Intentionally Left Blanc by renowned Black American artist Hank Willis Thomas is a technical and conceptual masterpiece. At first glance, the large 4 x 2.5-metre photograph looks like a white piece of paper to the naked eye. This larger-than-life print does betray faint traces of people’s faces on it, but the true image is only “activated” when its viewers take a flash photograph of it. This action allows them to reveal a photograph of a crowd of African American protestors from around the time of the civil rights movement.

Intentionally Left Blanc by Hank Willis Thomas. Image courtesy of Artsy.

The shape-shifting photograph is a commentary on the intentional erasure of Black American history from national canons. African American history is seldom seen in conventional American History compendiums and school textbooks. Just like the flash photography needed to uncover the full piece, Willis Thomas calls for people to actively seek out and educate themselves on Black American history. Through this, their ongoing struggles and past victories may be kept alive for generations. Keeping these memories alive prevents a history of oppression and discrimination from ever repeating itself and also reminds their onlookers to keep the fight for equal rights going. This is why Intentionally Left Blanc by Hank Willis Thomas is relevant to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Reduced Inequalities.

Intentionally Left Blanc by Hank Willis Thomas, seen through flash photography. Image courtesy of Artsy.

As the work's title suggests, Willis Thomas has not only intentionally left the photograph seemingly blank but has also intentionally blanked out the faces of some of the activists in the final photograph. Recalling its message of the erasure of Black history, Willis Thomas’ act of obscuring certain people’s faces makes the phenomenon feel more personal. Here, he is stating that remembering Black American history is not just necessary for the collective greater good but must also be done to remember and cherish individuals who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of Black rights, lest we risk forgetting them and the sacrifices they made for the good of the many.

Intentionally Left Blanc by Hank Willis Thomas, seen under different room lights. Image courtesy of Kadist.

On the other hand, Kadist, the art organization and residency, notes that Willis Thomas has erased the faces of the White allies present during the rally. By doing so, he has turned the tables on the erasure of Black Americans from American history. This artistic decision begs a question that may be provocative to many: How would White Americans feel if they were the ones being erased from American history?

Installation view of My Life is Ours by Hank Willis Thomas at Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong. Image courtesy of Art Asia Pacific.

In 2018, Willis Thomas’ first exhibition in Hong Kong, titled My Life is Ours used the same techniques he had applied in Intentionally Left Blanc to show that he stands in solidarity with victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident and those who were killed at the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. He utilized the same photo-reflective technology to process photographs from these protests to boldly state that while conventional historical canons may attempt to erase them, there will always be a place for these activists in the hearts of the people they bravely lost their lives for.

Hank Willis Thomas' work is much more than merely a curation of archival photos and clever optical illusions than art; it is a call to action, urging us to actively remember and honour the individuals and movements that have shaped and paved the way for justice and equality in the lives of many who came after them.

Visit to learn more about Hank Willis Thomas and his other pieces.

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