A high school experience often involves a certain amount of time spent in parking lots. Hanging out waiting for friends, waiting for a ride, waiting to make plans to do something—anything—outside of one's house. At least, that's what I recall from my own youth, and what I see repeating itself in most towns on any given Saturday night—or Tuesday afternoon, for that matter.
The In-Sight Photography Project in Brattleboro began harnessing that youthful energy—and vast amounts of free time—20 years ago, when John Willis and Bill Ledger started offering photography classes and materials to any teen in Brattleboro who cared to learn what it takes to compose a photo, develop negatives, or, now, produce a crisp digital print.
By now, the program has had over 2,500 participants and offers three semesters of classes on a sliding scale to students aged 11 to 18. No one is turned away for lack of funds.
The atmosphere at the headquarters is laid back and comfortable: liberal arts college classroom meets an artsy summer camp. The maze of rooms and closets is located off Flat Street in downtown Brattleboro; a group of teens and adults meandered nearby as I entered on a recent Friday afternoon. Hundreds of Polaroid pictures of past students and teachers line the walls of the classroom, and each small room is organized for a certain purpose: digital printing lab, film changing closet, a darkroom with eight enlargers.
As director Stephen Dybas gives me the tour, he explains the allure of photography to anyone looking to express themselves creatively: "With photography, you can jump right in. I think one of the wonderful things about it is, it's a tangible art form. You can have that feedback so quickly, and you can get a basic sense of the process and think about using it in a creative manner."
He's young, with a shaved head and glasses, and talks enthusiastically as he points out the equipment. Sophia LaCava-Bohanan, assistant director, joins in. "I think there's something significant about youth understanding and recognizing the voice that they already have," she explains excitedly, a sparkle in her eye. "And the immediacy of photography allows that process to happen much quicker."
The gallery next door, in contrast to the cozy and colorful workspace, is expansive and elegant, with wooden floors and white walls that will soon be filled from floor to ceiling for the program's Annual Silent Auction and Exhibition, one of its main fundraisers of the year.
Last year 300 prints were donated to the exhibit, ranging from professional photographers' work to that of current students. This approach, LaCava-Bohanan points out, is crucial to the program's mission to encourage accessibility to all. The resulting variety is outstanding.
"It has everything under the sun. It's overwhelming, the variety of work you can see and experience," says Dybas as he shows me the piles of framed art ready to be hung. "Every time I go in I see something new."
The show runs throughout October and provides a significant amount of the funding available for scholarships for the upcoming year.
John Willis, now executive director and professor of photography at Marlboro College, helps gain attention from nationally known photographers for the event. But, says Dybas, a lot of the success has to do with the services In-Sight provides. "In-Sight is very unique," he explains. "Most organizations like ourselves exist in major cities, not in small towns or rural America. So a lot of photographers appreciate the fact that we're here and our mission is that we don't turn anyone away."
In-Sight has a broader mission than teaching basic photography to local youth. The program has developed a mobile lab that brings courses and materials further afield, working with other groups in Marlboro, Bellows Falls, and beyond to bring the courses to students who can't get to downtown Brattleboro.
On a national scale, In-Sight is part of the Exposures program, a cross-cultural youth arts exchange operating at several facilities across the country. Through photographing their known worlds, students interact with others from vastly different regions and backgrounds.
In their curriculum, In-Sight's outlook is wide-reaching as well. Photography books line the shelves in the classroom, and as LaCava-Bohanan says, students "have to learn to read in order to write, so we take the time to develop that visual vocabulary to be able to read images before they create them."
As part of the curriculum, staff also encourage students to think critically about the use of photography in advertising—often targeted at them. "We ask, 'What's being used or done here?' so they can start to get a grasp of photography not just as a creative arts form, but how it's used in our society," explains Dybas.
The program, then, seems to be far beyond the original mission to bring youth in off the sidewalks. In-Sight is producing creative, critical thinkers. "We're not only helping kids, but we're fostering the next generation of photographers," Dybas summarizes. It seems they're fostering the next generation of responsible citizens as well.?
In-Sight's next session of courses begins October 8; the Silent Auction and Exhibit will run throughout October. www.In-Sight-photography.org.