Capturing a Reservation
In 1992 when John Willis MFA 86 PH first visited Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, he was an outsider.
In 1992 when John Willis MFA 86 PH first visited Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, he was an outsider. But the photographer soon gained the trust of the Oglala Lakota Sioux community and its elders, who realized that his work could help their impoverished reservation. In the new bookViews from the Reservation (Center for American Places, September 2010), Willis presents evocative black and white images and 36 color plates accompanied by other voices – poetry by teenagers on the reservation, words of the elders – that together paint a poignant portrait.
Willis has had mixed feelings about exhibiting the photographs he has taken over the years he has been getting to know the Lakota community. But with all proceeds from sales of the book going to help people on the Pine Ridge reservation, he felt ready to share what he has learned. “These proud people live in one of the poorest counties in the United States, literally the third world within the borders of the richest country on earth,” he says. “Among all the poverty and hardship I am drawn by their humble nature and sincere kindness. I find visiting them valuable and rejuvenating – a reminder of what is really important in life.”
Documentary filmmakerKen Burns applauds Views as “a beautiful, painful book” and RISD Photography ProfessorHenry Horenstein 71 PH/MFA 73 confirms that “every photograph is a classic: carefully seen, lovingly captured and painstakingly executed.”
Willis has a history of using photography not just to make his own images, but also to teach others in diverse settings of the rewards of photography. A full-time photography professor at Marlboro [VT] College, he has taught all age groups, from first-graders to nursing-home residents. He also co-founded The In-Sight Photography Project, and its Exposures Cross Cultural Youth Program, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching photography to adolescents regardless of their ability to pay.