CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On Thursday, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture will present a screening of the documentary film “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.” The film, by gay artist and producer Thomas Allen Harris, is based on decades of work by Dr. Deborah Willis, a professor of photography and imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and her book, “Reflections in Black.”

Deborah Willis
Deborah Willis

The film explores the ways black photographers have used their art and craft to document an define the lives of black Americans over 160 years.

Both Allen and Willis, a recipient of the Gantt Center’s 2014 Spirit of the Center Award, will be at the film screening at the Wells Fargo Auditorium at Knight Theatre on Thursday, where audience members can participate in a Q&A with the filmmaker and educator following the screening.

qnotes had the opportunity to speak with Willis ahead of her visit to the Queen City. Our edited interview is below.

Matt Comer: How was it your work came to be encompassed in a documentary film?
Deborah Willis: I had curated “Reflections of Black” at the Smithsonian and the exhibit also traveled for four years. A number of people had said it would be great to see it as a film so that other audiences that don’t necessarily attend museums or don’t have the chance to see this story can learn about it. I met Thomas in the ‘90s. He was just out of grad school and had done different kinds of narrative film projects. I said a film project would be a way of telling the story of these images. He said yes and that was 10 years ago and we spent the past 10 years trying our best to make a project out of it.

What is it about photography that you have found so thrilling and engaging over your many years of teaching and practice?
It visualizes history. I think that is the most important aspect of photography. It allows us to imagine. Whether it’s photographs from families or an historical image, we can begin to place the subject or portrait in a time frame. That’s the magic of photography and it’s why I enjoy teaching photography. It has a sense of questioning and reimagining time and space.

What have you found most surprising or inspiring about your study of African-American people and photography?
It’s the absence of the story that surprised me. Once I began to discover images and photographers, I was surprised these stories had been ignored and under-explored. I thought having that opportunity to conduct this research and begin to see we were taught a different history of slavery. There’s that one story, but we can also see the beauty of people who fought for their freedom. We can see it in their personal stories, their way of dress, how they visited the photographers’ studios on their own. There are also family photographs that have been preserved. I’ve been wanting to have more stories told about these images that were not necessarily told. When we think about images and how they are often mediated through media, others then have the opportunity to talk about those stories, but people also tell their own stories. It happens today, with the whole aspect of the selfie and people using the selfie as their own point-of-view portrait.

What came first for you? Was it the love of the history or the love for photography?
It was photography. I didn’t think about it separate from history, though. I knew early on I wanted to be a photographer. Growing up, I would be in a beauty shop and looking at a lot of the magazines and books and I often sat on the floor and looked at magazine and magazine and I wanted to be like that. I wanted to find a way to tell a story. The history came later when I realized the history was missing. I wanted a critical study about it.

What would you like people to take away from their viewing of the film?
One of the things is that black people have an artistic and a political history in photography. There is also emotion that this photography exudes. In the making of this film, that emotion is evident from the early images to early political images and family images. I want people to feel they can have a passion and curiosity about the history and probably change their minds about what that history is.

If you go:

Film Screening: “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.”
Thursday, Sept. 25, 7-10 p.m.
Wells Fargo Auditorium at Knight Theatre
430 S. Tryon St., Charlotte
$5 Gantt Center members; $10 non-members
Purchase tickets here
Featuring Gantt Center 2014 Spirit of the Center Award recipient Dr. Deborah Willis and artists Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Anthony Barboza, Hank Willis Thomas, Lyle Ashton Harris and Glenn Ligon share their perspectives on their work and the power of the camera. Q&A with Willis, filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris and Jonell Logan, Gantt Center Director of Education and Public Programs, follows.

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.