By Steve Noble
One summer, 20 years ago, photographers Bill Ledger and John Willis saw something that bothered them. Teens in Brattleboro were just hanging out with nothing to do, and catching it from local police for loitering. Willis and Ledger decided to do something about it and put together a one-month photography class.
It proved so popular , what they started quickly expanded from a one-month class to year-round offerings, and they built a darkroom in the Brattleboro Teen Center (now Boys and Girls Club) to handle the demand.
“Everybody liked the idea so much it just grew,” said Willis, who still serves as the executive director of what is now the In-Sight Photography Project, a non-profit organization that offers photography classes to all youth ages 11-18, regardless of their ability to pay.
This year, In-Sight celebrates its 20th anniversary and find itself with plenty to celebrate. In its two decades, In-Sight has served more than 1,500 participants, including roughly 200 in the past year alone, and has paid homage to them with exhibits and photo displays in its home on 45 Flat Street, where it moved a few years ago because it had outgrown its Teen Center space.
In June, In-Sight received word that it had been nominated for the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the nation’s highest honor for out-of-school programs for young people. Only 50 organizations are nominated each year, and In-Sight is just the second in Vermont ever to be recognized.
“We’re very excited for our program to be recognized as a national model,” said In-Sight Director Stephen Dybas, who said In-Sight was chosen because its programs teach more than the technical aspects of photography. They teach life skills, foster creative expression and self-esteem and help kids prepare for success in larger arenas than just darkrooms. “There’s a lot more to it than just making a good photograph.”
Over its 20 years, In-Sight has made collaboration a hallmark. It has partnered with dozens of area social service programs and nonprofit organizations, including the Brattleboro Retreat, Making the Most of I, the Women’s Crisis Center, Northeast Family Institute, Youth & Family Services and more.
Its most notable collaborative venture is the Exposures program, a cross-cultural youth exchange program that is now a decade old. Exposures was borne out of Willis’ travels to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, that began about two decades ago. In what was once the poorest county in the U.S. and is still among the poorest, Willis found enrichment.
“I’m just really drawn to the place and the people. People ask me why do I keep coming back? These people are beautiful, and they have so much to teach me,” Willis said.
Exposures has taken many forms over the years, but its basic premise is to take youth from In-Sight’s hometown of Brattleboro and other parts of the country and get together with youth at Pine Ridge, where the students all share photography projects, other art projects and a great deal of time together.
This summer, three students from Vermont, one from Chicago’s Street-Level Youth Media program and two from Arizona journeyed to Pine Ridge to spend three weeks taking portraits of the land and the people, conducting interviews, camping out in the Badlands, sharing meals and just hanging out.
“The photography was a way for us all to connect with their community,” said Mesa Kennedy, a 16-year-old from Dover, Vt., who went on the trip this year. “When I thought of Native Americans, I kind of went to what I learned in social studies. We don’t learn about what they’re living like now.”
Kennedy began taking classes at In-Sight a year ago, starting with a Film Meets Digital class and then taking an Exposures class, which prepares the students for the summer trip through assignments and cultural exchange through a web site and online interaction.
In-Sight’s fall slate of classes begins the week of Oct. 10 and includes such high-tech offerings as Digital Photography and Web Design and Stop-Motion Animation. Yet for all the bells and whistles, In-Sight’s basic Intro to Black-and-White, which teaches students the basics of 35 mm cameras, film and darkroom techniques remains very popular. In this high-tech world, digital is old hat, and the old-school is new again.
“For a generation who grew up in front of a computer, it’s a big shift to go to film,” said Dybas.
In-Sight’s 20th anniversary year festivities continue in October with the 14th annual Silent Auction and Exhibit. Featuring work by more than 200 established, world-class and emerging photographers, working in a variety of styles from portraits and landscapes to experimental techniques, the auction takes place both at In-Sight’s home on Flat Street and online. Proceeds benefit the scholarship fund, so that In-Sight can continue to do what Willis and Ledger set out to do – make sure everyone can take part, regardless of their ability to play.
For details on In-Sight and its October auction, visit http://www.insight-photography.org.