TOWNSHEND—As with the several other courses in photography previously taught at the school, the photography class offered by the In-Sight Photography Project at Leland & Gray Middle and High School last fall did not come with much of a pre-arranged agenda.
Michael Riley, a former AmeriCorps Vista employee of In-Sight who now works as one of the Brattleboro nonprofit’s 10 dedicated volunteer teachers, listened to the students who signed up and developed a program around their interests.
Riley’s focus: to keep the class centered on what is it like to live in Townshend.
The students were assigned to photograph historical sites in the area, primarily using a special type of equipment: the 4 x 5 view camera.
“A 4 x 5 camera is a simple one like they used in the 1800s, the kind you see in movies with the cloth over the photographer’s head,” explains In-Sight Director Stephen Dybas.
“It is a basic camera still widely used by some photographers,” Riley adds. “We used it here because it is an easy way to explain how a camera works. It constitutes little more than a lens and a focusing glass.”
The images that result from the 4-inch-by-5-inch negatives “resemble those dramatic historical photographs we all have seen; the main difference is that film has advanced so the image does not have the imperfections of old photographs,” Riley says. “The large negative makes the image more crisp and detailed, resulting in wonderful photographs.”
Students were also able to take other photographs on their own with 35mm cameras. Half their photographs were landscapes; the other half, portraits.
Since the age of the students ranged from age 11 to 18, and some students had much more experience in photography than others, finding a common ground was a challenge.
However, In-Sight encourages returning students to assume a mentoring partnership with those who have less experience.
“The experienced students help the new kids first learning photography,” says Dybas. “It joins the students together in a bonding experience through photography.”
Classes met once a week for two hours last October through December. Riley spent a lot of time in the classroom delving into aesthetics, as well as giving practical advice on the craft of photography.
Every other week, the class was bused down to Brattleboro to work in the darkroom at In-Sight, where students could get a hands-on look at what it is to make a photograph.
In-Sight offers photography courses at the introductory, intermediate, and advanced levels to more than 1,500 students aged 11 to 18. In-Sight has offered all programs regardless of a student’s ability to pay.
In so large an area as southern Vermont, which has limited means of public transportation for youth, In-Sight is committed to going out to outlying areas of Windham County and connecting with the hard-to-reach students in their own communities.
Sponsored by a grant from the Stratton Foundation, the Townshend course, like past courses taught by In-Sight at Leland & Gray, was open to all students. The only requirement was they had to come to every class.
The classes were held after school hours, which proved to be a restriction for many.
“Kids have a lot of after-school obligations,” Riley explains. “Work after school, sports, and other activities like the chess club can take up all their time.”
The class was organized by Susan Gunther-Mohr, the HEY! (Help Empower Youth) program coordinator at Leland & Gray, who worked as a liaison between the school and In-Sight. Both Riley and Dybas praise her commitment and enthusiasm for the project.
“She is really the one person who made this happen,” Dybas says.
Townshend is not the only place with which In-Sight has a satellite program. In-Sight’s reach is all over the county.
Leland & Gray students also come from surrounding areas, including Jamaica and Newfane. With the handy resource of its digital mobile lab, In-Sight has partnered with Marlboro Elementary School and Youth Services for programs in Bellows Falls.
A particularly fruitful union has been The Collaborative: Supporting Substance Free Youth, a program formed as branch of the Youth Resiliency Project Coalition that works with schools in Londonderry.
“The Collaborative after-school program works to promote healthy living in the area’s underprivileged youth,” Dybas says.
This objective aligns with the original mission of In-Sight, which was founded in 1992 by photographers Bill Ledger and John Willis.
The story goes that some aimless Brattleboro youths were being harassed by the police for loitering, an event that caught the attention of Ledger and Willis, who decided to provide a photography course as an outlet for these kids.
The two photographers were so encouraged by the community support that their one-month course blossomed into the year-round program.
“This process of seeing and discovering [to] teach individuals about themselves through a visual language that can then be used to communicate with others,” In-Sight’s mission reads.
“The result is teens who have greater self-esteem and who are more willing to develop a viewpoint and present it to others. The medium of photography thus becomes a tool for building both self-esteem and communication skills.”