Thomas Allen Harris Looks Back at HIV/AIDS Activism in Short Film, ABOUT FACE: EVOLUTION OF A BLACK PRODUCER
On World AIDS Day 2017, Visual AIDS opened its 28th iteration of Day With(out) Art, an annual program that seeks to increase awareness of the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis. This year's program, titled ALTERNATE ENDINGS, RADICAL BEGINNINGS, was curated by Erin Christovale and Vivian Crockett and features challenging, innovative work from 8 black artists whose lives are deeply impacted by the ongoing epidemic: Mykki Blanco, Cheryl Dunye & Ellen Spiro, Reina Gossett, Thomas AllenA. Harris, Kia LaBeija, Tionna Nekkia McClodden, and Brontez Purnell. ALTERNATE ENDINGS, RADICAL BEGINNINGS is being screened in over 100 venues worldwide.
Thomas AllenA. Harris' new short film, "About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer", opens the program. The piece looks at a series of public television programs Harris produced on HIV/AIDS from 1989-1991, which brought folks who were previously ignored by mainstream media to the core of public discussion, and an essay he'd written around that time, published in Black Popular Culture (edited by Gina Dent).
Harris, raised by activists in the Bronx and East Africa, felt an urgency to produce these programs as "friends and colleagues were dying without representation," he states. Though pushback from the channel's executives and the constraints of corporate media ultimately led the artist to suspend work in public television, Harris re-activates the archive in the context of the contemporary crisis with a continuing sense of urgency: Of those in the US diagnosed with HIV today, 44% are black. The need for representation remains as critical as ever.
The release of "About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer" coincides with a burgeoning crowdfunding campaignfor Harris' new project, Family Pictures USA. Nearly 3 decades after leaving public television, Harris returns to produce and host a show that explores neighborhoods & cities through the lens of THE FAMILY photo album, enlarging a collective understanding of history and identity. As a host, Harris connects participants to an interactive audience and to each other, using their archives as a starting point.
"[Family Pictures USA] focuses on looking at a people's history, allowing people to narrate their own stories and write themselves into history." Harris says. Much of Harris' work focuses on preserving the archive, a practice Harris identifies as central to combating erasure, promoting intergenerational dialogue, and, ultimately, to collective healing. On the show, participants wear white gloves to handle photographs from their family albums, highlighting their value and transforming their relationship with the archive.
"My artistic craft is a participatory one, often working with other people towards collective empowerment to tell stories publicly and through photography, whether in the United States, Brazil, South Africa, and beyond. I'm looking to open up spaces. Foregrounding first person testimonial is so important," Harris says. Family Pictures USA is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to bring the pilot series, featuring the city of Detroit, to national broadcast in 2018.
Family Pictures USA is a documentary-style TV show that journeys through a rapidly changing landscape of a familiar and idealized "AMERICA" that is being transformed. As ordinary Americans begin to discover their hidden family histories - stashed in boxes or on old floppy disks and new smartphones - they will re-meet their relatives and old friends. The people we once knew are given a new home in our collective consciousness and, through these images, introduce us to a more nuanced, diverse story of our common history, shared present, and evolving future.
Thomas AllenA. Harris is a filmmaker and artist whose work across film, video, photography, and performance illuminates the human condition and the search for identity, family, and spirituality. Graduate of Harvard College and the Whitney Independent Study Program, member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and published writer/curator, Harris distributes resources widely on the use of media as a tool for social change. He lectures and teaches on media arts, visual literacy, and personal archiving at such institutions as Yale, Dartmouth, University of California, and many others.