Kids with Cameras Capture Moments of Clarity at In-Sight Photography
Fifteen years ago, in response to a disturbing scene of teenagers being shepherded out of Harmony Lot by the police, Bill Ledger and John Willis offered a summer photography class for bored kids who had nowhere else interesting to go. The In-Sight Photography Project was born. In the years since then, In-Sight has acquired its own space and begun offering a variety of classes, specialized workshops and summer trips for kids 11 to 18. Courses this fall include everything from basic black-and-white 35mm photography to digital image manipulation and Web design. Special courses include a program for grieving kids, organized through Brattleboro Area Hospice. And the summer program Exposures -- an extended trip to the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota offered to students from Vermont, New York City and Arizona -- is still growing after its fourth year.
Clearly, In-Sight is a very special project, but what is it about learning photography that appeals to kids and young adults so much that they keep coming back for more?
"Photography gives people a tool to figure out how they fit into the world," explains co-founder and Marlboro College faculty member John Willis. "You see more critically, and then you can share and communicate with others." We are all constantly adjusting and re-framing our sense of how we fit into the world, but teenagers are doing this with an intensity and frequency that most adults find painful to remember. Perhaps this is what makes photography a good match for kids 11 to 18 -- and a much more creative and meaningful way of exploring one's place in society than sparring with the police. "In-Sight has been able to provide a constructive, creative outlet for over 1,000 Brattleboro area young adults," states a recent newsletter, "some at real risk for drug use, early pregnancy and crime."
While In-Sight makes a specific effort to include kids we would normally refer to as "at risk," the wonderful thing about it is that it is for everyone 11 to 18. "It's good to reach out and develop programs for kids who can easily slip through the cracks," said In-Sight's Program Director, Eric Maxen. But he also said he has "taken to heart" something he once overheard Willis say: "All kids are in need."
In-Sight offers its classes, taught by great photographers and requiring pricey supplies and equipment, "regardless of ability to pay." This apparent miracle happens through grants, donations and the organization's big annual fund-raiser: an exhibit and silent auction at Vermont Center for Photography. This year's exhibit opens during Gallery Walk and continues through October, with a closing reception at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 28. Featuring more that 150 prints by photographers throughout the U.S., this year's auction includes donated work by:
- Mark Shaw, fashion photographer in the 1950s and 1960s, famous for his images of the Kennedys, Picasso and many other fashionable people
- Danny Lyon, documenter of Midwest bikers, Texas prison inmates and the Southern Civil Rights Movement
- Susan Meiselas, notable for her images of American strippers as well as documentation of everyday life and people in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Kurdistan and Dani
- Laura McPhee, portrait artist also well known for her stunning images of Sri Lanka, Calcutta and unusual American landscapes
After the auction, beginning in November, In-Sight will hang a special exhibit of some amazing photos -- work completed by participants in the Exposures Cross-Cultural Youth Exchange Program. Exposures, says Willis, is "a similar thing" to the basic In-Sight project, "but with people from more diverse backgrounds." It includes kids who have "never been on a plane, never been to the desert, never spoken to a person of a different race or economic background." This annual trip offers some classroom time to do photography alone and in collaboration with other students, as well as field trips to places like Mt. Rushmore and the Wind Cave National Park -- and even, recently, participation in rituals like sweat lodges and a sacred Sun Dance.
On these trips, where you might expect tension among people of so many different cultures and backgrounds, collaboration is the name of the game. Participants separate into small groups to work together on projects with a 4x5 view camera -- the kind with the bellows and the large negative that allows close control of focus, depth of field and perspective, but is complicated to use. Students set up shots together. This summer they also worked with cyanotypes, a photoreactive blue paper on which they were able to make full-body images by sunbathing, and heard the story of Mt. Rushmore from a Native American perspective. As the students were setting up for the Sun Dance -- which involved several days of cleaning up and hauling logs in 105-degree weather -- Willis remembers a group of students flopped under a tree at the end of the day looking like they had nothing more to give. Suddenly one of them looked up, smiled broadly, and said, "Life doesn't get any better than this."
You can get a little preview of the Exposures photos on the website, insight-photography.org, which provides a link to the Exposures blog from the summer. The blog also gives you several perspectives of the trip, with postings by teachers and students while they were in the thick of the experience. The exhibit will open at In-Sight on Friday, November 2.
Like everyone else, kids want to be receptive, but they need to protect themselves. To adults who want to "get through" to them in some way, they can seem like inaccessible black boxes. But sometimes, when no one else is paying attention, they open themselves to flashes of understanding and quickly snap the shutters closed again. It only takes a split second, the opening of a tiny aperture, to burn a lasting image that can be processed in a dark, locked room and shared later with the rest of the world. In-Sight can give kids a constructive way to seek meaning and truth without overexposing their vulnerable, developing souls to the harsh, intense light of everyday reality. In-Sight teaches young adults to focus, offering them control of their creative inner lives. It is an inspiration.
Copyright 2007, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont