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Artist uses photography to frame race and identity

By Iman Saad

Identity, history and pop culture: These are just some of the basic themes that photographer Hank Willis Thomas addresses in his conceptual art. His art work is featured in the “Wounding the Black Male: Photographs from the Light Work Collection” exhibit at the College, which will be on display until April 20 in the College Art Gallery in the Art and Interactive Multimedia Building.

Thomas decided to explain his themes, thoughts and inspirations with College students on March 21 during an Artist Talk in the Library Auditorium.

Thomas’ art strongly focuses on questioning reality and society’s concept of beauty.

“Photography is somewhat manipulative,” Thomas said, and he claimed photography can be used “as a distortion” of reality and truth.

This view of the world and art inspired him to utilize both photographical frames and real frames to capture a picture.

“When I think about my work, I mostly think about framing and context,” Thomas said. He wants to focus on “framing something that is inside and outside the frame.”

By having people hold real frames as he photographed them, Thomas was able to take a look into how people view the world and reality.

However, when Thomas described the murder of his cousin and the photo he took at his cousin’s funeral, he talked about how he realized that photography was not enough. A photo of the funeral was not enough to tell the story of tragedy and grief that his family felt.

This is what began Thomas’ journey to further analyzing race and identity and how that influences the world. Discussing both historical and personal stories, Thomas shared his desire to break the racial walls found in society, specifically advertising.

Thomas said that advertising manipulates people’s race and identity as a marketing tool. Using characteristics and traits of “whiteness” or “blackness” advertisers have their own language when marketing a product, he said.

This advertising language causes us to “brand ourselves,” according to Thomas. People associate certain traits with “whiteness” or “blackness” or any other race.

“I wanted to embed my own two cents into that language (of advertising),” said Thomas as he displayed his “debranding” of fam-ous advertisements.

This concept was addressed in Thomas’ series, “Reflections in Black by Corporate America.”

Thomas pointed out how some people are portrayed in certain ways, especially on the basis of race by examining 20th-century advertisements.

Looking at modern ads, Thomas said that not much has changed. Ads are still marketed toward people on the basis of identity, whether that is race, gender or religion.

“Ads are a reflection of our society’s hopes and dreams,” Thomas said, noting that one can learn much about history and society by looking at advertisements.

However, Thomas still reflected his optimism by showing a video mosaic that consisted of video clips of many people that were combined to create one large moving picture of a pair of eyes.

“I think anyone looks beautiful once you stare at them long enough,” Thomas claimed as he reaffirmed that every person in this video was beautiful to him, regardless of differences.

Thomas ended the lecture by talking about both his accomplishments and failures, and how despite failure, he keeps moving forward.

“Once you fail, it is a lot easier to do stuff. (Because) it can’t get worse,” Thomas joked as he encouraged the audience to turn a critical eye on the world and recognize what is real and what is not.


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