10 minutes with Amani Willett

Interviews with Photographers April 25, 2014 10:19 am

When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?

That’s a good question. Towards the end of high school I had the thought that if I ever tried photography I’d probably really like it. But it wasn’t until the end of college that I decided to enroll in a 2 week photo intensive. My instincts had been right – I very much enjoyed how thinking photographically opened up the world in new and exciting ways. I don’t think I’ve every really decided to be a photographer. Its more that I’ve just kept photographing because I love doing it.

Who were the first artists that inspired you?

Henri Cartier Bresson
Miguel Rio Branco
Roy DeCarava
Vernon Reid
Miles Davis

Can you tell me about your series The Underground Railroad? What led you to photograph these places and how long did you work on the project?

I’m mixed race, black and white, and so the history and legacy of race relations in our country has always been something that I’ve been interested in. When I was young, my mother owned a children’s bookstore dedicated to books about children of color. I’d often pass time looking at the books in the store and that’s where I saw the first stories about the underground railroad. It was really interesting how the underground railroad encompassed both of my parent’s history in America – my mom’s black side and my dad’s Quaker side.

A few years ago I was thinking more about photography and memory and thought it would be interesting to find locations associated with the underground railroad and photograph them. The research was intensive because there is a lot of misinformation online. I spoke with local historians and historical societies and approached authors who had written extensively about the subject. It is also sometimes difficult to find exact locations – finding a general area is not so difficult – but finding the exact place where a building stood or a mason dixie line marker stood proved to be more difficult.

I made a map of all the locations I wanted to photograph and set out on a road trip up and down the east coast to find them. The project is really ongoing – I’ll continue to photograph the locations whenever I can.

Have there been any particular locations, or moments, during this project that have affected you more than others?

During my research I found a building in North Carolina that was actually owned by my Grandfather’s family. It was the first building in the town owned by a black family as all was being a stop on the underground railroad. It was a really amazing moment to discover the house and then go visit it a few months later.

Thats amazing. If you could go back ten years, what advice would you give yourself?

To identify and focus more closely on what you are genuinely passionate about. Doing so will give you the stamina to get where you need to go.

What advice would you give to the up and comers?

I think I’d give the same advice I previously mentioned. It can be difficult to know what to focus on as artists and photographer. A few years ago I gave a speech that touched on this question. Here is a passage:

“Beyond the craft, the formal or aesthetic considerations of our practice, to what issues are we willing to dedicate our lives? Which concerns are we willing to probe tirelessly, and how will we effectively
communicate the results of our efforts to a larger audience? Do we have certain artistic responsibilities? And if so, are they to our medium of choice, ourselves, an art audience, society at large?
The answers to these questions will be different for each of us, but they can ultimately help us determine how we construct meaning from experience. And this awareness can help us find the sustenance needed to maintain our practice and provide a compass that can direct us to achieving our goals.”


Amani is based in Brooklyn. See more of his work, here

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