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Hank Willis Thomas on Truth, Lies and Advertising

By David Walker


Hank Willis Thomas Branded Head 2003
© Hank Willis Thomas/Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery
"Branded Head, 2003" from Hank Willis Thomas's "Branded" series. To see more of his work, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Among the provocative works by visual artist Hank Willis Thomas is his image of mourners at the funeral for his cousin, who was murdered during a robbery outside a Philadelphia nightclub in 2000. Thomas turned the photograph into a critique of the MasterCard “Priceless” campaign. The scene is heartbreaking, with text that takes the campaign to an outrageous extreme by listing some of the shopping expenses associated with a murder: “3-piece suit: $250; new socks: $2; 9mm Pistol: $80; gold chain: $400; Bullet: 60¢; Picking the perfect casket for your son: priceless.”

That faux ad is part of Thomas’s seminal series called “Branded,” which raises questions about how advertisers seduce us with images, and manipulate our values and behavior. After the “Branded” series, Thomas deconstructed advertising images in other ways, with particular attention to race, and the way African-Americans are subjugated and manipulated. Race was his point of departure for a more universal critique about the language of advertising. Thomas has since branched out to other projects, including one called “In Search of the Truth.” It features a traveling installation called “The Truth Booth,” which is an inflatable speech bubble and recording booth where passers-by can enter, turn on a video camera and, in private, declare their own versions of the truth.

The common thread running through all of Thomas’s work is the malleability of narrative in images and their implied “truth,” and how viewers buy into those narratives, often without a second thought. “I see all of my work as about framing and context. I’m really interested in how who holds the frame helps shape the context of what we’re seeing, what we’re looking at, and how we interpret and relate to it,” Thomas says.

His earlier work in particular can easily be read as an indictment of advertising, and on one level, it is. But Thomas says he’s not interested in pat messages, or preaching. Instead, he’s interested in deconstructing the language and power of advertising imagery, and encouraging people to co-opt it for their use.

“It’s the most ubiquitous language in the world, and it’s only used [by] industry,” he says. “A very small percentage of people are actually appropriating the language of photography and graphic design to actually comment on their own personal values … I really feel that that language should be kind of used more democratically.”

Thomas goes on to observe, “Advertising is a reflection of society’s hopes and dreams and sometimes you can learn more about society from a single ad than you could from reading a whole book. And I think it’s under-researched and under-appreciated for its real power.”

For the “Branded” series, Thomas riffed on a variety of iconic images in hopes of making people think twice about how advertising images work, and about whose interests those messages serve. For instance, he created a series of faux Absolut vodka ads, one of them an image of a Middle Passage ship packed with slaves, over the headline, “Absolut Power.”

In fact, many of the works in the “Branded” series connect consumerism and our obsession with brands (like Absolut and MasterCard) to our financial and spiritual enslavement. Thomas uses the literal imagery of slavery to make the metaphorical point. For instance, he used digital manipulation to brand (in the slave branding sense) Nike swooshes onto a shaved head and also onto the torso of an athletic African-American male. In both instances, the exclusion of the faces depersonalizes the subjects. Thomas says that when they were displayed in kiosks, he observed people walking by them four or five times before they noticed something was amiss, and realized that what they were seeing weren’t actual Nike ads.

For another work, he hung Nike’s leaping Michael Jordan silhouette from a tree, in an echo of lynching. Another piece shows the NBA logo on a poster from 1853 advertising a slave sale (“$1200 to 1250 Dollars! For Negroes!!”). Another image from the “Branded” series shows a basketball with an NBA logo attached to a chain, weighing down a leaping African-American basketball player. It is meant to suggest that professional sports possess characteristics of slavery, to the extent that the leagues exploit athletes.

The “Branded” series begat another series of works called “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968-2008.” Thomas was worried that viewers were too focused on the artifice of “Branded” to catch the point of his critique. So “Unbranded” was his way of saying, in effect, “Look, I’m not just making this up.” For the “Unbranded” series Thomas stripped away all the text and branding information in actual ads, in order to lay bare some of the ways that advertising images reinforced insulting and dehumanizing portrayals of African-Americans. Among them were images of watermelons, Aunt Jemima-like characters and degrading stereotypes of African-American sexuality. Images from both the “Branded” and the “Unbranded” series were included in his book Pitch Blackness, published by Aperture in 2008.

Thomas is, for the record, a fan of advertising, albeit a critical one. “Advertising seduces me. I love glossy images. I love the challenges of it, the excitement of it. I love the imagination,” he says. “But the fact that I have to stay in that constant state of reminding myself that [it] is fantasy, [is] kind of where I have a gripe. I wouldn’t say I have any disdain for it. But it’s like, ‘You tricked me again!’”

Thomas says that as a kid, he was particularly drawn to the Absolut campaign, fascinated by how its creators were able to re-imagine something as simple as a bottle in so many different ways. More recently, the Apple iPod campaign showing silhouettes of people with white earbuds stuck in his mind. His irresistible attraction to campaigns such as these makes him wonder a bit nervously: “What’s going on in my subconscious whenever I go to buy a new phone or new shoes? What things are being triggered?”

Thomas began developing his healthy skepticism of images as a child. Born in New Jersey in 1976, he is the son of the noted photo historian and curator Deborah Willis, who has authored numerous books about photography, and won a MacArthur “genius” grant, among other awards, for her work. One of her best-known books is Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present, which was published in 2002.

Seeing images lying around the house as he was growing up, overhearing his mother’s conversations with colleagues, and getting dragged to exhibitions, openings and archives through the years, Thomas couldn’t help but become an astute reader of photography. He saw, for instance, a depiction of nineteenth century African-Americans, photographed by other African-Americans. The subjects posed as well-dressed, dignified human beings—a far cry from what Thomas calls “coon” images: ridiculous caricatures of blacks perpetuated widely in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by those trying to undermine the image of African-Americans in the minds of everyone, including African-Americans themselves.

“I learned that the grand narrative of history was a lie, just by seeing images that counter the history that I was being told in school, and seeing on TV,” Thomas says. The very idea that there were black photographers in the 1850s changed his worldview. “You had to have a certain amount of means, and be enterprising, and have a certain amount of creative and technical skill, and a certain level of audacity and time to go and make photographs. How does that affect our whole notion of what black life was like in the 1850s, when all the images we see are ‘yes, massa,’ and ‘yes, boss’?” (He notes that the portraits black photographers made of other blacks were also manipulations of truth—positive ones, but manipulations nonetheless.)

He ended up attending New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1994 because his mother made him go, he says. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography and African Studies in 1998. “When I graduated, all I was worried about was not getting a dead-end job. I wasn’t thinking: I want to do this, or I want to do that.”

Thomas assisted photographer Mark Jenkinson for a time, working on celebrity, editorial and automobile shoots. He also worked as a production assistant for several TV shows, music videos and commercials. “I enjoyed being behind the scenes, seeing how things worked,” he says. “You meet these cool people. And I loved the spontaneity. Sometimes you don’t know the environment you’re going to be in or what you’re going to be doing. So you just get there and try to make magic.”

Though he enjoyed the assisting work, Thomas decided that he was getting too comfortable. “I didn’t have the ambition to be a great photographer or artist or filmmaker.” So he decided to go back to school, and applied to the California College of the Arts. There, he would study with Larry Sultan, Jim Goldberg, Todd Hido and Chris Johnson. “They shaped a lot of my thinking about how I could move into making work that was more conceptual, rather than trying to get [assignment] gigs and things like that,” Thomas says.

But just after submitting his application, Thomas was knocked off his moorings by a personal tragedy that ended up shaping his career as much as anything else. His best friend and roommate in New York City was his older cousin Songha Willis, whom he idolized. Willis went to Philadelphia one weekend in February 2000, and met some old school friends at a nightclub. When they left, they were robbed at gunpoint. The robbers ordered Willis to lie down in the snow, and then shot him in the back of the head.

“At his funeral, since he and I were like brothers, I felt this responsibility to stand up in his absence, but also as a family photographer, to document things,” Thomas says. So there he was with a 6 x 7 camera, surrounded by 700 people mourning a 27-year-old man in a strange city.

“That said a lot about who he was, and I was never going to be able to capture that, or any of the things really that I was trying to deal with, in a single photograph,” Thomas says. He realized that after shooting a few frames. “It was like, this is stupid, photographing at a funeral. So in that moment I think I stopped being a photographer in earnest. I became a little bit disenchanted with the idea of me being able to tell a story through a single photograph or even a series of photographs because there are so many elements that you can’t capture in a picture alone.”

In grad school the following fall, Thomas found himself far from his family, consumed by his cousin’s death and at loose ends about his work. He ended up going back and forth to Philadelphia while the trial of his cousin’s murderer was going on, and photographing his family and his cousin’s friends. But it was like photographing a story after the drama had happened, so the project was “basically a bunch of people looking sad,” Thomas says.

A year after he started grad school, nearly 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks. Then in 2002, Michael Moore released the film Bowling for Columbine, about gun culture in America. Thomas began to view his cousin’s death in a larger context. “I was thinking about homicide in the U.S., and the disproportionate numbers of African-American men who were victims of homicide and gun violence specifically, and wondering whether it would be me next,” Thomas says.

At the same time, Thomas was studying critical theory, literary theory and art history. “It allowed me to think much more critically about the work I was making, and the intention behind it, and the power and potency of the work that I could make. And that’s partially how I became interested in the power of advertising.”

Graduate school had gone from a capricious, carefree decision to a serious task, he says. He found himself wondering “what it is about blackness that makes other black people devalue each other’s lives so much.” He started to look at historical images and images in popular culture and realized that even in contemporary images, he says, “there are not many representations of African-Americans—men especially—in whole and humanistic ways.”

He came to view race itself as “the most successful advertising campaign in the world—you know, the fact that you can create this arbitrary definition of human beings,” he says. “And to who’s advantage? To who’s disadvantage? And so I started to really try to make work to comment on that.”

He used his own photographs, including one of the images from his cousin’s funeral, for the “Priceless” piece. Thomas says he tried making a MasterCard ad parody with different images before a graphic designer friend suggested he use the image from his cousin’s funeral “and that clicked,” Thomas says.

The “Branded” series became “kind of a dare to corporations, especially Nike, that benefit greatly from the black community through brand loyalty.” He wondered if any of those companies would challenge his use of their logos as a foil for criticism. But none did. “I realized it’s just free advertising for them,” he says. (Not that he wished to be sued. “I’m not that tough,” Thomas says, although he’s aware the attention might have boosted his career.)

Thomas says he was more conflicted about using the work of other photographers for his “Unbranded” series, out of concern that he might be perceived as disrespecting their work, and hurt their feelings as a result.

“The thing I love about the photography world is that it’s a pretty loyal and a genuinely pretty earnest community,” he says. “So for me to be using their work in a critical way was something I felt really ambivalent about. But at the same time I didn’t know if there was a way to make the [‘Unbranded’] work without that.” (That the ads are a big group effort, and rarely the work of the photographer alone, gave Thomas some comfort.)

His more recent projects have moved away from advertising, and have less of a critical bite. But Thomas is no less concerned with the dignity of regular people and the legitimacy of their voices, in a culture flooded with images intended to make us think and behave in ways that serve powerful interests. “Along the Way,” a project he did as part of the Cause Collective with other artists, is a video mosaic made up of hundreds of short video portraits of individual people. Commissioned by the Port of Oakland for California’s Oakland International Airport, it is intended to show the diversity of people and experiences that shape us, and our communities.

“Question Bridge,” a work-in-progress, is another project Thomas has been collaborating with the Cause Collective on. “Question Bridge” uses video to spur dialogue among black males about their identity, collectively and individually. The “Truth Booth” is also a work-in-progress by the Cause Collective.

“With ‘Truth Booth,’ everyone has their own version of the truth. So it’s really about context, and how you frame it—whether you frame truth about something metaphysical or something that’s empirical or something that’s really personal to you,” Thomas explains. “‘Question Bridge’ [asks]: Can you create a collective identity for 30 million [African-American] people? Does it even make sense? What kind of frame is there for such a large and diverse population? Can race and gender be the single aligning factor for 30 million human beings? [The project] tries to challenge and complicate that. All the projects that we do, from my perspective, are related to that.

“I’ve met very few people that are alike in general. We’ve been conditioned to perform certain roles. But given the chance to ask their own questions from their own personal perspectives, you recognize the shear uniqueness of an individual’s perspective, which is different from what we’re supposed to do.”

An exhibition of Thomas’s work—past and current—will run from October 11 through November 10, 2012, at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City. Selections of his work are also online at hankwillisthomas.com and you can follow him on Twitter @hankwthomas.

Related Article:

Hank Willis Thomas Photo Gallery

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