on the rez

A good day. A good week. I’ve spent these last warm days of autumn on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota with John Willis, a photographer and professor at Marlboro College in Vermont, and his wife, Pauline. John and I are collaborating on a book of his photographs. My charge — and it is as wonderful a charge as a writer can get — is to use my words to create a parallel text to John’s photographs. I am not to provide commentary or to write cut lines. This is a book of two artists responding to the same environment and experience through their respective art forms. I am both honored and excited to be able to share pages with John.

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John has been going to the Rez for well over a decade. He and I first met through a program he runs there in the summer. It is called “Exposures,” and it attracted me with its authenticity and integrity. In Exposures, he takes young people from Vermont, the Bronx, the Navajo reservation, and other disparate cultural settings and brings them together with young people from Pine Ridge. They all work together on photography projects that document the people, places, and life on Pine Ridge.rezviewEPV0221.jpg

So many projects, well intentioned and necessary as they are, focus on providing assistance and service. John tries to build upon strength. If he gives, which he does regularly, it is quietly and personally. In that way he echoes what I so appreciate about NANAI, the program from the Netherlands about which I just wrote. There is so much need on the Rez and so much sadness and poverty, that it is hard not to focus exclusively on need and deficiency. When you find people who acknowledge the need and deficiency, but try to build upon strength, you have found rare people, indeed.


I am excited to work with John on this book of his photographs, because we both see something far deeper and far more important than the sadness and poverty. We see the power of the people, the culture, and the land.

I invite all of you to view a few of John’s photographs at http://www.jwillis.net.

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