John Willis: States Project: Vermont
John Willis was my first photography teacher at Marlboro College, and his work has inspired me constantly over the past twenty years. John has been photographing on the Pine Ridge Reservation since we met, creating compassionate and intimate photographs of the people who live there. His newest project, House/Home, is an extension of that work that confronts the viewer with a critical assessment of the economic inequality and injustice found on native reservations throughout the U.S. I find this work to be incredibly important and unfortunately, extremely culturally relevant.
John Willis received his MFA in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1986. Since then, he has been teaching photography and exhibiting his personal imagery. John is the Professor of Photography at Marlboro College and co-founder of The In-Sight Photography Project offering courses to southern Vermont area youth regardless of their ability to pay. He also co-founded the Exposures Cross Cultural Youth Photography Program, bringing youth together from a wide variety of backgrounds to share photography lessons and life stories including youth from Vermont, the Navajo Nation, Chicago, New York and the Oglala Lakota Tribe. John is a recipient of a 2011 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. He has also been awarded other artist fellowships including the Vermont Council on the Arts and the Vermont Arts Endowment. His work is included in numerous permanent collections including the Corcoran Gallery of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography; The Bibliotheque Nationale de France; The George Eastman House Museum; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Houston Museum of Fine Arts; Portland Museum of Art; The Library of Congress; and The National Museum of Native Americans. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including solo exhibitions at The Stark Gallery in NYC, Blue Sky Gallery in Portland Oregon, Photographic Resource Center, Boston MA, and the Oglala Lakota College. John’s collaborative book project with photographer Tom Young, Recycled Realities was co-published in 2005 by the Center of American Places and Columbia College. The publication Views From The Reservation was published in 2010 by the Center for American Places and Columbia College.
House/Home, A Work in Progress
As I travel across the country, and internationally I am struck by the pervasive presence of extreme economic inequality—a condition that seems to be worsening, especially here in America. The seemingly eclectic image selection in this exhibit is meant to draw attention to this pervasive inequality and reflect on what this says about the ethical choices of our society. Few situations reveal this inequality more than housing and the constructs we call home.
For almost twenty-five years, I have regularly visited and worked on the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, and more recently, the Navajo Nation in Arizona. The more I learn, the more I am troubled by the injustices experienced by Native Americans, an outcome of historical, cultural, and economic practices converging with the dominant society surrounding them.
The non-traditional housing scattered across reservation lands has never seemed just or fair. A few years ago, the federal government reclaimed the trailers made to assist Katrina victims, deeming them too poisonous for habitation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA then decided to “generously” donate them to Native American communities for the cost of transportation. Upon learning that my friends were thrilled to be purchasing new homes for $3000—homes that were deemed uninhabitable, I was embarrassed once again by the government’s disregard. Sadly, I understood that the government and society were continuing the trail of injustice against indigenous peoples as so often happens throughout the world. When I mention this situation to others, their responses often show just how many people believe Native Americans live a wealthy life because of the stories they hear regarding a few tribes, namely the Shakopee Mdewakanton (Connecticut) and Pequots (Minnesota), whom have the most successful casinos. They have no idea how in reality, that the majority of reservation communities, the poorest in the country, are living in third world conditions.
When looking through the images you will also see torn flags from a Navajo Veteran’s cemetery and missiles from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. To me, these raise additional skewed values, compounding our relationship to injustices. For example, during the first Gulf War I recall the contention that the American flag represented freedom and support of the war effort. It was stated that if we did not support the war, we did not care about those fighting for our country and were not patriotic. I want to believe our values stand for more than the unquestioned support of the federal government’s policies, and that it is acceptable to care about our country, its citizens, and others throughout the world without agreeing with such policies.
It is wrong to link freedom to capitalism, in which profit is considered more important than any other aspect of life. In this exhibit I strive to say that we can, and must, progress to a place where fairness and justice for all is the true definition of freedom and decency. It asks viewers to engage in a continuing dialogue about what is really of value.
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