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Three In-Sight students explore photography. The nonprofit organization’s annual auction supports scholarships to make programs available to all young people.

The Arts

Annual auction supports youth photographers

In 2022, In-Sight Photography Project will celebrate its 30th anniversary, with 3,500 young people from around the country having participated in its programs

Beatriz Fantini is a member of the In-Sight Photography Project board of directors; for more information about the organization, visit insightphotography.org. In this Deeper Dive column, we occasionally give organizations elbow room to write in first person and/or be unabashedly opinionated, passionate, and analytical about their own creative work and events.

BRATTLEBORO—Is a picture worth a thousand bucks? This could very well be the case during the In-Sight Photography Project Benefit Auction, now underway.

Local, national, and international artists have donated 109 works to this annual auction, which started 23 years ago. This special event is the biggest fundraiser activity for the project, with funds providing scholarships for local students to participate in the nonprofit’s photography courses.

In-Sight was originally founded one day in 1992 when two local educators, Bill Ledger and John Willis, were sitting on Main Street.

According to Willis, as the two were working at writing a grant application, “we kept seeing police hassling a small group of teens who were sitting in front of Mocha Joe’s drinking their coffee and enjoying conversation. The message seemed clear — the police did not want the youth congregating in downtown.”

At the same time, Ledger and Willis realized that they were designing a photography project on the building of Hydro-Québec, documenting how indigenous people were being displaced from their homeland to build a dam.

They asked themselves why they were looking to travel 1,200 miles to help people in Canada when they could help other people locally — and for much less money.

They realized that they could teach photography to young people like the ones they were observing across the street.

That conversation and realization resulted in the two educators designing a one-month intensive photography course.

* * *

Ledger and Willis found great support within the community for this idea, and a darkroom and equipment were provided for their project. They began by offering classes as an after-school activity to interested youth, ages 11 to 18.

Over the years, they continued to raise money to support their endeavor, and after 5{1/2} years, two of their volunteers decided that they should create a nonprofit organization.

The In-Sight Photography Project was born, with a small board of directors, including Rod Gander, president of Marlboro College at the time, among the members.

Parents volunteered to do work for the new organization, and other locals — Jessica Taraski, Adam Shepard, and Vaune Trachtman, among others — dedicated time to this effort.

Between 2003 and 2004, six seniors studying photography at Marlboro College became interested in work that Willis was doing with In-Sight at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Willis and the Marlboro students met periodically during the school year to design the program, which included curriculum development and training. The college awarded $10,000 to implement the program, which allowed them to travel the 6,000 miles to South Dakota by van.

The group included 24 youth and the volunteer staff who would teach some 60 Lakota youngsters for three weeks.

“It was an amazing experience for all,” Willis said. “We made individual and collaborative artwork, telling stories about family, sense of place, tradition, and culture.”

This program, known as the “Exposures — Cross-Cultural Youth Arts Program,” continued to take place every summer through 2018, when In-Sight scaled back in order to move from Flat Street to Main Street.

And then Covid hit.

In the years preceding the pandemic, the program enrolled 18 to 20 participants from eight states and three tribes, with participants of various races, religions, economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and the widest forms of diversity.

Since its founding, In-Sight has served an estimated 3,500 youth from all over the country.

“It was challenging,” says Willis, “but the feedback was that it was overwhelmingly a positive, life-transforming experience. It was a form of peace building.”

“As the world public dialogue seemed to get more divisive, we were teaching people not only to tolerate but to truly appreciate diversity and to build bridges with people from different backgrounds and ways of life,” he continued.

In-Sight hopes to be able to relaunch the program in an appropriate format once the pandemic is over.

In the meantime, photography classes continue uninterrupted here in Brattleboro. Enrollment for fall classes is now open. Among the offerings will be Introduction to and Advanced Analog, Fun with Photography, and Introduction to and Advanced Digital.

* * *

In-Sight outgrew its space on Flat Street. It took the energy and enthusiasm of a dedicated board and the determination of a visionary leader — Board President Ilene Todd — to be able to purchase the former Mocha Joe’s headquarters at 181 Main St. as a commercial condominium. In 2019, the organization made the move.

Todd was asked to join In-Sight by John Willis. “I think it was his vision and commitment, his enthusiasm for teaching, his love of photography, and his dedication to the youth of our community, that drew me in,” she said. “I have stayed involved for almost 10 years for all those same reasons and because each year has brought new challenges.”

She describes her biggest challenge as the Focus on the Future Campaign, designed to raise funds to purchase and renovate the new space.

“That move enabled In-Sight to take its programming to the next level, to provide youth with a safe and attractive venue — a place where they can explore new ideas, create art, make new friends, and learn about themselves,” she said.

“I feel that this central location, combined with the great outreach work being done by our staff and board, has helped to make the community more and more aware of the work In-Sight does on behalf of youth,” she continued.

She said that during the August Gallery Walk, more than 100 people visited In-Sight to view “the terrific student show that has been on exhibit in our gallery.”

Whereas In-Sight began as a volunteer-led organization, a professional staff now consists of Executive Director Victoria Heisler, Program Director Ryan Stratton, Program Coordinator Grace Clark, and Operations and Development Manager Jadian Bryan, along with interns and volunteers.

Heisler started volunteering at In-Sight in 2011 as an undergraduate student at Keene State College. Her experience as a volunteer was so positive that she became In-Sight’s AmeriCorps VISTA staffer for two years. She left for another job, yet she continued her involvement with In-Sight.

She returned in 2018 to serve as executive director, and she continues to teach analog classes.

“I love that we still offer film classes,” Heisler said. “There is something really magical about experiencing a darkroom for the first time. When I teach intro to darkroom, I have students who have never really had to slow down and focus on a task or had what they do with their hands directly correlate to what is happening in their photograph.”

“Our biggest challenge is making sure the community knows about our offerings and that students have transportation to get to our facility,” she continued. “Our outreach is still primarily word of mouth and that always takes a lot of time to maintain.”

In 2022, In-Sight will celebrate its 30th anniversary.

“Going forward, I see In-Sight celebrating and building on its strong foundation, expanding its outreach to new groups of students and volunteers, engaging creatively with the local and regional arts community, and continuing to strengthen its organizational structure,” Heisler said.

* * *

Board members and staff have carefully planned In-Sight’s annual auction and, despite restrictions due to Covid this past year, the organization was able to hold its 2020 auction online and with considerable success.

On Sept. 3, coinciding with Gallery Walk, the doors of In-Sight opened for people to visit, to see some of the new works being auctioned this year, and to place bids online. As of Sept. 6, the auction has raised $2,785, or 18.6 percent of the event’s $15,000 goal.

Bidding continues through 6 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 26. To participate, visit 32auctions.com/insight2021.

Proceeds from the auction will help this organization to continue to play an important role in the community and, more importantly, ensure that any interested youth can participate, regardless of their family’s ability to pay.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #629 (Wednesday, September 8, 2021). This story appeared on page B1.

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