SNAPSHOTS: Ask a Curator
PDNedu: What are some themes that you’ve seen more artists exploring?
Deborah Willis: Beauty, identity, social justice and pleasure. Autobiography
is essential to my own work—it is useful in exploring cultural values,
traditions and perceptions. As a photographer, educator and curator,
I have used photography to tell stories about family life and asked
photographers to use the photograph in a narrative form to explore
PDNedu: Name some photographers or collectives who have your attention
DW: For collectives, En Foco out of the Bronx, New York, as well as New
York’s MFON [Editor’s Note: Read about MFON in Project X], SISTAGRAPHY in
Atlanta, Georgia, and For Freedoms, the first artist-run super PAC, founded
by my son, Hank Willis Thomas, and Eric Gottesman. For Freedoms believes
that art plays an important role in galvanizing our society to do better, and
that it’s time for artists to become more involved in the political process.
To name some photographers, Jessica Ingram’s research on Civil Rights-era events in the South and her photography on teen pregnancy; Sama
Alshaibi’s impressive work on migration and women’s stories; Omar Victor
Diop’s self-portraits, which connect fashion, memory and art-historical
discourse; Allison Janae Hamilton’s portraits, which are representative of
memory and family homeland; and Zalika Azim, who also works within the
memory of family stories and memories from the South.
PDNedu: How do you connect with
young photographers, outside of your
DW: I travel often and lecture on a variety
of topics and often meet recent MFA
and emerging photographers looking
to discuss ways to broaden their scope.
Sometimes I jury and evaluate submissions in international and domestic-based photo contests. Some students are referred to me by professors
from other schools. I also participate in portfolio review sessions and often
meet emerging photographers.
PDNedu: Who are some emerging photographers that you’ve recently worked
with, and on what?
DW: At LOOK3 I met Joshua Rashaad McFadden and recommended his
thoughtful body of work to be published for TIME LightBox. The project
was published and made visible a powerful story about archiving family
and portraits of men; I met Daesha Devón Harris at the For Freedoms
exhibition at Aperture and plan to include her work in an upcoming
book focusing on historical narratives from upstate New York. I also met
with John Edmonds and Sonia Louise Davis and reviewed their recent
photography and made plans to include them in a lecture I am preparing
for this year in Florence.
PDNedu: What are some exhibitions, books or other undertakings that you are
currently working on?
DW: I juried and curated the exhibition “Uncertain Times: Borders, Refuge,
Community, Nationhood” at this year’s Society for Photographic Education
national conference in Philadelphia, which opens March 1 at the University
of the Arts. I am also working on a few essays that will be published this
year, including an introduction for the upcoming University of North
Carolina Press book Frame by Frame: Hugh Mangum’s Portraits and an essay
about the work of women artists that expands upon the concept of the
exhibition “Shifting: African American Women Artists and the Power of
their Gaze” at the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland.
My upcoming book The Black Civil War Soldier: Conflict and Citizenship, which
will be published by New York University Press, frames the idea of memory
through the photographs, letters and diaries of black Union soldiers from
the beginning of the Civil War through Reconstruction. This book will also
include a discussion about black women spies, as well as offer ways in
which to reframe the varied experiences of women during the war years,
from seamstress to cook to confidant.
PDNedu: What is one piece of advice you have for young fine-art photographers
entering the market?
DW: When possible, I encourage my students and emerging photographers
I meet at portfolio reviews to visit exhibitions, art fairs and artists’ studios
to see work and listen to artists speak about their work and their careers.
I ask them to listen closely to the personal stories of how people develop
their careers—it’s both inspiration and validation for their own dreams
My intent is to help them construct an informed perspective as they
examine and interpret diverse historical and contemporary experiences.
If we, as consumers of images, are to understand the power of the
portrait photograph, we must begin to ask critical questions regarding the
visualization of gender, race, identity and sexuality in art. EDU
Interview by JACQUI PALUMBO
Q&A with the artist, educator and photographic curator
A prolific author, a leading historian and curator of African-American photography, and the department
chair of NYU’s photography program, Deborah Willis is noted for her extraordinary knowledge and an
extraordinary list of contributions to the art world. But she’s also dedicated to working with and mentoring
young artists who are developing their own voice. Get to know a little more about her here.
THIS PAGE: A portrait
of Max, a 26-year-old
trainee helicopter pilot
in the Republic of Congo,
which will exhibit in the
University of the Arts
show “Uncertain Times,”
juried by Willis.