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Reflected in the Lens

After Years of Chronicling the African-American Experience, Photographer and Former MICA Professor Deborah Willis Turns the Camera on Herself

SHE'S FEELING A LOT BETTER NOW: Deborah Willis, in a self-portrait from her "Cancer Diaries" series.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 3/30/2005

On page 73, the fearful face of a haunted black woman stares askance, tentatively tugging on her right ear. Her head is shaven, her eyes are marked by dark circles, and her breasts droop ever so slightly under an orange-yellow muscle shirt that shows off her golden-brown skin. As she reappears on subsequent pages, the pictures document her bout with breast cancer, showing the scar that is proof of her ordeal, and revealing to the reader traces of intense beauty in her vulnerability.

While these photos depict a dark time that many women would want to forget, Deborah Willis uses them to remember, having photographed herself for “Cancer Diaries,” just one chapter in Family History Memory, her new collection of photos and prose that chronicles her life, as well as her life’s work in documenting the African-American experience.

“It’s not hard to look at,” says 57-year-old Willis from her New York home, about “Cancer Diaries.” “I see it as a reminder of what I was struggling through at the time. I see my visual image as a part of my diaristic.” She calls Family History Memory, begun in 2001, the same year she was diagnosed with breast cancer, an effort to teach people “to value how photographic memory is essential to storytelling.”

While Willis’ voice on the phone is soft and unimposing, her vision is precise and stark, as shown in her images of her own resilience and the resilience of black people who have played leading roles in her life. But through all of the scenes in Family History Memory, whether old or new—old family photos, new documentary work, diary entries, essays—her book whispers a central theme that ultimately transcends the black experience: All families are a part of history that informs memory, and thus should be captured on film.

Her journey as a photographer began with her own family, around the age of 9 in north Philadelphia, when she took photos of her family’s Christmas presents, old images that reappear in the earliest pages of Family History Memory. Since then, her life-long love affair with the lens has led her to earn degrees—from the Pratt Institute, George Mason University, and an honorary doctorate from MICA in 2003, among others—while also teaching new generations of photographers, at MICA in 2000 and 2001, and more recently at Princeton, Duke, and New York University, where she has been a professor since 2001. During this time, she has also produced 14 books, most of which have captured the verisimilitudes of black life, as in last year’s Black: A Celebration of Culture (Hylas Publishing), or chronicled the work of other African-American photographers like Gordon Parks, James VanDerZee, and Carie Marie Weems, as in 2000’s Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present (W.W. Norton).

But it was only at the urging of her son Hank that Willis thought to publish a book about her own journey. And when she set herself to it, she found that much of the material for Family History Memory had already been collected, in a lifetime of family photos, professional projects, and stories that were ripe for the telling.

“I photograph all the time,” Willis says. “Even though I’m not thinking about a book or an exhibition, [I am] constantly creating a photo diary.”

It was just a matter of thinking of herself as the subject, rather than strictly the author, of her work. Family History Memory marks the first time she has put herself on exhibition.

“I had not focused on my own photography for most of my life,” she says. “I was more interested in documenting the history of [other] African-American photographers. And I basically put a lot of my work on the back burner. I was really glad to have the opportunity to look at my more than 30 years in photography, and have a visual exchange of what I’ve written and also photographed over the years, that no one had a chance to see.”

Some of Willis’ more affecting memories are contained in her family “photo quilts.” In the book, Willis shows how memories can be woven together with tradition by printing old photos on photo linen, and then placing the images on sentimental pieces of clothing. In “Daddy’s Ties,” for example, she layers images of her father, who died in 1990, on the ties her mother and sisters had given him over the years, then sewed them together at opposite ends to make a quilt of pictures of her dad, including one of him beaming proudly in his World War II uniform. Quilts like these tell the tale of one black family’s celebration of a life lost, and its mourning becomes representative of all black families in America who are trying to preserve their histories.

“I believe quilts are made to remind us of who we are and what our ancestors have [meant] to us,” she says.

While Willis delves into many areas that are unique to her experience, the images of African-American women in particular seem most affecting. Her photo essay “Beauty,” for instance, unravels the lore behind the black beauty shop, which for many black women seems a modern-day public square. In pictures like “Mrs. Brown’s shop, Philadelphia, 1999,” and “Drying Time, Eatonville, Florida, 2003,” we see beauticians tending to tresses and salon patrons getting their hair shampooed, curled, and permed, each woman wearing the same shared reverence for the ritual.

Willis relates, in both photo and word, how she grew up seeing firsthand how important the beauty shop was to the African-American woman: Her mother was a beautician and worked out of her home in north Philadelphia, so Willis came to see the beauty shop as a backdrop—a necessary part of life for the black women who came to Willis’ house for a hair color or a wet set.

“Often they were domestics and they would leave work and come to our house to be beautified for church,” Willis writes. “[They] . . . shared stories about humiliating encounters.” For these women, Willis maintains, the salon is still a place of pampering, solace, and refuge, where it’s safe to reveal anything.

Willis also explores the stereotypes that have prevailed about black women in America. In the photo essay “Hip Hop,” for instance, she captures what she calls “hip-hop girl fashion,” as seen on scantily clad women in Miami. These images play into the spirit, Willis says, of the “Hottentot Venus”—the name given to Sarah Baartman, the African woman who was exhibited naked in cages in Paris and London, beginning in 1810, and regarded as an object of amusement because of the size of her buttocks—while other images of the black woman are rarely seen in mainstream media.

“Some people have become the stereotype,” Willis admits, referring to her hip-hop divas. But this is not the only story of black women to be told in America, which is why in Family History Memory she puts her skimpily clothed Miami subjects alongside photo essays like “Bodybuilding,” in which a black woman bodybuilder’s chiseled and posed body make for an unlikely contrast.

And by setting up such contrasts Willis hopes that her career will be known for telling the whole story of the African-American experience. “There are some people who have their own interest in photographing black people in prison or on drugs,” she says. “[But] the African-American community has not been documented in a representative light.”

Neither, for that matter, have been African-American photographers, which is another wrong that Willis hopes will soon be righted. “As an undergraduate student, there were no black photographers mentioned in my photo history book,” she says. “And now there are still not enough mentioned. . . . My interest is showing a broader visual history.”

In Family History Memory, Willis has found that part of telling that history means starting with herself—the black woman in front of, as well as behind, her lens. And in living her life in front of the camera—through family photos, self-portraits, and chronicling her own life events, including her battle with cancer—she might carve out her piece of history as an African-American woman photographer whose personal experiences, in their own way, become universal.

“It’s amazing to have young women in their 20s who have survived cancer, or lost their mothers or someone close [to them] to cancer,” she says. “[They have] thanked me for being so open about it. Telling your own story gives permission for people to talk about their own experience.”

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