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Masters Talks: Hank Willis Thomas

Lynsey Addario is a tough act to follow.

And with the parents of his bride-to-be in attendance, it would appear that the odds were stacked against him.

When Hank Willis Thomas was told that he would be the last presenter at this morning’s Masters Talks, he immediately proclaimed “Yes!” But as Stanley Greene reminded everyone last night at his INsight conversation, “God has a way of saying No.”

Fortunately for Hank, he has this uncanny ability to translate complex conditions into a certain common vernacular. No doubt that his experiences in commercial advertising and the influence of his mother, Deborah Willis, have something to do with it.

The Paramount is treated to an opinion on imagery and social awareness. According to Thomas, photography has always been vulnerable to contortion. With added race and gender, it becomes a vehicle for advertising to negatively reinforce stereotype. “I know that race and gender are to some degree social fabrications that we’ve been trained to understand. Society may tell us our place, but it’s up to us to choose it.”

Hank’s place was discovered shortly after his cousin was murdered in dispute over a $400 gold chain. After documenting his family’s personal agony, Thomas converted a still frame from the funeral service into a mock of MasterCard’s “Priceless” campaign:

3-piece suit: $250. New socks: $2. Gold chain: $400. 9mm Pistol: $79. Bullet ¢60. Picking the perfect casket for your son: Priceless.

“You frequently spend your life wondering if it’s going to be you,” says Hank, as he flips through self-made satires of Absolut Vodka ads. In one frame, the iconic shape of the bottle is made to represent a slave ship; in another the fluid is replaced with the bloody end to a violent conflict.

Thomas has been on a mission of awareness. It has allowed him to curate some very important social exhibits. The House of Cards project provided him with access to various articles from the Jim Crow era. By framing a history that others would like to have remained covered, Hank creates something beautiful.

“I like to think of myself as a visual culture archaeologist.”

His findings are rare treasures that unseat conventional thought and belief. Only Thomas could see Reebok’s “I Am Who I Am” campaign for what it was: an assault on race. Andy Roddick was a champion. Allen Iverson was the devil. Lucy Liu was an innocent. 50 cent was a criminal.

Few people are capable of seeing things the way Hank Willis Thomas does. Some may even choose not to—the truth behind media can be an ugly mirror of social perception. You may not want to look at it, but you have to know that it’s there.

“The greatest gift that we were ever given was our consciousness,” says Thomas. The LOOK3 audience was Absolut-ely awakened, and Hank’s in-laws were proud.

(by Joe Santa / Corbis)

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