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Oct 23, 2008

By coopting images and icons from advertising, photographer Hank Willis Thomas is raising awareness about the ongoing struggle of blacks in America.

By Anna-Katarina Gravgaard

In a photograph, a familiar black figure dangles on a noose hanging from a tree. Both tree and man are recognizable as modern advertising icons: one sells Timberland clothing, and the other, Nike Air Jordans.
The piece “re-contextualizes [the images] with the most shocking visual symbols of slavery: lynching, branding, slave ships,” says Joanna Lehan, an editor at the Aperture Foundation. “In so doing, Hank suggests the complicity of corporate America in current day forms of oppression.”
Photographer Hank Willis Thomas’s series, B®ANDED, which uses the slick familiarity of commercial photography as a vehicle for biting social commentary, was the first ever recipient of the Aperture West Book Prize, which is given to raise awareness of photographers working in areas west of the Mississippi.
Since childhood, Thomas has wrestled with critical themes within black culture, which he reifies through the intimate medium of his photography. 
In his new book, Pitch Blackness, Thomas turns his lens to a critique of African-American culture, focusing on a subject that hit very close to home: the slaying of his cousin and former roommate, Songha Willis, in 2000.
An image of an all-black funeral called Priceless serves as a tribute to Willis, who was killed over a necklace while the two cousins were sharing an apartment. “The worst part was that we didn’t even have to ask whether or not the killers were black,” recalls Thomas.
Willis’s death saturates Pitch Blackness, and editor Lehan emphasizes the unease.

Watch FLYP’s video interview with Hank Willis Thomas, in which he discusses his piece Shooting Stars.

“Though in the book, Songha becomes a symbol—a stand-in, in a way—for the stories of too many young black men. I never lost sight of the fact that the loss was also a personal one for Hank and his family. And I never wanted readers to be able to avoid that
pain, either.”
In another piece, he draws attention to homicide statistics: “Blacks were six times more likely than whites to be murdered in 2005. Some 94 percent of blacks were killed by other blacks.”
Thomas has gown up within this discourse of issues in black American culture. In Pitch Blackness, he thanks his mother, Deborah Willis, a famous photographer and scholar of Africana studies, for “forcing” him to pursue a career as an artist.  
When he was just 17, Thomas exhibited his work at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery as part of a student exhibition. He has since earned a BFA in photography and Africana studies as well as a MFA in photography and a MA in visual criticism.

Watch FLYP’s video interview with Hank Willis Thomas, in which he discusses one of his most provocative pieces.

Now 32 years old, his art has been shown in galleries across the country, including Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Studio Museum in Harlem, N.Y. and the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in Virginia.
The new book represents the first time his work has been featured solo in book form, and its timing is important. With the possibility of the first black president next month, Thomas sees a major challenge and moral obligation guiding his efforts.
“If Obama wins, critics are going to say ‘what are you complaining about?’” he predicts. “It will probably be a few years before people are going realize that just because you have a black president, it doesn’t mean that racism or black crime is going to end.”

Over the last pages of FLYP Media’s story, check out some of Hank Willis Thomas’s most striking images, and watch videos of him talking about each one.

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