Marquise Stillwell
Episode 6: Deborah Willis on Capturing Black Joy

She is a 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. In 2014 Willis received the NAACP Image Award 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. Willis is a creative hero of mine - not only for her own photography, but for her wide contributions to photo education, discourse and the cultural framing of photo history and visual literacy. We get to the heart of Willis’ work, inspirations, and the importance of capturing, retelling and representing the legacies of Black joy through photographic evidence and storytelling.

Marquise: Welcome to the Sweet Flypaper podcast. My name is Marquise Stillwell.

Neil:And I am Neil Ramsay.

Marquise: Thank you for being here. The next guest that we have Deborah Willis, phenomenal. I can't believe I was lucky enough to get her to come and speak with me. Photographer, author, curator, writer and NYU Photography department chair. The body of work that she has done is phenomenal. Let's talk a little bit. I mean, she and I go back and forth with a big part of the conversation with Deb is just around some of these ideas of black joy and how it's visual and the visual narrative. And Neil and I just crossing paths on so many different art festivals. And photography itself, though it's a beautiful form, you don't see it as much. Why is that and where are we with the visual arts?

Neil: I don't have an art history background but photography, I think came to, let's call it the canon right, the rules, was accepted into the academy later than, let's say, painting. I mean, it has its place, and it's one of these art forms that I think are really in flux with the digital era. And the idea of digital manipulation, I'm not going to really talk about the ubiquitousness of everyone having a camera in their phone and everyone being an artist.

Marquise: But I mean, to that point, though, it allows to build evidence. And I think that, you know, when you think about the work that she's done and even pulling that legacy of black joy through photographic evidence is storytelling.

Neil: Absolutely.

Marquise: Don't you believe that the having the phones is maybe the beginning?

Neil: They show documentation, right? So the phone is like a new pen. You mentioned evidence. I just completed a guest professorship in an architecture super studio. And in terms of evidence and as related to the Red Summers and erasing evidence of black people. But I think, I won't qualify as or more so, but I think something that I definitely was talking a lot about strongly was the idea of evidence of respectability.

Marquise: Hmm. Yeah.

Neil: And the reason I mentioned that, I think certain things about black people have been erased and certain things have not. Some things have been amplified and certain things have been muted. So the reason I bring this up is I call evidence of respectability. And that's where the joy meaning, you know, seeing a photograph of black joy is... I don't want to make the generalization rare, but quite rare. We see lots of images of black strife lots. Yeah, but not of enjoyment and playing and doing these things.

Marquise: That's right. Black joy is so important.

Neil: Very important. And I think having the camera in our hands now with the phone, we're able to record that, and that power has come back from the distribution, and those stories of being able to be told. And I think that storytelling is at the crux, extremely important in the visual. Now that's telling stories that, you know, a photograph could tell stories where someone could get slapped for opening that mouth.

Marquise: Yes, absolutely. And with that, let's jump right in. Deborah Willis.

Marquise: ​Thanks again, Deb Willis, for joining me in this conversation. I think the last time we saw each other was back in February in LA, in Los Angeles. I can’t believe...where we all were.

Deb: ​Yeah. Exactly. We were all together.

Marquise: ​And now, you didn't go to Carnival with Hank, your son?

Deb: ​No, I didn’t.

Marquise: ​Yeah. ‘Cause I know that they came back from that not feeling their best as well.

Deb: ​Yeah. They were sick afterwards.

Marquise: ​Yeah. Did you go to The Armory? Did you? I don't know if I ran into you at Armory, we were all out at Armory as well.

Deb: ​I didn't make it to The Armory. When I left LA I went straight to Atlanta to do a talk at Spelman. So it's been nonstop... and then we were stopped.

Marquise: ​Got it.

Deb: ​You know, and that was it.

Marquise: ​Yeah. Armory was pretty much my last hurrah as well, and then we just shut it down... tremendously. So I'm excited—you have so many things that you've done, and so many books. For people who may not know you as well as myself and maybe, people in academia and in the arts... maybe just give a little bit of how you see yourself and your work. I never like to force people to check a box on how they describe themselves, so maybe you just give a little bit of how you see your work and your approach to your work.

Deb: ​Hmm. Real grown up question, huh? So I guess my work focuses on storytelling and in the broadest sense, as you know, I'm a photographer, I teach photography at NYU. I'm a chair of the Photography and Imaging department. I also am the Director of the Center for Black Visual Culture. I write about photography, specifically mostly on Black photography. I am interested in telling the stories from the 1840s to now about the experiences of Black life, and I'm making images as well.

Marquise: ​And I know that family is an important theme—through line—through everything that you do, and even including this conversation, in fact that I'm with use, because I also collaborate with your son, Hank and I'm in touch with Mecca a lot.

Deb: ​Oh really?

Marquise: I was just texting with her this morning. So it's a family affair with the work and the process, which I really love. Talk a little bit about how that shapes your thinking about storytelling.

Deb: ​Yeah, family is central to my work, as you know. Hank Willis Thomas is my son and he is a photographer as well. He works as a conceptual artist. I grew up in Philadelphia in the fifties and sixties. Growing up in Philadelphia, I grew up with my mom, had a beauty shop and my dad, he was a policeman, but he also had a business. We had a corner store in North Philadelphia and he also was a tailor and a paper hanger. So after he left World War II, he came back and took advantage of the GI bill and went to school and became really entrepreneurial in the business of community and community building.

But he also loved photography and he had a Rolleiflex that I still remember how wonderful it was to grow up with my father, always taking photographs. He also created a calendar, a family calendar, as we all used to see... Black businesses had Black family images on calendars. So with that, we were often posed... in terms of family, my mom's side, you know, my father had 10 brothers and sisters, my mother had 13 brothers and sisters.

In the beauty shop, I used to just listen to stories and creating that...that life and understanding that life, wanting to know more about joy, because they had such a great time. And I think that that was probably more and more central to me, as knowing...when I realized I wanted to study photography, that I wanted to tell stories about Black life that was rarely seen during that time outside of Ebony, Jet and Tan and Bronze Magazine. Basically, that was it.

Marquise: ​Yeah. No, that's beautiful. It's something that I've talked to Derrick Adams about, who is, of course, part of the friends and family that we all...this idea of the Black Radical Joy that he describes. And one photo that he really introduced tome was this photo of Dr. King in a swimming pool.

Deb: ​Ah! I love that image in Ebony.

Marquise: ​Yes! I, obviously I'd seen it when I was a kid, but I never, as an adult really understood what that photo actually represented. Talk a little bit about what you describe as Black Joy and the importance of Black Joy and then some of the ideas of Radical Black Joy and what that means in the face of times that we're living in.

Deb: ​It’s fascinating that you brought that image up. ​Tiffany Gill​, Professor Tiffany Gill—she's at Rutgers now, and a fantastic woman and historian, and always telling the stories about Black Joy through travel. And I organized with ​Ellyn Toscano​, my collaborator here at NYU, ​a conference on women and migrations​, and also on ​Black Portraitures​, with other colleagues here such as ​Awam Amkpa​ and ​Manthia Diawara​, but she gave a talk, Tiffany, and she showed that slide of Dr. King in a swimming pool in Bermuda. And, you know, of course we probably saw when we were kids, but didn't connect...but seeing that in reference to the connection to the fact that he fought most of his life for, justice and freedom and voice giving a voice to Black people was really important to show the breadth of his own experiences about family life and play. And the images that we rarely see is play. You know, how do we play?

Just to think about the impact of love, and how empowering it could be if we see more of that. [Marquise: Right.] And so why I am glad you brought that image up, and Derrick, of course... you know, with his connections with Philly, Baltimore and all oft hose stories, it just really shows us that the desire for life outside of struggle is part of our everyday experiences. It’s part of our, not only our imaginary... but it's also a part of how we see the world as Black people. We find joy in food, preparing food.

We find joy in getting up in the morning and getting ready and getting dressed. And I think that that's not necessarily radical, you know, it's what we do, [Marquise: Yeah] and that's something that I'm giving the experiences we've had over the past eight months, it has been really difficult for us to remember what it means to find joy during this, this difficult time.

Marquise: ​Yeah. Yeah. And I think that, you know, the conversations that I've had with Derrick about this, when he uses the word radical. And even when I think about it, it's sad that we almost have to have the audacity to be happy. People would think that you almost force... where it's not always that. And I guess, what I'd love to hear from you is, when you're looking at the history of photography and you're seeing these images...these images are obviously in the background of a lot of struggle.

What do you look for in the faces of Black faces, that brings you joy and reminds you of the positive side of history that we have? What do you look for?

Deb: ​I don't think I'm looking for, in any specific way... I think when I'm looking at images, when I'm preparing for an exhibition or researching an experience that could just be about Black life, I'm looking for ways that people are showing moments of jubilance and not only just laughing and dancing, but also the sense of calm, you know, this, just, looking into the camera... recognizing that you see me and you see what I'm adding to the conversation. [Marquise: yeah]

And I think that that's something that, there's kind of a sense of reflexive joy, and reflexive experience about what it means to have an experience about Black joy... is something that I see in the images that I'm looking for. I'm looking for, just, you know, with the Women in Migration series, it's a way of telling a story about women who decide to leave a situation to—if it's for work, it was for love, it was for money—but they're showing away that they want to move forward in their lives in different ways.

And I think that that's something that I see as a mission for me. You know?

Marquise: ​Yeah. So I'm an, I'm a Northern young man as well. I’m from Ohio, I actually happen to be in Ohio right now.

Deb: ​Where in Ohio?

Marquise: ​I'm from Mansfield, Ohio. But, right now I'm in Columbus where a lot of my family lives, and I was just in Cincinnati, then I'm on my way to Detroit. And you know, my family was part of the great migration I'm here because of that originally from Alabama and North Carolina. In documenting the migration, what do you also see is really important? Because for me, unfortunately, because my family was split up in so many different ways, we've lost a lot of our photos. We lost a lot of... And so sometimes I almost adopt photos of what could have been my family. Talk a little bit about how just the archiving and document process and why that's important, and how else we could do that.

Deb: ​You know, I did a book about it. I couldn't believe it was 25 years until someone told me that ​we want to celebrate 25 years​ of Jasmine, twenty-five years of ​Picturing Us​. And I said 25 years, really? And, just to think about those 25 years, the cover of the book is a photograph of ​Vertamae Grosvenor​’s grandmother. That’s her photograph.

And Vertamae said that she grew up with stories as opposed to photographs. And growing up in the South, in South Carolina, the experiences that she wanted to remember, she said could fit... in terms of photographs, could fit in a shoe box. But the stories that were shared with her were immense. And so just exploring that, I'm always thinking about how, you know, I'm really excited that I grew up with photographs, but ​Ethelbert Miller​ wrote in the essay that he grew up with no photographs.

And again, the storytelling. And the storytelling allows you to visualize and hold on to, you know, a movement of people who escaped poor health and, you know, violence, but also hold on to the stories and food ways and quilt making and church and spirituality.

So I think that how we think about communal living during that time period of migration and traveling and remembering these migratory experiences help to shape stories about home and loss, but also loss and belonging. And I think that's really a central way that I see my own experience of growing up in Philly with photographs, but then listening closely to the stories that were shared with family members who were not a part of my part of who... much older. But I recall the story of my uncle, the youngest brother of my father, who, uncle Jack, when he moved North... he said every year that someone would send the Zoot suit back to Virginia. And he never knew that it was out of style. Yeah. The bus, everybody laughed at him and he couldn't figure out why. No one told him [Marquise: that it was done] done, and over with!

He was so excited to have a zoot suit. And to have that experience shared with me, it just made me, you know, I just, I visualize and I see it, you know?

Marquise: ​Of course. And I think that, you know, in some of your interviews and I've even heard Hank say this in person where, you know, he asked a lot of questions as a baby, you know, and I guess it was your mother, his grandmother would always try to hide the photos because he just kept asking questions.

How have you applied some of that curiosity to your work and even to the students that you teach? And I say that because we have Instagram, we have all these things and we feel that there's photos everywhere now. But I don't think that there's a sense of curiosity that comes along with that. How do you actually teach those students to be curious and ask those questions and go deeper instead of just swiping.

Deb: ​Wow. That's, you know, it's a hard question and an important one because as I try to create a syllabus each year about Black life... I teach, of course, the class on studio photography to seniors, but I also teach a class called The Black Body and The Lens. And this semester, the provost asked if I would teach a class on Black Lives Matter with ​Pamela Newkirk​ and the goal that I wanted to experience. And it was to, let's see, first and second year students to teach a class about ways of looking at culture, ways of looking at beauty, different ways to think about memory.

And one of the things that I start off with is to talk about the role of photography in image making. And what memory do they have about the first photograph they've seen in their family life. And these are across the board, racially, as well as people who lived in other countries... but I wanted to introduce the class through the photographic image, and Pamela through letters.

And working together, we worked on a syllabus that would just kind of expand the student's expectation about what it means to grow up with a photograph of a family member and what shapes their understanding of what families look like and what really was important for me to think about in my own sense, I've stereotyped families. You know, and I think that they should be one way of looking. [Marquise: right.]

But what I learned from the students is that what if this family by choice or family by creation. And creation comes out of looking at advertising. How do we recover a loss that they never really had, or discover, or claim a family. And so can we bring in that? And I said, sure. So I'm always in the open space of working with students who are thinking about ways to rethink the image [Marquise: right.]

I'm really excited about some of the papers we received this semester, where students, one student who was from an Eastern European country said that they didn't see Black people. So they don't have the same kind of problems that Americans have and et cetera, he went on and on about how safe he felt and not having the experience.

And then when we went through this, the history of ​The Zealy Daguerreotypes​, two images, he realized that, you know, Europeans had world fairs, they put Black people in zoos, human zoos, and he realized that we're all implicated in this, in this experience. And he felt that he wanted to write a paper about what he did not see that he was a part of, but he was part of that history that needed to understand representation of Black identities through a global lens, and how do we do that?

Marquise: ​Wow, that's powerful. [Deborah: Yeah.] That brings up another question and point that I've been thinking about with some of the work that we do, is this idea of evidence. And evidence is really important. Evidence is very different to me than just archiving. I've spent a lot of time in South Africa and other places like that, where saving photos to show what has happened is really important. And it sounds like the story of this young person in this class. They didn't have evidence of the truth until you actually helped uncover that. Talk a little bit about the work that you do and how it helps to express evidence as well, as we're in this eraser society where Black history is being erased.

Deb: ​Yeah, the fear of it is just... it's astounding. [Marquise: Yeah.] You know, I grew up in, as you know, North Philly, I had Black teachers in elementary school. I know a number of people who said they'd never had a Black teacher.

Marquise: ​That's me. I've never had a Black teacher.

Deb: ​I just love the fact...I treasure that. But the one important aspect for me was the people would complain about Black History Month or Black History Week. When I was a kid in elementary school, it was a week and we were introduced and bombarded with material about Black heroes and Black writers. And Langston Hughes and Marian Anderson, everything that dealt with Black life in a week, you know, between Lincoln and Frederick Douglas’ birthdays. You know, we were like, there jammed in. But that memory stayed with me.

And so thinking about evidence, I'm working on a book now entitled The Black Civil War Soldier: Conflict and Citizenship with the New York University Press. When I was in school, they'd never talked about Black soldiers. It was Lincoln, all of that. And I was fascinated when I started working at the Schomburg and then working at... then, it was called the National African-American Museum Project, which is now the museum. There were a number of collectors who would try to sell us photographs, like for millions of dollars of Black civil war soldiers. We couldn't afford them at the time, but now that they are collected in the library of Congress and at the museum and other places, the evidence is there, and I wanted to create a book with letters and diary pages of entries about their experiences. And that was the evidence for me. So it was a memory that was personal and public, but also the fact that Black civil war soldiers’ experiences, no matter how difficult it was, they had a desire to be free. And they had a desire for their families to be free. You know, they left their families.

So these are moments that I think that images helped me question the absence, but then also the evidence, you know, discovering the evidence, helped me, you know, fix the memory... and fixing that memory was through creating books about images that represent the activity of Black soldiers, wearing uniforms or writing letters and reading those images. I felt it was really important to explore what it meant about identity through this experience that included not only joy and pain, but also Black identity to challenge the national reference that five people did not have a desire... they couldn't read or write and here... their print, their letters. You know, I just think it's just amazing.

Marquise: ​What is the future, do you think, of evidence within the digital age? You know, I grew up just on the other side of the Emmett Till Images. And I grew up seeing those and being reminded of that every time I'd go down South.

Deb: ​No, I wasn't. I'm a pain in the neck too. Cause I would do that to Hank. You can't do this. Be careful. You can't run. You can't do that.

Marquise: ​I know! I know! It was like, we're going down South, you can't do anything. And so those were powerful images, but what's the future of evidence. In the digital age when we are, you know, I'm not done with George Floyd or anything, but a lot of people have seen it, done with it and swiped past it. What do you see again, to the future, particularly with digital media and imagery... How do we hold those spaces to say that we still exist and matter, and that these images are important and they're not just clickbait.

Deb: ​It's really important. I find it significant for us to, to look. Some people tell me I can't look anymore. I don't want to be reminded, but we must look. We can't forget, you know, as a mother of a Black son, I'm constantly thinking about, you know, humanity and how do we get people—Not just white people, but people to see our humanity. How do we create stories that will preserve us as human? And that's really central. When we think about this experience of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the others, unfortunately... that we are sharing through artwork. And I think that why art is so essential is that it gives us a chance to reflect. It gives us the strength to heal, as we think about framing this difficult history and the difficult history is, as I started out with, is the storytelling aspect of it. Having that memory of George Floyd, it takes you back to... took me back to Emmett Till and to Rodney King. [Marquise: Absolutely.]

And if there's a way that police academies could teach recruits about what they see when they see a Black person, you know, there's always a range of people, but consider who you're seeing when you walk through the streets, you know, how do we challenge the stereotype? And that's why I think that we need to continue talking about the experience.

Marquise: ​what's the role of the artists? You know, we talk about that a lot. What do you feel like the role of the artist is in these moments? Do you feel like they have a greater responsibility? Do you feel like...

Deb: ​I don't think it's their responsibility. I don't see it as artists’ responsibility to change the world, but I think it's artists... has the opportunity for us to reflect. We contain a lot in the way that we look at images on the news, but I really believe the purpose for me as an artist is to make visible and retain the storytelling aspect of it, to get people to galvanize and think about, as they look at this, what do you think about this? How can we make a difference? How can we challenge this? And how can we challenge? What's the impact of an image that shows young girls just jumping rope, you know, showing their joy, you know? And I think that that's something that we need to keep in mind: that artists are showing the range of experience about Black life. Not only trauma.

You know the experience, like one of the people I love dearly is ​Michèle Pearson Clarke​. ​She has a piece called ​Suck Teeth​ and it's in Toronto and it's a sound piece and a performance piece, and she asks people from different parts of the world, you know, to suck their teeth about whatever. And so we know what it means and what could happen when you suck your teeth. But it engaged me so profoundly because it's so humorous! Because it tells so many stories from the Caribbean, from South, Africa. So when I think artists are able to affirm our existence in different ways, It just humanizes our experiences.

Marquise: ​Yeah. What are the artists that you're seeing today? I mean what's, say, a few artists that people should go and see.And really experience the storytelling that they're providing? Who are the hot artists that you and our photographers that you

Deb: ​Well, ​Adama Delphine Fuwundu​—she is just fantastic. We think of the work of ​Zalika Azim​, she's also looking at South Carolina. I think of not only in terms of older artists like ​James Barnor​, just to think about his work as he traveled from Ghana to England and to have that experience, you know, and then having the studio that's called ​Forever Young​, you know, that's just, you know, just fantastic. And I, and here, you know, curated and the show that was at the ​100 years, 100 women​ armory show and looking at ​Rose DeSiano​ her work in terms of creating monuments for women.

So that work of women is just, I keep thinking about it. So you notice today Sade Maconen yes. Her work in way she created that performance piece in Venice. Yeah. So they just, they go on and on as I'm so engaged with artists and the way that artists are finding ways to tell stories. Including Hank Willis Thomas!

Marquise: ​Yes, absolutely. I have many of his pieces. So, I love his work.Deb: ​Right. And do you know ​Yelaine Rodriguez​? [Marquise: Yes.] Yes. She's another that just, I’m just engrossed and impressed with the way that she’s using fabric and clothing to think about it. [Marquise: Yeah.]Marquise: ​Well, thank you so much and I, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. And I just have one final question and thought is: with the storytelling and the curation that you do, what would you like for people to walk away feeling?

Not necessarily just thinking about, but what are some of the things that you would love to, when you're expressing, how are people feeling? What do you look for? Or, or are you looking to create any feelings at all in the work that you do?

Deb: ​I'm hopeful. That's what I want people to see—that I'm hopeful. And that I'm hopeful that diverse stories could counter the stories about Black people in different ways. I hope to expand conversations. I want people to think about identity in a broader sense. And I think that that's where, when I say I'm hopeful, that's what I think that that's what my work is mainly about.

Marquise: ​That’s beautiful. Well, thank you so much, Deb Willis, for joining me for this amazing conversation. Appreciate you taking the time.

Deb: ​I'm so glad you could wait ‘till this time, because I told you how crazy this month has been.

Marquise: ​I know, I know. And I’m so thankful. We, you know, we've crossed paths in so many ways. And we’re always hug, hug, kiss, kiss, and you know, running around... but I'm glad that we could finally just slow down and have a conversation and learn more about your work.

Deb: ​Truly honored.

Marquise: ​Thank you so much.