American-born, Paris-based photographer Hank Willis Thomas has a series up on Mother Jones today entitled “Unbranded,” exploring the implications of black bodies in advertising. Willis Thomas, a collaborator of “Question Bridge: Black Males” (featured on “MHP” last month), is in the process of doctoring advertisements from the late sixties to the present, digitally subtracting text, logos and ad information so that the photo stands alone, “to reveal what is being sold”:
I believe that in part, advertising’s success rests on its ability to reinforce generalizations around race, gender, and ethnicity that can be entertaining, sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying, but which at a core level are a reflection of the way a culture views itself or aspirations. By “Unbranding” advertisements I can literally expose what Roland Barthes refers to as “what-goes-without-saying” in ads, and hopefully encourage viewers to look harder and think deeper about the empire of signs that have become second nature to our experience of life in the modern world.
In this exercise, the viewer naturally drums up ideas about the origin of the ads; some are obvious, others less so. But the other, far more interesting task is to figure out who the advertisements target.
Are the photos showing black bodies as tender, attractive, strong and loving intended to appeal primarily to the black community? And are the photos reifying age-old stereotypes about blackness -– sexual looseness, infantilization –- meant for white audiences? You should check it out and take the test for yourself.