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Q&A with Artist, Educator and Photographic Curator and Historian Deborah Willis

Posted by on May 24, 2018 | Student Photography

A prolific author, a leading historian and curator of African-American photography, and the department chair of NYU’s photography program, Deborah Willis is noted for her extraordinary knowledge and an extraordinary list of contributions to the art world. But she’s also dedicated to working with and mentoring young artists who are developing their own voice. Get to know a little more about her here.

PDNedu: What are some themes that you’ve seen more artists exploring?

Deborah Willis: Beauty, identity, social justice and pleasure. Autobiography is essential to my own work—it is useful in exploring cultural values, traditions and perceptions. As a photographer, educator and curator, I have used photography to tell stories about family life and asked photographers to use the photograph in a narrative form to explore personal memories.


Deborah Willis. Photo © Alice Proujansky

PDNedu: Name some photographers or collectives who have your attention right now.

DW: For collectives, En Foco out of the Bronx, New York, as well as New York’s MFON, SISTAGRAPHY in Atlanta, Georgia, and For Freedoms, the first artist-run super PAC, founded by my son, Hank Willis Thomas, and Eric Gottesman. For Freedoms believes that art plays an important role in galvanizing our society to do better, and that it’s time for artists to become more involved in the political process.


A portrait of Max, a 26-year-old trainee helicopter pilot in the Republic of Congo, which will exhibit in the University of the Arts show “Uncertain Times,” juried by Willis. Photo © Justin Barton.

To name some photographers, Jessica Ingram’s research on Civil Rights-era events in the South and her photography on teen pregnancy; Sama Alshaibi’s impressive work on migration and women’s stories; Omar Victor Diop’s self-portraits, which connect fashion, memory and art-historical discourse; Allison Janae Hamilton’s portraits, which are representative of memory and family homeland; and Zalika Azim, who also works within the memory of family stories and memories from the South.

PDNedu: How do you connect with young photographers, outside of your NYU classes?

DW: I travel often and lecture on a variety of topics and often meet recent MFA and emerging photographers looking to discuss ways to broaden their scope.  Sometimes I jury and evaluate submissions in international and domestic-based photo contests. Some students are referred to me by professors from other schools. I also participate in portfolio review sessions and often meet emerging photographers.

PDNedu: Who are some emerging photographers that you’ve recently worked with, and on what?

DW: At LOOK3 I met Joshua Rashaad McFadden and recommended his thoughtful body of work to be published for TIME LightBox. The project was published and made visible a powerful story about archiving family and portraits of men; I met Daesha Devón Harris at the For Freedoms exhibition at Aperture and plan to include her work in an upcoming book focusing on historical narratives from upstate New York. I also met with John Edmonds and Sonia Louise Davis and reviewed their recent photography and made plans to include them in a lecture I am preparing for this year in Florence.

—Interview by Jacqui Palumbo

This article is an excerpt from Ask a Curator.” (PDNedu, Spring 2018). Click here to read the full article for free in the digital edition, which includes Willis’ advice to emerging photographers and students.