00:20
It's called "Sometimes
I See Myself In You,"
00:22
and it speaks to
the symbiotic relationship
00:25
that we've developed over the years
through our life and work.
00:27
And really, it's because everywhere we go,
00:30
together or apart,
00:33
we carry these monikers.
00:35
I've been following
in my mother's footsteps
00:37
since before I was even born
00:39
and haven't figured out how to stop.
00:40
And as I get older, it does get harder.
00:43
No seriously, it gets harder.
00:46
(Laughter)
00:48
My mother's taught me many things, though,
00:50
most of all that love overrules.
00:52
She's taught me that love
00:55
is an action,
00:57
not a feeling.
01:00
Love is a way of being,
it's a way of doing,
01:01
it's a way of listening
and it's a way of seeing.
01:05
DW: And also, the idea about love,
01:09
photographers,
01:11
they're looking for love
when they make photographs.
01:14
They're looking and looking
and finding love.
01:17
Growing up in North Philadelphia,
01:19
I was surrounded by people
in my family and friends
01:21
who made photographs
01:25
and used the family camera
as a way of telling a story about life,
01:26
about life of joy,
01:30
about what it meant
to become a family in North Philadelphia.
01:32
So I spent most of my life
searching for pictures
01:37
that reflect on ideas
about black love, black joy
01:40
and about family life.
01:43
So it's really important to think about
the action of love overrules as a verb.
01:45
HWT: Sometimes I wonder
if the love of looking is genetic,
01:52
because, like my mother,
01:56
I've loved photographs
since before I can even remember.
01:58
I think sometimes that --
after my mother and her mother --
02:02
that photography and photographs
were my first love.
02:06
No offense to my father,
02:09
but that's what you get
for calling me a "ham"
02:11
wherever you go.
02:14
I remember whenever I'd go
to my grandmother's house,
02:15
she would hide all the photo albums
02:18
because she was afraid of me asking,
02:19
"Well, who is that in that picture?"
02:22
and "Who are they to you
and who are they to me,
02:23
and how old were you
when that picture was taken?
02:26
How old was I when that picture was taken?
02:28
And why were they in black and white?
02:30
Was the world in black and white
before I was born?"
02:32
DW: Well, that's interesting,
02:34
just to think about the world
in black and white.
02:36
I grew up in a beauty shop
in North Philadelphia,
02:38
my mom's beauty shop,
looking at "Ebony Magazine,"
02:41
found images that told stories
that were often not in the daily news,
02:43
but in the family album.
02:48
I wanted the family album
to be energetic for me,
02:50
a way of telling stories,
02:53
and one day I happened upon a book
in the Philadelphia Public Library
02:54
called "The Sweet Flypaper of Life"
by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes.
02:58
I think what attracted me
as a seven-year-old,
03:03
the title, flypaper and sweet,
03:05
but to think about that
as a seven-year-old,
03:08
I looked at the beautiful images
that Roy DeCarava made
03:10
and then looked at ways
that I could tell a story about life.
03:13
And looking for me is the act
that basically changed my life.
03:17
HWT: My friend Chris Johnson
told me that every photographer,
03:21
every artist, is essentially
trying to answer one question,
03:25
and I think your question might have been,
03:29
"Why doesn't the rest of the world
see how beautiful we are,
03:32
and what can I do to help them
see our community the way I do?"
03:35
DW: While studying in art school --
03:39
it's probably true --
03:41
I had a male professor who told me
that I was taking up a good man's space.
03:42
He tried to stifle my dream
of becoming a photographer.
03:47
He attempted to shame me
in a class full of male photographers.
03:50
He told me I was out of place
and out of order as a woman,
03:54
and he went on to say
that all you could and would do
03:58
was to have a baby when a good man
could have had your seat in this class.
04:01
I was shocked into silence
into that experience.
04:05
But I had my camera,
and I was determined to prove to him
04:09
that I was worthy
for a seat in that class.
04:12
But in retrospect, I asked myself:
"Why did I need to prove it to him?"
04:14
You know, I had my camera,
and I knew I needed to prove to myself
04:18
that I would make
a difference in photography.
04:21
I love photography, and no one
is going to stop me from making images.
04:23
HWT: But that's when I came in.
04:27
DW: Yeah, that year I graduated,
I got pregnant.
04:29
Yep, he was right.
04:32
And I had you,
04:34
and I shook off that sexist language
that he used against me
04:35
and picked up my camera
and made photographs daily,
04:40
and made photographs of my pregnant belly
as I prepared for graduate school.
04:43
But I thought about also
that black photographers were missing
04:48
from the history books of photography,
04:52
and I was looking
for ways to tell a story.
04:55
And I ran across Gordon Parks' book
"A Choice of Weapons,"
04:58
which was his autobiography.
05:03
I began photographing and making images,
05:04
and I tucked away that contact sheet
that I made of my pregnant belly,
05:07
and then you inspired me
to create a new piece,
05:11
a piece that said, "A woman
taking a place from a good man,"
05:14
"You took the space from a good man,"
05:18
and then I used that language
and reversed it and said,
05:20
"I made a space for a good man, you."
05:24
(Applause)
05:26
HWT: Thanks, ma.
05:28
Like mother, like son.
05:33
I grew up in a house full of photographs.
05:35
They were everywhere, and my mother
would turn the kitchen into a darkroom.
05:38
And there weren't
just pictures that she took
05:42
and pictures of family members.
05:45
But there were pictures on the wall
of and by people that we didn't know,
05:46
men and women that we didn't know.
05:51
Thanks, ma.
05:53
(Laughter)
05:54
I have my own timing.
05:55
(Laughter)
05:56
Did you see her poke me?
05:58
(Laughter)
05:59
Puppet strings.
06:01
I grew up in a house full of photographs.
06:06
(Applause)
06:08
But they weren't just pictures
of men and women that we knew,
06:11
but pictures of people that I didn't know,
06:14
Pretty much, it was pretty clear
from what I learned in school,
06:17
that the rest of the world didn't either.
06:20
And it took me a long time
to figure out what she was up to,
06:23
but after a while, I figured it out.
06:26
When I was nine years old,
she published this book,
06:30
"Black Photographers, 1840-1940:
A Bio-Bibliography."
06:32
And it's astounding to me to consider
06:36
that in 1840, African Americans
were making photographs.
06:39
What does it mean for us to think
06:43
that at a time that was two, three decades
before the end of slavery,
06:44
that people were learning how to read,
06:49
they had to learn how to do math,
06:52
they had to be on the cutting edge
of science and technology,
06:54
to do math, physics and chemistry
just to make a single photograph.
06:57
And what compelled them
to do that if not love?
07:02
Well, that book led her to her next book,
"Black Photographers, 1940-1988,"
07:05
and that book led to another book,
and another book, and another book,
07:10
and another book, and another book,
07:15
and another book, and another book,
07:17
and another book, and another book,
and another book, and another book,
07:19
and another book, and another book,
and another book, and another book,
07:22
and another book,
and another book, and another.
07:25
(Applause)
07:28
And throughout my life,
07:29
she's edited and published dozens of books
07:31
and curated numerous exhibitions
on every continent,
07:34
not all about black photographers
but all inspired by the curiosity
07:39
of a little black girl
from North Philadelphia.
07:42
DW: What I found is that
black photographers had stories to tell,
07:45
and we needed to listen.
07:48
And then I found and I discovered
07:51
black photographers
like Augustus Washington,
07:52
who made these beautiful daguerreotypes
07:55
of the McGill family
in the early 1840s and '50s.
07:57
Their stories tended to be different,
black photographers,
08:02
and they had a different narrative
about black life during slavery,
08:04
but it was also about family life, beauty
and telling stories about community.
08:08
I didn't know how to link the stories,
08:13
but I knew that teachers
needed to know this story.
08:16
HWT: So I think I was
my mother's first student.
08:19
Unwillingly and unwittingly --
puppet strings --
08:24
I decided to pick up a camera,
08:27
and thought that I
should make my own pictures
08:30
about the then and now
and the now and then.
08:32
I thought about
how I could use photography
08:35
to talk about how what's going on
outside of the frame of the camera
08:38
can affect what we see inside.
08:41
The truth is always in the hands
of the actual image maker
08:44
and it's up to us to really consider
what's being cut out.
08:47
I thought I could use her research
as a jumping-off point
08:50
of things that I was seeing in society
08:53
and I wanted to start to think
about how I could use historical images
08:55
to talk about the past being present
08:58
and think about ways that we can speak
09:01
to the perennial struggle
for human rights and equal rights
09:03
through my appropriation of photographs
09:07
in the form of sculpture, video,
09:11
installation and paintings.
09:14
But through it all,
one piece has affected me the most.
09:15
It continues to nourish me.
09:20
It's based off of this photograph
by Ernest Withers,
09:21
who took this picture in 1968
09:24
at the Memphis Sanitation Workers March
09:26
of men and women standing collectively
to affirm their humanity.
09:29
They were holding signs
that said "I am a man,"
09:33
and I found that astounding,
because the phrase I grew up with
09:36
wasn't "I am a man,"
it was "I am the man,"
09:39
and I was amazed at how it went from this
collective statement during segregation
09:42
to this seemingly selfish statement
after integration.
09:46
And I wanted to ponder that,
09:50
so I decided to remix that text
in as many ways as I could think of,
09:52
and I like to think of the top line
as a timeline of American history,
09:55
and the last line as a poem,
10:00
and it says,
10:03
"I am the man. Who's the man.
You the man. What a man.
10:04
I am man. I am many. I am, am I.
10:07
I am, I am. I am, Amen.
10:10
DW: Wow, so fascinating.
10:12
(Applause)
10:14
But what we learn from this experience
10:16
is the most powerful two words
in the English language is, "I am."
10:18
And we each have the capacity to love.
10:21
Thank you.
10:24
(Applause)
10:25

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About the speakers:

Deborah Willis - Curator, photographer
Deborah Willis is a photographer and writer in search of beauty.

Why you should listen

As an author and curator, Deborah Willis's pioneering research has focused on cultural histories envisioning the black body, women and gender. She is a celebrated photographer, acclaimed historian of photography, MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellow, and University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

Willis received the NAACP Image Award in 2014 for her co-authored book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (with Barbara Krauthamer) and in 2015 for the documentary Through a Lens Darkly, inspired by her book Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present.

More profile about the speaker
Deborah Willis | Speaker | TED.com
Hank Willis Thomas - Artist
Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to identity, history and popular culture.

Why you should listen

Hank Willis Thomas's work has been exhibited throughout the U.S. and abroad including, the International Center of Photography, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Musée du quai Branly, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. His work is in numerous public collections including the Museum of Modern Art New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the High Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, among others.

Thomas's collaborative projects include Question Bridge: Black MalesIn Search Of The Truth (The Truth Booth), and For Freedoms. For Freedoms was recently awarded the 2017 ICP Infinity Award for New Media and Online Platform. Thomas is also the recipient of the 2017 Soros Equality Fellowship and the 2017 AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize. Current exhibitions include Prospect 4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp in New Orleans and All Things Being Equal at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. In 2017, Thomas also unveiled his permanent public artwork "Love Over Rules" in San Francisco and "All Power to All People" in Opa Locka, Florida. Thomas is a member of the Public Design Commission for the City of New York. He received a BFA in Photography and Africana studies from New York University and an MFA/MA in Photography and Visual Criticism from the California College of Arts. He has also received honorary doctorates from the Maryland Institute of Art and the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts. He lives and works in New York City.

More profile about the speaker
Hank Willis Thomas | Speaker | TED.com