Hank Willis Thomas on Photo-manipulation, Instagram, and Hybrid Identities

Hank Willis Thomas unabashedly points his camera toward issues of identity, race, and class. In this candid interview, he discusses a range of topics relating to his practice, from voyeurism and Instagram to photo-manipulation, stereotypes, and hybrid identities.

Artsy: When, and why, did you first pick up a camera?

Hank Willis Thomas: My mother, Deborah Willis, is a photographer, photo-historian, author, and educator. Cameras have been part of my life since I can remember.

Artsy: You use photography to raise questions on violence, race, class, and identity. How is the medium conducive to presenting these issues in such a powerful way?

HWT: In the United States, every photograph of a person speaks to issues of race, class, and identity. My fine art photography is simply less misleading about its intentions. Photography has influenced, manipulated, and distorted most of our relationships to reality, history, the representation of others, as well as ourselves. We passively accept most things we see in photographs as evidence or “truth”.

I use photography to approach these issues because I already know that the public's eye is trained to subconsciously imbibe images on a massive scale. For this reason, it is the perfect medium by which to problematize these things in order to inspire dialogue. And then there is Instagram, which just makes me feel like my life is more interesting than it is every time I get a “like” from a stranger. It’s kind of weird how voyeurism and exhibitionism have become married in such an explicit less shameful way in recent years.

Artsy: A lot of your work addresses the way pop culture propagates certain stereotypes. How can we move beyond these paradigms?

HWT: I personally believe that as long as we believe in race, we are racists. It may seem provocative since the idea of race has very real consequences for so many of us. We try to pretend racists are devils while ignoring the societal and institutional foundations of racism. But at the end of the day, like most things, it’s just a figment of our imagination. That became so much clearer to me as I’ve traveled around the world, especially in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Race was created by western Europeans to explicitly perpetuate their dominance over other peoples and cultures. It’s worked like a charm in the U.S. especially. But times are a-changin’. I believe we can start to challenge these paradigms by becoming more active lookers. Historical consciousness, flexible thinking and visual literacy are key. When we start to view images as text, we can start to see the kind of visual coding taking place. All images are messages. We just need to become active in the discourse rather than simply being receptors or consumers of images, which is how the public is trained by popular culture media. Did you ever watch this speech by Walter Mosley? (see video)

Artsy: You recently photographed Sanford Biggers in half black, half white makeup. Can you talk about the concept behind this project, as well as your decision to shoot the images personally?

HWT: There is so much to that piece, it’s hard to summarize and make sense. First, I am most known for manipulating photographs, but my training is as a photographer. I've always kept this as part of my practice. The idea for the “Wayfarer Series” comes from an archival image I found while doing photo research. It spoke to the idea of hybridity and double-consciousness. Sanford has explored this in his work for years and I felt like that collaboration with him would allow me to ponder these ideas on a different level. Today, nearly everyone is a cultural hybrid. We can’t just look at skin color to tell us very much about their beliefs, values, and traditions. I love collaboration because it gives me a chance to think bigger and in more complex ways about everything. On some level, all of my work is about framing and context. How and where we are standing, who is “holding” the frame affects how we perceive the world.

Artsy: What are you up to next?

HWT: I've got a lot of things coming up! I’m really excited about the range of projects I’ve been involved in. I just completed at 70 foot video installation called “The Long March” with other members of ©ause Collective at the Shuttlesworth- Birmingham International Airport. I am a co-executive producer on my friend Terence Nance’s filmAn Oversimplification of Her Beauty which is out later this month. My collaborative project Question Bridge: Black Males is continuing to travel the country and we are in development of an interactive website with the support of the California Endowment and Tribeca Film Institute. Natasha Logan and I just curated an exhibition “White Boys” at Haverford College featuring a number of peers I admire. And later this year the Cleveland Museum of Art and Transformer Station in Cleveland are doing a large survey of my work, which will include the traveling of the Truth Booth around the city. I’m very excited to see how all of these projects will evolve. [So are we! Follow Hank on Artsy and Twitter for updates]

Portrait by Alexis Peskine