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A Portrait of Deborah Willis

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Deborah Willis tells stories through pictures. I wanted to tell her story with her words. Guggenheim Fellow. MacArthur "Genius" Awardee. Photographer. Teacher. Author. Aunt. Mother. The list goes on. We sat down in New York City's Leica Gallery discussing her, her work and the life of art.

Do you remember the first picture you took, if so can you describe it for me?

The first picture that I remember taking, I think I was about nine or ten, was of my great-aunt. I was in Philadelphia and she was standing outside of a store on Ridge Avenue. She had a white blouse on and a black skirt. She was standing in front of a sign, 'No Man of Her Own'; it was a poster for a film at the Pearl Theater. I found that image striking, both the memory of the image and seeing it in a small picture, in a photo album. I just found her to be a beautiful woman and thought it was a great moment.

Do you need to have a photographic memory to be a photographer?

No, I think you just have to respond to moments that are striking, or look at events that are memorable.

How did you decide or know that photography was your calling?

I think when I was seven, I saw the Sweet Flypaper of Life, a book by Langston Hughes and Roy de Carava. I remember being excited about the visual images in the book - the photographs. I started imagining stories as a result of the photographs. Then I started to think I would like to be a photographer. My father was a photographer, an advanced amateur photographer. His cousin had a photography studio in the neighborhood, and his best faming buddy was a photographer for the local black newspaper. Photography was always around me.

Your work deals with African-American life and culture, how is it more about the representation of African-Americans then race and racism?

Mainly because when I was in school there were images of black culture that I knew, that were missing from the history books and the exhibitions I visited. I felt it was important to have black culture represented in museums and books. I spent time trying to find out where the missing links were, and as a young student I spent time trying to find a curator to ask questions: "Why are they missing," things like that.

What questions do you ask when taking a photograph?

I don't ask questions when I am taking a photograph. My new project has been about beauty. What I focus on, what I am interested in, is looking at stories that are about my past. My mom is in her eighties, and her girlfriends are still hairdressers. My mom had a beauty shop when I was growing up. It was fascinating to see women still working in their seventies and eighties. I decided I'd like to tell their stories. I wanted to photograph images that relate to women and work/women and beauty.

What has been a defining moment in your work; is there one moment that stands out above the rest or does it blur like photographs sometimes do?

No, I unfortunately lost my nephew in 2000; he was killed coming to visit me. He was robbed and he was 27 years old. In terms of a defining moment -- he was on his way to see a show that I had worked on called 'Reflections of Black: the History of Black Photographers,' and so that was the most important show and book that I had published. I had spent almost twenty years working on it.

To have my nephew killed on the way to see me and to work, he was so excited about the experience - that was a defining moment for me. He was a kid when I started the project. That changed my life in terms of how important the stories we have to tell photographically. My life has been about love, and to have someone killed, my nephew, the first thing I said was, "Who didn't love them," these two young guys. In the same year I got the MacArthur. To have that kind of up and down, and then within the next year I was diagnosed with breast cancer, so to have that kind of roller coaster nine-month period was just unbelievable. It's hard to think about that high moment because of that kind of experience.

Did the death of your nephew, subsequently winning the MacArthur and then being diagnosed with breast cancer change the way you look at a picture?

It changed the way I look at a picture and the way I took photographs. I decided to look at the preciousness of photographs. When I look at photographs as a researcher, I am interested in looking at memories that reflect my own personal time or imaging the photographer's moment. When I think about an image, we're here at the Leica Gallery, there's an image of a window with a shade, a drape over it and light peering underneath billowing out, as if there's light outside of that world, something new. I am always looking for ways we can bring light into the world, light that has a lot to do with beauty.

I think this can relate to back of what we have spoken of, one of your books is entitled, "Let Your Motto be Resistance," do you have a motto towards you work which guides you?

My motto is really not something I think about in that way, just seizing the moment. There's so much to do and I try to get it done at the moment as opposed to procrastinating and waiting for another time. I really take time now to finish and complete projects all the time, that's really important to me - completion.


It's something so many of us do not do, we start something and we don't finish it.

Can you tell us a little about the book you are signing today?

There are two books I'm signing today. One is Michelle Obama: the First Lady in Photgraphs and the other is Posing Beauty: Looking at Beauty within the African-American culture from 1890 - Present. Posing Beauty is a project that started ten years ago. I was fascinated with photographs that had the concept of how beauty had been posed, and the concept of the beauty within African-American culture, ignored as a history in terms of writing about it. There are a few books that focused on beauty, mainly about fashion. As a photographer I was interested in looking at how photographers posed beauty. I see beauty as a political experience because it has been shut down by most people and to use beauty as politics. The politics of beauty are about body image, self-esteem; I wanted to do a book on that. WWW Norton published it.

When I finished the book, my publisher asked if I would like to do a book on Michelle Obama. I said, "I think it's a little too soon." He said, "Well, it's the first year why not think about the images?"

I taught a class last semester called the, The Black Body in the Lens. There were a lot of women in the class, really excited about the Michelle Obama image and upset about how the media had covered her. Every week we had the topic of the week, we'd start off with Michelle Obama and had to get back into our reading of the week. So I thought, "Maybe this is a chance to look at some of the images and collect images, starting from her life in the White House as a mother, as a leader -- just going through that experience. The first seven months in the White House, then going back to the things that affected us like the inauguration, the campaign and having her time as a black woman with two Ivy League degrees, just a fascinating beautiful person. I wanted to think about how to tell that story. I researched a number of images; the result was to agree upon the selection with the publisher. We invited Emily Bernard to write an essay reflecting on the photographs and the period in terms of the cultural exchange that is going on now.

As a visual storyteller how do you decide which picture best captures the story?

There were a number of images of the First Lady with the Queen. I was in Europe at the time when the news said that Michelle Obama was inappropriate she touched the Queen. In Europe, it was a totally different story. The European press focused on the Queen reaching out. The Queen reached out and touched Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Obama reflected in respect by touching her. I wanted to show that image.

I looked at the range of images and I thought that was the most important image for me that had a lot of emotion, having the emotion of the memory of the moment. I looked at a lot of images that were used as fodder for the press. I wanted to show how simplistic their arguments were by showing photographs that had a different experience, such as the fist bump. With a son, with a nephew, with a lot of young men in my life a fist bump is not about black power. [Laughs] It's about, "Okay man." It's about a relationship between two people saying thank you or congratulations. When you see it in one image like that you see that there's a beauty within the relationship.

In "Engulfed by Katrina," did you also use photographs to dispel the myths?

The Katrina was an exhibition and a catalog, my son and I curated that together. I was photographing in New Orleans three weeks before Katrina. My interest was mainly to show the devastation. Also, it is amazing to show how decay and beauty work together, what happens when water destroys a town? Then there's this quiet beauty...I wanted to show evidence of life that was something that I focused on.

Do you think like a historian when you are taking photographs?

No, it's a separate mind. It's about the moment, like I said before, you stop, you see an image that is striking, whether it's the lighting or it's a gesture. Just the way that you're seated now, with your legs crossed the way your arms are folded, it's kind of like a circular motion. It's inviting, that's nice; I wish I had my camera with me.

Are there any significant changes in photography, you mentioned lighting, there's digitizing, the differences in cameras today, they are so different then they were twenty years ago has that changed how you approach a photograph?

I am just getting into photographing with a digital camera; I don't like digital. I really prefer film camera because there's a lot to experience with digital. Understanding when you have a black and white film camera, you set the meter, you know when you go to the dark room you can get the images you want from the printing. With digital you have to be concerned about a lot of other aspects - raw file, high res, jpeg - and those other things. I teach photography, my son is, "Ma, you're supposed to turn it, don't keep it on manual, we have this running joke about digital versus the analog camera.

How do you prepare yourself to photograph a significant event or something that is of significance to you personally or a particular subject? Is there a method?

I photographed a few years ago in Eatonville, Florida, the home of Zora Neale Hurston; I was invited by the town, an organization wanted to preserve her memories and her activities. I worked in the sense of looking at history and wanting to tell multiple stories. I went into the church where her father preached and wanted to imagine what it was like in that time period and how people in her day were looking at their lives. I looked at Eatonville as a historical town and a town of tourism. So when I plan my photographs, I think about the town, think about the time I will spend photographing, planning one day walking around, feeling a little uncomfortable because I am an outsider looking at the town for a way to tell the story. I went to the beauty shops there and photographed there, looking at women getting ready for Saturday night or Sunday morning, which is beautiful and fun. Women have fun in a beauty shop.

What impact has your mother and her friends had on your work?

Their sense of superiority in a place like that, a place where women can relax and women who are caregivers can be taken care of by someone else. That's the impact that I am fascinated with; the stories that relate to women who don't have time to take care of themselves other women can take care of them.

No one is interested in my beauty shop pictures, I cannot sell my beauty shop images; I can't publish them. I find it really funny. The barbershop images are really popular; people love barbershops. I think there's a lot of wisdom in both places.

Even when I photographed in the beauty shops in Philly, in New Orleans and in Eatonville it was, "Are you going to have a before and after shot?" It was the kind of moment where women were going to look one way and then transform. But I am interested in the process, when they're there, whatever is going on, if it is a relaxed moment, if you are writing your taxes or paying your bills just that kind of moment.

I like to direct my blogs to young women. Are there any pieces of advice you give to a young photographer just starting on her journey?

I meet a lot of young women that are looking for answers to getting an opportunity. I believe in getting a collective going. There is a young woman by the name of Jennifer Samuels who organized once a month on a Sunday men and women who get together and look at their photographs and talk.
I say to young women photographers to keep photographing even though you believe no one is interested; you just have to do it for yourself. I think that's the most important aspect. A lot of people ask me, "How can I get my photographs out there; what am I doing wrong?" You can't make people interested in your photographs, you have to believe in yourself. It's a hard lesson but I think that's the only way people will appreciate your work.

I've worked in this field, by myself, for over 30 years, [with] no one believing that this young woman - I was an undergraduate at Philadelphia College of Art and one of my professors said to me, "You're taking up a good man's space, you should not be in this program. All you're going to do is get married, get pregnant, have a baby and a good man could have been in your seat." I'll never forget that moment. I was so humiliated an embarrassed because this was a public event. And of course what happened? When I graduated, I got pregnant.[Laughs] I was embarrassed. I couldn't celebrate the fact that I was having a kid. Recently, my son found a contact sheet with photographs of my pregnant belly and he said mom, "You never printed these." I remembered this story. What I realized in terms of flipping the script, was that I made space for a good man, by having my son, who is a photographer. Flipping that into positive energy and still creating work.

I meet women black, white, Asian women who tell me the same story. One woman's husband said to her after I gave a little talk, "Tell her your story." It's repeated often, unfortunately, we are silenced by it as women.

But your photography gives you a voice.