Photographic perceptions

Bryan Wroten

New York professor speaks about portrayal of women in images

Deborah Willis, professor of photography and imaging at New York University, speaks at Oscar Ritchie Hall about how photographs portray black women. AMANDA SOWARDS | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

Sharecropper. Successful business owner.

Blacks lived as both during the same time period, but pictures of the former are most prevalent in modern society, photographer Deborah Willis said.

Willis, professor of photography and imaging at New York University, spoke last night about the perception of images. Her presentation, “Reflections in Black,” stressed the importance of not taking everything at face value.

She displayed pictures she collected after more than 30 years of research from libraries and her own photography. She also included some pictures taken by her son. She used them to show the different depictions of blacks through history.

“You rarely find representative images of free blacks,” she said. “They’re mainly found in family collections.”

She showed a picture of a semi-clothed black woman taken by scientists during slavery. She said pictures of this woman were used to show blacks as less than human. Next, she showed a picture of a black woman who was dressed stylishly from the same time period. She said the white public would never see these images.

W. E. B. DuBois became upset by the portrayal of blacks, Willis said. To combat this, he created a collection of photographs called “Progress of the Negro Race” positively depicting black men, women and families, she said, including black families owning homes and black women having jobs. She said DuBois won the grand prize of the Paris Exposition for this collection in 1900.

“The images showed black people thinking about themselves outside of slavery,” she said.

The creation of black-run publications helped to capture accurate images of blacks, she said. It showed them outside of their stereotypical roles. Pictures of successful black business owners living in Harlem in 1932 helped blacks living in rural areas picture themselves as something other than sharecroppers, she said.

The publications and their photographers also helped record history, Willis said. Pictures of Malcolm X playing with his daughters in their backyard, Coretta Scott King at her husband’s funeral having to look after their children, protesters marching on Washington D.C. in 1963 – these showed who the people were, she said.

Willis also spoke about some of the photography her son took about corporations and the images they push. She showed an image of a shaved black man’s head with the Nike Swoosh branded into it, a black man’s chest with multiple Nike Swooshes branded into it and a basketball chained to a player’s foot, acting as a weight.

Seeing these, Matt Cox, president of Black United Students, said the idea of being so attached to corporate products and brand names is thought-provoking.

“All the name brands I have on, am I really nailed down to the corporate world?” he asked of himself. “Am I forced to, or is it my mind telling me I’m supposed to wear them?”

Contact minority affairs reporter Bryan Wroten at [email protected].