Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center to feature Willis photographs

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Photo Gallery | House/Home, a work in progress

BRATTLEBORO — The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was first established in the late 19th century in the southwest corner of South Dakota. Like residents of most reservations established in this country's history, the people of Pine Ridge, the Ogala Lakota Native Americans, have experienced extreme poverty and hardship.

High rates of illness and an unheard of unemployment rate of 75 to 85 percent make it nearly impossible for the community to thrive.

Photographer John Willis has been visiting Pine Ridge and other reservations for over 25 years, working closely with the local population and documenting their struggle for equality in America.

He described the images as "photographic short stories that reflect how I feel about the world in a metaphorical way."

For the Ogala Lakota in Pine Ridge, finding housing is difficult. Property is not owned by individuals; it is shared by the tribe. This makes mortgaging a home nearly impossible. Recently, they were being offered trailers as cheap as $3,000. The catch was that they were left over from Hurricane Katrina and determined by FEMA to be too dilapidated and even too poisonous to live in.

The Ogala Lakota have been subjected to extreme conditions on the plains of South Dakota. Snow, wind, and rain routinely destroy their homes and cause some residents to freeze to death.

In his exhibit "House/Home, A Work in Progress," John Willis depicts these conditions with a sense of raw consciousness.

The exhibit will have an opening reception on Friday, at 5:30 p.m., and remain at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center until Oct. 23.

Willis will be giving a talk open and free to the public on Thursday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m. The center is located in the historic Union Station, downtown Brattleboro, on the corner of Main Street, Route 119, and Route 142.

"When I discuss this situation with non-Native Americans, their responses often reveal the misconception that indigenous tribes live a life of luxury, because of the stories they hear about a few tribes with highly successful casinos. Most Americans have no idea that the majority of reservation communities are among the poorest in our country, and that their inhabitants are living in third-world conditions."

Through these photographs he intends to expose the inequality occurring in America as a whole. The exhibit features many photographs from Pine Ridge but also from rural Vermont and Massachusetts.

"With the country as divisive as it is, taking on a project about inequality gets people thinking about justice across the board," said Willis.

Willis teaches photography at Marlboro College and was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011 for his contributions to the creative arts. He is also the co-founder of the In-Sight Photography Project as well as the Exposures Cross Cultural Youth Arts Program.

The In-Sight Photography Project studio is located near the Brattleboro Transportation Center. It provides classes and cameras to local youth free of charge and has had an extremely positive impact on the area's youth.

Exposures Cross Cultural Youth Arts Program usually runs as a two to three week summer camp that brings together youth from different cultural backgrounds. The program is also responsible for bringing cameras and photography classes to Pine Ridge and other reservations in the West such as the Navajo Nation in Arizona.

This summer the program was held in Putney and brought together youth and adults from across the country.

Willis intends to continue to work with these programs in the future, as well as continue to visit the reservations to create his "photographic short stories."

His portfolios can be found at www.jwillis.net. More information on the In-Sight Photography Project can be found at www.insight-photography.org and is located at 45 Flat Street in Brattleboro. Information for the next Exposure Cross Cultural Youth Arts Program can be found at www.exposuresprogram.org.


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