Guest lecturer discusses activism through photography

On Thursday, Oct. 4, at 8 p.m., Phocus, Vassar’s student photography organization, welcomed a guest lecture by Marlboro College Photography Professor John Willis. The lecture focused on Willis’ recent project detailing the resistance movement in North Dakota against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Willis drew upon his past work to incite conversations about the United States’ treatment of Native Americans and the question of whether or not photography can spark change.

Willis showcased photography from different points of his life in order to offer background on his development and history as an artist. After watching his grandfather be largely ignored after his move to a nursing home, Willis began to take portraits of residents in nursing homes. Eventually, to deal with the weight of society’s tendency to forget about the elderly, Willis decided to teach photography at nursing homes. Throughout the presentation, personal photographs such as those of his parents in their final days drew an emotional connection between his social justice–focused photography and his personal life.

Following his work teaching at a nursing home, Willis continued to instruct in non-traditional settings for the rest of his career—including the In-Sight Photography Project, a program he co-founded, which connects students from New York and Vermont and brings them to visit Native American tribes in North Dakota.

Willis commented on the nature of his work and its intentions, stating, “We bring youth together from diverse backgrounds, we live together, travel together and have classes together. It’s all about not only tolerating diversity but truly learning to appreciate diversity.”

Yet in discussing his most recent work—“Mni Wiconi, Honoring the Water Protectors,” which documents the resistance movement at Oceti Sakowi Camp in North Dakota—Willis successfully highlighted how art and social justice complement one another. Through his photographs, Willis captures the culture of the camp as well as the unrest and protests sparked by the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is an underground oil pipeline that travels from Illinois to North Dakota. When the energy company Dakota Access, LLC, proposed DAPL, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe—whose reservation sits less than a mile from the pipeline—objected that if any oil were to spill, it would contaminate drinking water used by tribes in the area. For months, Native American tribes protested the pipeline, and while plans for its implementation were halted briefly, less than one month after President Trump’s inauguration, construction continued.

Considering the problem of oil spills, Willis said, “There are thousands of pipeline leaks in this country every year. Within the first month of the approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, there was 200 thousand barrel oil pipeline leaks in the Dakotas.”

At the Ocetu Sakowi Camp, Willis spent months documenting the protests and lives of residents as they fought the U.S. government yet again. Through his photographs, Willis depicts the tensions between the two sides in action. He highlights hypocrisies—such as the fact that Native Americans join the military at the highest per-capita rate—while also including other symbols of Native American life like intricate beadwork and handmade moccasins.

One of Willis’ dozens of photographs, documenting an upside-down American flag outside of a teepee, was taken on a trip to North Dakota. Photographing and talking to the flag’s owner, Willis learned that he was protesting America’s treatment of minorities after Sept. 11. He argued that the United States used the events of Sept. 11 as a platform to take advantage of marginalized people.

Most striking were the highlights of humanity that emerged from the DAPL protests, such as a group of young Native women who put on a daily water ceremony. As hundreds of people celebrated and marched, police in riot gear met with the women, calling for everyone to go home. The women refused to leave until the police drank water and said a prayer, and when the officers eventually obliged, everyone was “shaking hands and smiling,” Willis related.

In addition to organizing visits from professional photographers such as Willis, Phocus offers biweekly photo critiques and darkroom programs that allow students to experiment with different types of film photography. Phocus also highlights student work through Fix, the annual or semi-annual magazine.

Advisor to Phocus and The Baldeck Photographic Center and Associate Director of the James W. Palmer ’90 Gallery Monica Church commented on the importance of outside lecturers, stating, “Phocus exists for everyone on campus, not just [studio art] majors, so I think that for those students who are not in those classes, having these outside speakers come in is invaluable because you’re getting access to other teachers, seeing bodies of work, talking to people who have made their way in photography.”

Campus liaison and organizational staffer Cassie Jain ’20 said of the lecture, “I think it’s important personally to hear from other photographers and get different perspectives on different kinds of photography because there are so many different kinds. To get professional feedback from people is great because we have such a limited photo class set here, so it’s nice to expand that and offer opportunities outside of class.”

Willis’ lecture fostered conversations about the possible connection between photography and change. While Willis devoted his life to using photography to document people in places on the periphery of society, he often doubts that his photos can change—or have changed—anything.

On a final note, Willis said, “Sometimes, I don’t know if my photography does make an impact. But it helps me understand the world and it helps me understand how I fit into the world.” Still, Willis urged students not to be discouraged: While change may be desperately needed in some cases, anyone can—and should—find some way to engage with the world through communication and creativity.

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