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Pictures worth a thousand words

Gathering images, reflecting upon the stories they tell and understanding how they affect people's lives is what the work of Deborah Willis is all about.

Willis, an acclaimed photographer and writer and one of only a handful of MacArthur Fellowship winners, is the new Lehman Brady Professor of Documentary Studies and American Studies and will spend the year teaching a class entitled "Visualizing Culture" at both Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"The goal is to bring someone in who does cutting-edge document work but normally wouldn't be brought into the classroom," said Lynn McKnight, director of communications of the Center for Documentary Studies. "[She] brings something else to the classroom and shows there is a lot more to education than you find in a textbook."

Students with majors ranging from history to art to film to literature are already enrolled in her class at Duke, and there are even two people from the Durham community who are auditing it.

One of the reasons behind the diversity of the class can be simply stated: It is not every day that one has the opportunity to take a class with one of the 15-20 annual recipients of the MacArthur. The fellowship, commonly known as a "genius grant," provides each recipient with $500,000 over a five-year period to pursue personal projects.

"I never thought I would get anything like that," Willis said. She is especially happy that she can now pursue two of her own projects, rather than simply critiquing the work of others.

The first of her projects will look at the life of female body builders. The goal is to "try to understand and show how [women] interpret beauty and strength," Willis said.

The second project will focus on what it means to be young, black and male.

Sparked by the desire to acknowledge the memory of her late nephew, who was recently robbed at gunpoint and killed, Willis will pursue a project that will attempt to show that young men who have "dreams, hopes and fears" need to be provided with some type of warning about the delicacy of life.

Much of the attention Willis has received is due in part to the recent publication of her book, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present.

The idea behind the book originated from one of Willis' college assignments, in which she questioned why there were no photographs of black people in her history book.

Willis was especially excited about the international acclaim her work has received, including a story in the July 2000 issue of England's The Independent which contained "a very nice spread" on her book. "[I] didn't know people were actually paying attention," Willis said. "What they're saying is now they see a range of images of blacks they have never seen before."

But more importantly, Willis is receiving praise closer to home as her colleagues express their excitement at the opportunity to work by her side.

"Deborah Willis is an expert on media images of people of African-American descent and she brings to the center that knowledge and an ability to transmit that knowledge to a variety of constituents," Powell said. "As a colleague, I welcome her presence to help further the knowledge of visual culture and I think students will benefit from her kind of encyclopedic knowledge of visual images."

Willis developed her class last year when she taught at New York University and hopes to expand its scope with the help of her students in North Carolina.

Each week, the class examines a topic such as identity, family and gender through various visual mediums. Class discussions have included such media images as Benetton advertisements and MTV.

"With the two classes, I'm really interested in how we visualize culture," Willis said. "I'd like for [my students] to be able to critique images... and ask how they affect people and what stories they tell."

Teaching the same curriculum at two different universities provides a unique experience, and Willis said she finds the composition of the class at Duke to be much more diverse than that of UNC.

Willis will take part in the Center for Documentary Studies Brown Bag Lunch Discussion Series Oct. 4. Her lecture is entitled "Writing on the Black Female Body in Photography."


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