DUMMERSTON—John Willis would rather people did not make a fuss because he has won a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship.
“I am not trying to be humble,” he asserts, “but getting the prize is the luck of the draw. Not one person is so much better.”
Dede Cummings, a board member of The In-Sight Photography Project that Willis co-founded, says when the board brought out champagne to toast the success of the Marlboro College professor of photography, he was embarrassed and more concerned about the many applicants who had lost than his own victory.
Even so, he is actually thrilled to win the award, announced on April 7 by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Willis, of Dummerston, was one of 180 scholars, artists, and scientists selected this year as fellows from the United States and Canada.
The fellowships are one-time-only grants made for a minimum of six months and a maximum of 12 months, providing a block of time in which fellows can work with as much creative freedom as possible.
Willis describes his photography as “a mix of documentary and human images which comment on the human condition.”
The application process was arduous. Willis had to submit 20 pieces of photography and his two books, plus, he says, “a fairly complex essay on my life’s work, which includes a narrative bio.”
An MFA graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, Willis has taught at Marlboro since 1991. His photography has been widely exhibited and is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
He appreciates the fellowship not because it draws attention to him, but because it draws attention to his work and the issues he cares most about.
The award also enables him to devote more time to the the In-Sight Photography Project, a volunteer program in Brattleboro offering free classes for area youth to explore self-expression through photography, which he cofounded. He serves as the organization’s executive director.
He will also spend time with In-Sight’s Exposures Cross Cultural Youth Program, a nonprofit program that teaches photography to adolescents, regardless of their ability to pay.
Willis seems not unduly humble, but calm, insightful, and passionate about his beliefs.
“Photography provides me with a visual tool for exploration and communication,” he says. “The ways we communicate with each other and the world around us have always been major points of interest and contention throughout my life.”
He laments that it has become increasingly difficult to get attention for severe social problems. Willis blames this phenomenon on the media, which he says refuses to give any in-depth analysis to important concerns.
“The situation has gotten even worse in the last 10 years,” he says, which he sees as a direct result of the deregulation of public media that began in the Reagan era in the 1980s.
Willis feels this reality makes his social and artistic work more imperative than ever.
Willis identifies with the 1960s and its ethos of social responsibility.
“That is why we formed Insight,” he declares. “Teaching is a way to make a difference. Bill Ledger from Townshend and I decided something had to be done when, 19 years ago, the police were running teenagers out of town for hanging around Brattleboro.”
Their goal was to give the youth some focus and purpose, he says.
Through In-Sight, Willis co-established Exposures to share photography lessons and life stories in an effort to expand young people’s artistic and cultural horizons.
The program offers classes in Vermont, Chicago, and on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a Sioux community in South Dakota. The three sites are also sharing an online curriculum.
Exposures will offer a three-week exchange program on the Pine Ridge Reservation during the summer of 2011. Application information can be found at www.exposuresprogram.org.
Much of Willis’s latest work involves the Pine Ridge Reservation. He laments that getting attention for the severe social problems this tribe faces is difficult.
“People think Native Americans don’t have problems anymore, and that they are rich and own casinos,” he says.
Willis grants that some tribes that operate casinos might be wealthy, but the stark realities at Pine Ridge are very different.
“Americans complain about unemployment reaching 10 percent, but at Pine Ridge, unemployment remains at the unbelievable 74 percent,” he says.
In 2010, the Center for American Places published Willis’s latest book, Views from the Reservation, a monograph of his photographs and commentary developed in collaboration with people in the Oglala Lakota Sioux community at Pine Ridge.
Willis is donating all royalties from the book to KILI Radio, Voice of the Lakota Nation.
Willis explains that “since 1992, I have been traveling there regularly to visit the Reddest family of Lost Dog Creek. As an outsider, it is always an honor to be welcomed into their home.”
He wants to emphasize that his Dakota book is only about one reservation and one tribe.
“Knowing the critical debates which arise with photographers entering the lives of indigenous people living under less fortunate circumstances has made it difficult to allow myself to exhibit the images I make on the ‘rez,’” he says.
“These proud people live in one of the poorest counties in the United States, literally the third world within the borders of the richest country on earth. Among all the poverty and hardship I am drawn by the humble nature and sincere kindness of these proud people. I find visiting them valuable and rejuvenating. For me, it is rejuvenating as a reminder of what is really important in life.”
“Because I choose to represent my observations about the world in images rather than in written essays, I have used photography in a variety of ways,” he says. “Not only do I make my own images, but I help others make their own as well.”