Potash Hill

Not looking at everything the same way: An interview with John Willis

Photography professor John Willis was visited by junior Shannon Haaland to talk about how he first came to Marlboro, advice he gives photography students, and how new students help keep his own vision fresh.

Shannon Haaland: So when exactly did you start working here?

John Willis: I taught one class here as a barter situation in 1980. I had just gotten my undergraduate degree, moved to the area, and was looking for things to do. I met some people who were Marlboro students, who said there was a darkroom in the science building here. There was an enlarger and no one knew how to use it, and they had nobody to teach photography. And I thought, “well that sounds interesting,” and I came up and I offered to teach a class. The dean said there was no money for it—students weren’t allowed to do Plans in photography at the time.

SH: Really?

JW: Yeah, but I took one or two classes in exchange for teaching a class as an evening elective. I had six students who worked really hard, and I taught here for one semester on the barter system, then ten years later, after receiving my MFA, I found out about a job here and came back. I was part-time for seven years—back then all of the art faculty were part-time, except for the painting teacher. Then there was a foundation grant that made it so all the visual arts faculty could be full time.     

SH: Did you want to go into teaching?

JW: I didn’t go to school thinking I would be a teacher. Well, I thought I might teach little children, but I was more thinking about childhood education and child psychology. In graduate school I ended up going for photography. I worked in the field for five years after my undergraduate work, and then someone convinced me I could go to grad school and have a “sabbatical” from the working world. I went just to be around other people doing photography as documentary and art, and to have the opportunity to work on my own stuff, and I really loved it. The thing was, in graduate school you can get assistantships, where you get paid part of your tuition in exchange for working, and one of my assistantships was teaching. And I loved it, and just sort of got hooked. 

SH: Do you have advice for students who are going into photography?

JW: That’s a hard one, I think because the world is changing so much. There are definitely jobs out there, but when I was in school there were a lot of students, probably still are, who went to school thinking they could become famous artists and make money off their artwork. And some people can, but it is incredibly competitive. If people are doing photography or other forms of art because they are interested in the medium, and passionate about it, and want to have it in their life, I think there are plenty of ways to be a working professional in the art world, whether that’s doing photography or working in galleries or other possibilities. There are a lot of opportunities, but they may not necessarily involve selling your personal, creative work.

SH: Okay.

JW: It’s definitely worth putting art and creativity into your life, if that is what you are inspired by. There are so many ways to have that contribute to making a living and, beyond that, contribute to having a really interesting and fulfilling life. I know people who are really active photographers and artists of all different kinds who don’t make their living through sales of their artwork. Maybe their living is some really different kind of job, and yet art is one of their favorite things that they have in their life. They have a whole community of artists that they share their work with, help each other, inspire each other, exhibit each other’s work.

SH: What if someone wants to get a job with their artwork?

JW: I’d say this to a student in probably any field: in addition to studying the field and getting a degree in the field, it’s really important to do anything and everything you can to build your resume and your credibility and experience in that field. Right now there are so many people getting degrees in any field, so that when a job opens up there are hundreds of applicants, and resumes are being sent in on the internet so they don’t get to meet you as a person, necessarily. You need to figure on the majority of those people probably have bachelors degrees in that field, so what are you going to do to set yourself apart from them?

SH: Like what?

JW: A big aspect is things that you have done alongside of your classes. I don’t mean to belittle the classes, because I think college is really important. Studying your field is really important in getting a foundation, but as far as getting a job and standing out in the crowd, you need more experience through internships, volunteer work, student employment, summer work, winter work—any opportunity you can to get lines on a resume, you know, that show experience. Not just for the sake of having a line on a resume, but for the sake of having that experience.

SH: What about having art shows?

JW: People who want to collect work and buy work, they’re not just looking at images they like. There is not a standard set of what a good image is, and what it’s not. So when somebody sees something they like, and has the money to buy it, they are much more likely to buy it if other people like it and have bought it too. So it helps to just have more shows to really get the work out there. 

SH: What do you like most about working with Marlboro students?

JW: It’s probably the same story you’d hear from anybody, that Marlboro students designing their own Plans of Concentration bring their interests to the table. I think like 85 percent of them—I’m taking a wild guess there—have interdisciplinary Plans, so I am always learning about different relationships and different topics and different contemporary issues. It keeps it really exciting. I’m learning things all the time from students. When I started working at Marlboro that wasn’t something you would hear about happening at many other schools. It’s not as unique as it used to be, but I still think it feels unique by the way the students are and the size of the school, the location of the school. Marlboro students who tend to work really hard, and do some pretty amazing work, and it’s very motivating. I love the time of year I get so busy I don’t sleep regular nights, like Plan students. 

SH: So students still surprise you with their work?

JW: Honestly, even intro class students surprise me with their work, and intro is where you are trying to teach promising new students the same fundamental subject matter, every semester. Almost every semester I have taught intro and there are certain mechanical things, logistical things, ways to use the camera, I have to teach in every one of those classes. It seems like it would be incredibly repetitive, but what always makes it surprising is that every student comes to it from a different mind and different abilities, and creates different images. Even at an intro level I think it’s really exciting, but at a Plan level, it just magnifies and becomes really, really interesting.     

SH: What are your own current photographic interests?

JW: Well I’m doing a few different projects. It’s always hard to photograph, edit photographs, and print photographs during the school year, but I’m usually doing some aspect of that. I just had a show at Greenfield Community College that was all about issues around housing on Native American reservations, particularly the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the Navajo. I’ve spent a lot of time on the reservation, and it’s a response to the community there. There are so many people who live in trailer houses—nothing against trailers, or people who live in trailers I should say—but they are not well made, they are not appropriate houses for living in the open plains where it gets freezing cold. The insulation is really bad and they just fall apart in storms.

SH: Yikes.

JW: I learned that when the Katrina houses were taken back, because they were deemed by the government to be too poisonous, they started giving them to reservations. To me this was yet another example of how this government really takes advantage of marginalized, disadvantaged people, in this case First Nation people who were there before the dominate culture. I made pictures on the housing and an architectural student from Yale was doing his thesis on the same issue and he wrote sort of a Trail of Tears text to go with it about the history.

SH: Sounds amazing. Anything else you are working on?

JW: I’m doing a project for the Vermont Land Trust where I’m doing work on a farm that they own, the Bunker Farm. I intend on mixing those images with pictures I’m making of a metal scrap yard illustrating excess consumption, just thinking about how we deal with land, land use, goals for the land, and things like that. I’m going to collaborate with Matan Rubenstein—he’s been coming along sometimes and making audio recordings of ambient sounds while I’m photographing the sites. Our intentions are to put pictures together from the sites and he’s going to compose a musical score from the found pieces. So I’m excited about that.

SH: Have students helped you in your own work process?

JW: Well I get a lot out of working with students—the whole thing of not looking at everything the same way, and trying to experience the world differently. I learn as much about keeping an open mind, and being active, from seeing how students approach things as from anywhere else.

SH: How have Marlboro students helped out with your work at Pine Ridge?

JW: Exposures, the cross-cultural youth summer program based in Brattleboro, part of the In-Sight Photography Project, was created with five Plan students. I don’t think it would have ever happened, if it wasn’t for this group of students that decided they were going to do this together without pay or credits. We met once a week for a semester and just talked about creating a program at Pine Ridge and taking students from the In-Sight Photography Project, in Brattleboro. It never would have grown like it did without students. You know, the only reason there is a photography program is because of students. The only reason why there is a film program is because of students. Whenever there is a student interest strong enough it just sort of bubbles up. When students have interests, and the interests keep growing, the faculty and administration can’t deny it and then it grows.

SH: Can you think of a time where being a photographer let you see more into a world than you normally would?

JW: We took students to China for three weeks and we were in Turpan, over on the western side near the Gobi Desert, where there was a Muslim separatist area. I was walking around alone with a camera over my shoulder and there was a father with two kids playing in some water and they were just having a great time. I couldn’t speak their language—I couldn’t speak Arabic; I couldn’t speak Mandarin—and they couldn’t speak English, but they were able to make it known, through a kind of charades, that they were playing. They could tell I was a photographer, and they didn’t care if I took their pictures. So, I stood there taking pictures in the road, just doing some landscape stuff in this rural small community. It turned out they were on there way to a wedding, a double wedding, and they dragged along and had me photographing this Uyghur wedding. There is a double wedding portrait up in Mather that comes from that time.

SH: I need to look for that.

JW: It was an amazing afternoon. We could not communicate, and then at the end I wanted to get an address so I could mail them the prints, because they were so generous. It took a while to find someone who understood enough English that they could translate, and I found a Chinese man who could understand just enough to get that I was trying to get an address, and then he had to find someone to translate to them so it took three people to find a way to get an address. They didn’t even have a mailing address, because it was such a rural place, so we had to figure out how somebody knew somebody who had an address who I could send prints to. It was cool. I mailed those prints; I have no idea if they ever got them. I mailed them a pile of wedding portraits that included some that we 20 by 24 inches, it was so much fun meeting them.