Star Teacher John Willis Makes a difference with In-Sight

By Jill Waterman

FATHER AND SON: A poignant portrait from Willis's View from the Reservation book.

© Jane LindholmIn 1992, while discusing a grant proposal for a documentary photo trip, John Willis and Bill Ledger noticed police arassing local youth outside a Brattleboro, Vermont, coffee shop. Deciding to trade in their travel plans and start a month-long photography workshop, they engaged the teens to keep them off the streets. Nearly 20 years later, the Vermont-based In-Sight Photography Project nonprofit has offered more than 1,500 11- to 18-year-olds a place to go and opportunities to develop creative skills, regardless of an ability to pay. In-Sight has an impressive roster of funding and support, including 2011 grants from the Stratton Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Willis, a photography faculty member at Vermont’s Marlboro College, has involved many college students over the years to extend the program’s reach. In 2001, as an outgrowth of In-Sight, he cofounded the Exposures Cross Cultural Youth Program with former Marlboro student Erin Barnard. Partnering with educators and groups in diverse locations, Exposures programs have brought photography instruction to teens in such distant communities as the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where Willis has deep ties. The recent book Views from the Reservation (also reviewed in our Media Reports section) was spawned as a result of his South Dakota teaching visits and now serves as a fund-raiser for the local Lakota Nation radio station.

In April 2011, Willis was named as one of 180 artists and scholars to receive a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. The timing of this award, following the recent publication of his book, is well suited to the production of new work. In his statement of plans for the Guggenheim, he writes, “It concerns me that Americans often seem unaware how ‘our way of life’ (that terminology politicians and the media like to use so frequently) has dramatic and lasting effects on the lives of others throughout the world.”

ABOVE: Willis at home during a radio interview for Vermont Public Radio. To listen, click here.                       Photo © Jane Lindholm.



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