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