Recognition of a lifelong commitment to activism in photography

Deborah Willis. Photo provided

George Mason University alum Deborah Willis, PhD Cultural Studies '03, remembers wanting to be a photographer since she was 10 years old. Her mother worked as a beautician, and Willis said the images and stories that surrounded her in her mom’s shop had a lasting impact on her career and her view of activism.

“When she opened her own shop in 1957, my mom opened her doors to churchwomen, singers, dancers, domestic workers, bankers and business women, and their daughters,” she said. “Growing up in my mother’s shop introduced me to a world of women's stories that I didn’t hear being told anywhere else.”

The beauty shop was also where she saw photos in Ebony and Life magazines that helped shape her interests.

It wasn’t until the early 1960s when Willis said she saw a book of photographs of black people that changed her life. She was inspired and intrigued by a narrative by Langston Hughes called “The Sweet Flypaper of Life”—a story of families struggling to stay together and sweet moments of human existence.

The human connection drives Willis’s work, and through her photographs she seeks to structure a narrative about self-reflective beauty.

“As a black woman photographer, I use personal experiences to interrogate acts of injustices and moments in popular culture to introduce to new ways of viewing and discussing concepts that art matters,” Willis said.

Willis was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences this year in recognition of her life of activism as a photographer. The academy recognizes extraordinary people who help solve the world’s challenges, create meaning through art, and contribute to the common good. Willis is one of 250+ honorees included in the 2021 membership.  

“What an incredible honor,” said Willis. “A true honor. I never thought I would be part of this year’s class.”

Willis is University Professor and chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where she manages 200 undergraduate students, teaches two classes a year, and helps faculty members stay current with photography and imaging.

Her leadership at NYU has led to a diverse set of course offerings reflecting on Black photographers, Black subjects and interdisciplinary practice, with an emphasis on resistance. In recent courses at the Tisch School of the Arts, Willis said she challenged her students to consider what it means to be Black in the lens. 

“Today, Black is represented and misrepresented in popular and historical text. I engage students to be involved in current events,” said Willis, noting that they explored Black Lives Matter and the intersectionality of race and culture with the deaths of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor.

She said Mason’s unique program helped shape her work and career.

“Mason offered expansion of scholarship and an artistic research-based dynamic program,” Willis said. “I spent my student years compiling and collecting information on Black photographers and dedicated many hours in and outside of the classroom researching and writing looking to create and offer new narratives, hoping to counter the negative portrayals of black and brown cultures at large.”

Willis has authored or co-authored more than 20 books on the role of Black photographers throughout history. Her latest book, "The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship,” is one example of her efforts to make visible these previously absent histories.

“Black people fought for their freedom,” said Willis. “This book creates an inclusive visual history and includes stories we did not know existed about Black servicemen from the era, and Blacks active as nurses, teachers, doctors, cooks, children, and other community members.”