Youth Photo Programs: Q&A with the In-Sight Photography Project


The In-Sight Photography Project has provided photographic instruction and camera gear to rural youth in and around Brattleboro, Vermont, since well before the dawn of digital, making it the Grande Dame of Youth Photography not-for-profits. The organization’s pay-what-you-can motto, paired with its four-tier payment system, encourages community support while also insuring that no student is turned away.

For this fourth story in our series, we spoke with In-Sight’s executive director, Victoria Heisler, and program director A. Hanus, about the organization’s three seasons of photography programming, a long history of working with AmeriCorps volunteers, In-Sight’s recent move to a newly renovated 3000-square-foot home, and its many programs and partnerships that support youth arts and photo education in surrounding communities spanning three New England states and beyond.

Above Photograph: © Gabby Chisamore. Unless otherwise credited, all photos © In-Sight Photography Project

Program Name: In-Sight Photography Project
Location: Brattleboro, Vermont
Year Founded: 1992
Non-Profit Status: 501c3 not-for-profit organization
Length of Program: Seasonal programming in spring, summer, and fall
Ages Served: Youth aged 11 – 18

Jill Waterman: How long has In-Sight been in existence, and what is its origin story?

Victoria Heisler: During the early 1990s, our founders, John Willis and Bill Ledger, noticed there were a lot of teenagers loitering downtown, and getting moved along by the police. After deciding to offer their photography skills as a way to help keep kids off the street, they started In-Sight as a one-off summer class. It’s grown tremendously since then through community support, and next year will be our 30th anniversary.

Early class photo from In-Sight archive.

How did they come up with the name In-Sight?

VH: John and Bill were brainstorming about a name that was somewhat photography related and implied an inner look. They chose In-Sight as a metaphor for things they hoped people would do and think in relation to photography.

Were there any existing youth photo programs the founders looked to for inspiration or advice?

VH: Although John didn’t know of any youth photography programs that existed back then, they were really inspired by community photography programs. John’s dad had taken classes through the Photo League in New York, so that was his specific inspiration.

Please tell us about your education and career background as the current executive director.

VH: My background is in secondary education. I graduated from Keene State College with a degree in English literature and secondary education. While at Keene State, I volunteered at In-Sight. It was the first time I felt a passion for education and saw that other models of education were possible. I had such a positive experience that instead of going into teaching after graduation, I became In-Sight’s AmeriCorps Vista member for two years. I then took a break to go into Library Science and ran an elementary through high school district library situation. But I was still serving on In-Sight’s Exposures and Programming committees, as well as facilitating and teaching, so I never really left. When the executive director position opened up in 2018, it became my dream job.

In-Sight’s 2020 holiday card featuring staff members from top left, Victoria Heisler, executive director; Hannah Carnes, visual communications & marketing specialist; Lily LaGrange, AmeriCorps member; Jadian Bryan, operations & development manager; A. Hanus, program director. Design: Lily LaGrange

And please give us a little background on how you became program director.

A. Hanus: I went to Hampshire College, and interned at In-Sight during the summer before my final year. That became the basis of study for my senior thesis project. I did a study on youth art nonprofits and burnout culture, interviewing people in organizations similar to In-Sight, to understand how to best serve youth and build an organization to last. After graduating, I worked at a senior services non-profit in Seattle for a while, which was a polar opposite in age range. When the In-Sight program director job opened up, I applied. In-Sight just kind of hooks you. Once you start here, it really sticks.

What’s the general age range and number of participants for In-Sight programs?

AH: We serve youth 11- to 18-years-old. Lately we've been creating classes for our younger students to be in a separate cohort, rather than teaching the full age group in one class. We just started a basic intro class for 11- to 13-year-olds, so they can play around with cameras and have some fun. This is the first semester, and it's been a success thus far. We've already gotten a whole gaggle of new students.

Students gather around a camera during a one-week intensive program with Bill Sumner, summer 2014. PhotographRobert F. George

What's the time period in which program participants are involved?

AH: It's seasonal. We do three full sessions of programming—fall, spring, and summer. Given holiday breaks, we've found that winter programming is not really possible, and it also gives the staff a breather. During the summer, we usually do more week-long intensive workshops. We also do partnerships with other schools or organizations throughout the year, programmed more based on their schedule than ours.

What’s the geographic area you serve?

AH: There’s roughly a 30-mile radius around Brattleboro—Greenfield, Massachusetts; Keene, New Hampshire; and surrounding Vermont towns, like Putney and Newfane.

VH: Yes, sometimes Northampton, Massachusetts, too. We're one of the only programs in the area with a pay-what-you-can funding structure, so we tend to get students from as far as their parents or guardians are willing to drive. However, this got a bit complicated with COVID. There were moments when interstate restrictions prevented students from traveling to Vermont, but in “normal” times we don't have any restrictions on where students are from.

Ryan Stratton teaches studio lighting as both portrait subject and co-teacher of advanced analog class.Photograph by Victoria Heisler, © In-Sight Photography Project

Tell us more about your pay-what-you-can structure and the four-tiered pricing model. How long has that model been offered?

AH: Tier pricing has been around for about 18 months; basically, since my start date. Its essence is a community-based trust, and parents or family members bring to In-Sight what they feel they can afford. Before that it was an overarching pay-what-you-can model, which can sometimes be loosely interpreted as don't pay at all. We realized people appreciate a bit more definition, which is how we got to the tiered pricing model.

What percentage of students and families can afford the higher-tiered pricing, and what percentage pays a heavily subsidized rate or attends for free?

AH: Right now, 10 to 15 percent pay in the tier three range, and a lot of families live in the tier two range. For tier one, it’s probably around 20%. Very rarely do we have people who pay nothing. A lot of people will pay around $50. Adding the tiered pricing has been a really beautiful experience. For example, Youth Services sometimes funds students to take classes with us at tier four rates, so to pay it forward, which has been really heartening to see. We've also seen an uptick in tier three pricing in the past six months, even in the midst of COVID. I don't know if people are getting more comfortable with this model, or perhaps parents are just grateful to get their child out of the house. Whatever the reason, we're immensely thankful.

We’ve recently started applying this model to our partnerships, too. Not quite tiered pricing, but we provide a sliding scale and explain, “Here's what you're asking for and here's what we can provide. And here's the amount we would typically ask for that kind of partnership.” Then, we let the organization or school decide what’s in their budget.

Student plays with shooting through an umbrella while working outdoors on a rainy day, summer 2020.

How many people are currently on staff, and how many instructors do you work with?

VH: We have four staff members, including one AmeriCorps service member. All staff are paid, and the rest are volunteers.

AH: The number of our volunteer instructors changes depending on who's in the Brattleboro area with a connection to In-Sight, but I'm really proud of our current instructors, given the pandemic. It’s been hard to get commitments because everybody's either trying to get a job or maintain their job, and there's a lot less flexibility. We're doing darkroom workshops on weekends, so teachers who typically volunteer on weekdays but can’t make an eight-week commitment can just make a one-day Saturday commitment. This makes it a lot more comfortable for them, so we’ve been working with that. We currently have about six volunteers, but we've recently gotten some new inquiries, too. A lot of people from the five colleges around Northampton/Amherst are willing to do a weekly one-hour drive to teach. That radius goes out much farther than our student reach.

Tell us more about the AmeriCorps members. How does that work?

VH: We have a long history with AmeriCorps, I think it’s been more than 15 years. The organization is very specific about how they describe the AmeriCorps member. They're not technically staff; they're a volunteer doing a service year. Essentially, it's a partnership. We split a living stipend predetermined by AmeriCorps. Our member serves for nine months to one year, with a very specific set of skills that they can perform on-site. They’re usually expected to teach one to three classes a semester, or session.

AmeriCorps Vista generally focuses on poverty alleviation, so our relationship is currently through AmeriCorps state, which has a mission of building healthy futures for youth. The organization has a national service portal, with listings from around the country, and someone will apply through that and get connected with the Vermont chapter, which puts them in touch with us. We vet the candidate through a two-step interview process to see if their interests and qualifications align, and AmeriCorps vets them, as well. We've had some really incredible AmeriCorps members, and we get tapped into a network of talent we wouldn't necessarily get exposed to otherwise.

Volunteer instructor Tim Callahan with students studying analog photography, spring 2019.Photograph by Zachary Stephens, © In-Sight Photography Project

You also generally have interns. Are these ever past In-Sight students? And are interns paid?

VH: We don't have any interns right now, but when we do, a lot of them are past In-Sight students, or college students interested in using In-Sight as part of their education. Each intern has a unique situation. We really don’t like not paying people, so we'll often compensate interns with time and materials, or college credit if that’s an option. And, we don’t charge for darkroom materials. Sometimes there’s a very minimal cost in the digital lab, but that's on a case-by-case basis.

AH: If you're a college student, your darkroom access at school shuts down over the summer. So, anytime there's not a student around, we let interns use the darkroom or the digital lab. That was a huge incentive for me when I was interning. And anytime they need help applying for a grant during college, we'll assist. I always offer that, I'm down to write a letter or help with whatever they need.

What kinds of responsibilities do interns have?

AH: I approach volunteers and interns in the same way. I like to sit down and understand what they're interested in doing, and where their skill set is. As I say, “If you're not being paid, you shouldn't do something you don't want to,” within reason. We might ask them to help pick up the classroom and it might not be their favorite task, but they'll oblige. That's how I lead, by asking, “What drew you here and what do you want to do at In-Sight, and how can we make that happen so it's beneficial for everyone?”

Medium Format class portrait, fall 2019.

Your curriculum is guided by “an understanding and respect for individuals, communities, and cultures” according to your mission statement. How are these qualities manifested in the teaching and learning experience?

AH: Good question. I'll preface this by the fact that these qualities are such a baseline for me sometimes it's hard to explain. I hear Victoria talk about this, too. The hub of In-Sight’s mission is that, while we help students learn how to be better photographers should they choose, we ultimately want to set them up to be active, engaging, and respectful community members. The first day of class, we do names and pronouns, and little introductions to get everyone comfortable with one other, but we don't just hand them a list of In-Sight rules. We do a collective set of guidelines, or words to live by, that each student has the option to present so they can each feel comfortable in the class. We start with that mutual respect and understanding, and that leads into all the different ways we teach. The goal is to expand worldviews, to respect each other, to offer moments of empowerment for the youth to be the educator in the room. I don't know everything. They don't know everything. But together we can know a lot more.

A lot of your courses focus on analog photography and traditional darkroom work. How do current students respond to working in the darkroom?

VH: I think there's something really magical about experiencing a darkroom for the first time, however many subsequent times a student goes in there. When I teach intro to darkroom, I have students who have never really had to slow down and focus on a task or had what they do with their hands directly correlate to what's happening in their photograph. That opportunity for a little bit of magic engages a student's brain in a totally different way. One thing I often hear from students coming out of a two-hour darkroom class bleary-eyed is, “I thought that was five minutes!” There's something really special about that experience, and there aren’t a lot of darkrooms left.

Volunteer instructor Margaret Kristensen works with a student in processing room of In-Sight’s former location, 2014.Photograph © Robert F. George

Has the availability of analog materials become a concern in recent years?

VH: Not really, surprisingly. I've heard things like, “Sprint is going to discontinue their chemicals” for a long time, but we’ve still managed to maintain access, and we haven’t had issues in getting film, although prices have gone up. But, I think the value of doing darkroom work outweighs the increased costs.

Do you plan to offer darkroom instruction and access well into the future?

VH: Yes, until they stop making darkroom equipment, enlargers, or chemistry. Analog feels like it's going through a resurgence right now, it seems very retro cool. So, I'm hoping that wave and excitement allow us to keep doing this for a long time.

Do students need to provide their own digital and/or analog cameras, or is gear provided?

VH: We provide all equipment and materials for the duration of class—everything from camera gear to all the necessary darkroom and digital paper is included in whatever tier you choose. And, in the off-season, we're very willing to lend cameras to existing students.

Operations and development manager Jadian Bryan tests large format camera for student use.

Do you have support from camera manufacturers or other industry resources?

VH: Not currently. Sprint provided chemicals in the past, but in terms of actual camera gear, we have yet to get responses. The manufacturers are such large companies, that you get stuck filling out a form. You don't get to do the interpersonal things.

Do you gravitate to specific camera brands?

AH: We stay in the Canon family for digital. It's just too complicated to mix and match with different user interfaces. We currently have Canon T5i’s. If we're lucky we'll get a donation or two within that same family of Rebel cameras. For analog, we stick with Pentax K1000’s. But we do get a lovely influx of in-kind donations for analog cameras. So, if a student is more advanced, we give them the pick of the litter—Minoltas, Nikons, Canons—all kinds of stuff.

Double portrait made using studio lighting during Fun with Photo class, spring 2021.

Is there any follow up with students after the program ends, or do they report back on their progress? How do you keep in touch?

AH: We do pre- and post-class surveys as baseline trackers for why kids want to come to In-Sight. We ask things like whether they’ve attended before, and what skills they’re learning or hoping to learn. Our post survey includes questions like, “Did you have fun? Did you learn a new skill? Would you come back? Would you encourage your friend to take a class with us?” And, if we have their email address, they also receive follow-up communications after a class is finished.

Most recently, we've sent out postcards listing all current classes. We individually address them and a past teacher will circle specific classes. We’ll write a little note to explain why, or to say, “Hey, we haven't seen you in two sessions and we’d love you to come back. Here’s some new stuff we think you'd like.” That's been quite positive, and the fact that it's addressed to the student is pretty cool. I don't know how much snail mail kids get these days, but I like to think students keep them to hang on their wall.

Additionally, volunteers and staff make really good relationships with these students. As a teacher, sometimes you'll see how instantly different their photos look after a couple of lessons. I have students who email me with a question, or about an independent study, or a $10.00 scanner they just found on Craigslist.

VH: We also stay connected with students on our Instagram, especially those who are aged out of the program.

Tintype portrait of Large Format class, made at In-Sight board member Rachel Portesi’s studio, summer 2019.

Are there any noteworthy success stories to share about past program participants?

VH: I asked John about this, and he mentioned that it's not just former students’ success stories; this also extends to volunteers. A lot of our volunteers are younger, in college, and this is the first teaching experience they’ve had. So, seeing where they go in their careers is exciting. One alumna John mentioned is Helen Jones. She was a youth participant who became a volunteer teacher before going to Massachusetts College of Art. She started the color film magazine Incandescent, and she’s now getting an MFA in photography at the University of Texas, Austin.

Another youth participant who returned as a volunteer is Rachael Warriner, a documentary photographer in Philadelphia who has photographed a lot of the social movements there. And I brought up Rachel Portesi, who volunteered in college, became an early Program Director, and is now a board member. Her tintype work has been featured in Vogue and The New York Times. She also teaches for us, and she's done phenomenal tintype workshops with our students. So, there’s a really cool cycle that doesn't stop at student level; it continues as people come back to volunteer.

Tintype portrait of Juno and Amalia made during In-Sight Large Format class, summer 2019.

In 2019, In-Sight moved to a new, larger ADA-accessible facility. How has this new space enhanced the organization and its programming?

VH: I think it's enhanced In-Sight in every way possible.

AH: Our old building felt like a closet, and we couldn’t have run any programming there during COVID. People couldn't see what In-Sight was doing there, how it was organized and set up. We went from having less than 1000 square feet to a 3000-square-foot facility featuring a large classroom with a beautiful new projector and screen, a gallery, a darkroom and processing room, a digital lab, and plenty of space for people to move around. We're right off Main Street, so we’re visually accessible to town.

In normal times, we can engage with an audience of 40 in our new space, where before we’d need to rent space offsite. We’ve been able to invite people in for artists’ talks and community events. Our new classroom is basically a giant whiteboard, where classes can post their work, along with the collective guidelines everyone builds together. This gives visiting community members a good idea of who we are and allows them to really engage with us.

In-Sight co-founder John Willis (center, moustache), takes part in group portrait during grand opening of new facility, spring 2019.

Tell us more about the new darkroom. How many students can it accommodate at once?

VH: The new darkroom is all bright and shiny, and has great ventilation, and a fully accessible sink and controls. Without COVID restrictions, it can accommodate eight people, and we like to keep our classes really small.

AH: Another unique feature is that our new darkroom is ADA compliant. It's on the first floor, and has two enlargers at wheelchair height, with enough space for a student to move between the sink and the enlarger. I don't see that often, especially in schools, which generally have a revolving door darkroom entrance that’s not even close to compliant.

Students work in film processing room of In-Sight’s new darkroom facilities, summer 2020.

How does your new gallery compare with the former space? Is work being shown there now or are you planning for future exhibits?

AH: In-Sight ‘s previous gallery was incredibly tiny, so there wasn’t much room to engage with the public. But our new space has made everything really vibrant. We can be a destination, with students hanging out and pursuing their own work outside class time.

VH: We now have a very long entry hallway that can be set up as a constant gallery, and our classroom and student hangout zone is a modular space where we can also hang panels and have shows. We have a lot more wall space, and we’re hoping to start doing shows again this summer. We also have a long alleyway outside, where we’ve done wheat pasting displays, but it's very different than having photographs hung on a wall.

Brattleboro has a history of holding first Friday gallery walks for the community, with galleries, restaurants, and businesses open and showing work. We participated previously, and a lot of new people came through to check out the artwork. That's slated to return this summer, so we're excited to potentially participate again.

Volunteers wheat paste student work in alleyway outside In-Sight’s new home.

In-Sight’s past community programming included summertime artist talks and Movie Monday events. Are these events free and open to the public? And will you be hosting any in-person events this summer?

VH: Our community programming is always free, and I think it does a great job of spreading the word to the public. Last year’s virtual artist talks reached people who didn’t have access to Brattleboro in person, which was very cool. We’ve had less attendance at our past Movie Night events, but I think we're still getting people used to the idea that we host events like that.

As for this summer, it’s still on the drawing board. We're trying to feel out Vermont's rules for vaccinations and such, because it’s tended to be on the conservative side with rules. But, we’ll probably hold some virtual artist talks at the very least.

Students gather in In-Sight’s new classroom space for a Nature Photo Explorers presentation, summer 2019.

In past years In-Sight held a summer intensive called the Exposures Cross-Cultural Youth Arts Program. Please tell us about that program. And, is it currently on hiatus?

VH: Yes, it's currently on hiatus, and we're trying to figure out what it will look like in the future. In essence, Exposures is a travel photography program where youth aged 14 – 21 travel to different host communities with facilitators and make art together on the subject of culture and identity. Our primary host community was South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, where our founder, John, has a lot of personal ties.

COVID forced In-Sight to create virtual instruction methods during 2020, but you’re offering in-person classes as of spring 2021. Have you made changes to class structure and instruction to prioritize safety?

AH: Our building is pretty large, so it's easy to distance. We typically have an eight to 10 student class, but we're now cutting back to three or four students to ensure proper distancing. We’ve moved the computers in our digital lab six feet apart, separated by dividers. Our darkroom is pretty long, but during COVID we typically limit the space to three people at a time, with dividers between enlargers. As Victoria mentioned, we have amazing ventilation in the darkroom and processing room, which we now run 24/7.

Program director A. Hanus demonstrates studio lighting techniques during Advanced Photography class, fall 2020.

Masks are required, regardless of vaccination status, and we provide masks and/or gloves for any student who needs them. We check temperatures at the door, and there is hand sanitizer everywhere. There are air purifiers running 24/7 in the classroom, Digilab, and our downstairs offices, and we wipe down surfaces everywhere.

We follow Vermont state guidelines, and make all students, parents, and guardians sign a waiver when they register explaining our expectations. Currently, if you leave the state or combine households, you have to quarantine. If anyone in your household shows signs of COVID, we ask that you don't come to class. We do have a computer in the classroom for anyone who needs to video chat. And, since it’s spring, classes are expected to be outside much of the time once it's warm enough.

Finally, since we have educator status, all staff members are fully vaccinated, which is really thrilling. A few of our volunteers have also been vaccinated because of their full-time jobs, so that's a plus, but not a requirement.

In-Sight’s new headquarters features large windows to bathe the space in daylight and plenty of room for students to hang out.

Do you foresee retaining any aspects of virtual learning methods after the risk of the pandemic has passed?

VH: In-Sight's pretty uniquely situated as being very rural. We're in a town of 12,000, and we tend to have a lot of Internet issues. A lot of our students, and even staff members, still don't have Broadband. Internet lag issues are just a reality in Vermont, so having a class entirely online means that we miss out on serving many of the students who need us most, especially in these times of profound isolation. Isolation is already an issue for youth in a rural community, and that's massively compounded by this pandemic. Virtual is certainly an option for artists’ talks and community events, since it creates a very helpful level of accessibility. But for classes, we realized that we better serve our students when we’re in-person.

AH: When it comes to remote access, we had a really interesting situation with a student of divorced parents who could call in to class when at the dad’s house but not at the mom's house. The distance was only one town away, but that's a reality a lot of our students face.

When we had to go online due to COVID, it really highlighted the importance of being in person. During in-person classes, our students have access to cameras, darkrooms, and computers, and a lot of them are touching this gear or experiencing a darkroom for the first time through us. When you sign up for a class, regardless of what you pay, you can go home with a Canon T5i for eight weeks and play with it, and that tactile aspect is really huge. We have people who knew In-Sight from the start and now their kids attend, or kids who are 10 or 20 years younger than a sibling are taking classes because the older sibling did. There’s a reason we've been around for 30 years.

Additionally, we have some incredible volunteers and teachers who are fun to be around. When we're interviewing our volunteers to teach, we try to make sure they're engaging and thoughtful and really excited to be teaching. Excitement from volunteers inherently brings out engagement in students.

Instructor William Dixon reviews pictures made by students in Alternative Process class.Photograph © Robert F. George

During COVID, you started a photo-sharing initiative called the In-Sight Photo Squad. Did this increase your visibility or have other positive or unexpected effects?

AH: This happened at the very start of the pandemic, when we were grasping for whatever we could. Students weren't showing up to class because they didn't want to be online, and this gave us a new outlet to share. We instantly saw an increase in Instagram followers, plus participants across the country and even globally. During the summer we were able to wheat paste a physical display in our alleyway, and we got featured in the newspaper. Besides giving people a light distraction, it became a tool to them help process all they were going through.

You also produced Boredom Busters Photo Kits during the pandemic. How did this idea come about, and which of the kits were most popular?

AH: The kits were suggested by our development associate, Hannah. I think she had worked on something similar at another organization. We struggled really hard when classes were online. I mean, why would a student want to sit at their computer and listen to an adult talk? They might want to play games or talk to their friends, but would they really want to call in to us after spending eight hours of school on Zoom? The online classes really lacked the tactile experience photography can provide.

We were looking to give students something tactile and fun without a lot of online screen time, so we started brainstorming about things that made sense to create. Cyanotypes came to mind instantly, and Zine Making is something we've done at In-Sight and use as an educational resource. Film Club was borrowed from a subscription offer used by a coffee company I follow. After considering how to play that for our analog people, our friends at the Vermont Center of Photography agreed to give us some lower-end point-and-shoot cameras from their photo thrift store, and we found a set of black-and-white films to send with the cameras. We could send the kits to kids during a class, and it was also great for the holiday experience. I'm really proud that we could do family kits, so a whole family could participate in a tactile activity together.

In terms of popularity, I’d say the cyanotype kit came in first, with the film club kit second. As soon as these kits went live for the holidays, we just kept getting order after order.

In-Sight student working at a light table strewn with raw materials for alternative process prints.

Does In-Sight currently have other types of community outreach, or any new initiatives in planning stages?

AH: A past AmeriCorps member thought of a really cool thing for Martin Luther King (MLK) Day, because in AmeriCorps, MLK Day is called a day on, not a day off. In-Sight really wanted to do something the community could use, and in early 2020, we came up with Priceless Portraits Day, to provide our community with free portraits. I think talking about civil rights is really important, and this day was designed as a way to give back. It was a really beautiful event. The New England Youth Theater is in Brattleboro, and we also have a local circus school. Somebody brought all their clown props, so we were able to get some cool photos with those. Unfortunately, we had to put this event on pause for 2021, because we couldn't work inside during the winter. So, we're definitely brainstorming about ways to hold this event outside on a warm day, rather than on MLK Day.

I feel like In-Sight has been able to stay really steady in the community, and I think the ability to maintain that with confidence is something our community needs right now. When we were open to the public, we encouraged students to come in whenever they wanted—to do homework, hang out, raid the snack closet. And the closer we can get to that stability—not trying to go back to the way it was but embracing this new change in a positive light—is the best thing we can offer our students. And we’re proving it. Our spring classes filled up so fast, it was wild. I was nervous parents wouldn't want to send their kids to us, but I was wrong.

Polaroid and Instax portraits made by students and volunteers at the start of class are displayed across In-Sight’s wall space.

A page on your website includes a staff statement on social justice, written in June 2020 and listing several actions you’d take to address this issue. What kind of progress have you made in rolling out those actions?

VH: At the time we posted that statement, we were running a T-shirt fundraiser, part of which was to support a neighboring print studio. We immediately rerouted our portion of those funds to a local BIPOC-led organization, the Root Social Justice Center. We also donated 60% of the proceeds from our 2020 auction to two organizations—Root Social Justice Center and Youth FX, in Albany, NY. Additionally, we began to pay our artists and facilitators for their time, energy, and work.

We’ve been doing ongoing trainings for staff, and we’re working on doing a workshop through our local community justice center, because one of our plans is to use more of a community justice approach, rather than involving police. We're also working with the board on a strategic plan, to determine the best way to support our BIPOC student artists with scholarships and equipment.

AH: We’ve also been providing volunteers and teachers with information they can use in talking about photography’s racist past. I'm not trying to force their hand on what they teach in class, but I think it's very appropriate to address how to lean into these conversations rather than stepping away from them.

For example, if you're a white student hanging out with your friends of color, you might need to consider to how you edit skin tones in pictures. I've had some really beautiful conversations with students around that. In-Sight isn’t defined by certain rules public schools might have, so we can engage in critical but respectful conversations. That also ties back to our mission of building a worldview and perspective. I've had some great book groups about race with volunteers, which has allowed some people to engage in issues they might not have addressed in the past.

Students work with photographer, board member, and volunteer Rachel Portesi in her studio, summer 2019.

Does In-Sight have sponsorships and or partnerships with other organizations or entities?

VH: In-Sight is a registered 501c3 non-profit and we do a lot of programming partnerships. In terms of sponsorships, we have an arts partnership with the Vermont Arts Council. They fund a programming grant with us, which involves certain initiatives during a three-year grant cycle.

Can you elaborate further about your current partnerships?

AH: There are so many different types of schools in Vermont, and we either reach out to them or they come to us. We just started a partnership with the Grammar School, a private school in Putney that’s doing afterschool programming online. An art teacher wanted to create a historical trajectory for the art classes, so we're going to jump in with pinhole cameras at the point when photography is invented. We've also partnered with the Brattleboro Retreat, a residential mental health facility offering programs from childhood through adulthood. I did a weekly series of projects with high school-aged kids, using point-and-shoot cameras. We've worked with Kindle Farm School, an alternative school for boys. They held a weekly photo club in our space, and we’d go into the darkroom, and do some shooting. And, we're trying to do some stuff with an art school called River Gallery Arts.

We also work with organizations, like Vermont Food Connects, which did a partnership with a bunch of artists and organizations last summer. We brought cyanotypes to five or six different gardens throughout Windham County. Due to COVID, we tried a new method of training people, so more students could participate. And we partnered with a local artist, who created hand-sanitizing stations throughout Brattleboro to display student work. It's called the Handy Station. You put your hand under a motion sensor, which triggers music from a local band, so you can listen to music, view students’ pictures, and sanitize your hands in one fell swoop.

Students try their hand at studio portraiture in a class offered as part of In-Sight’s partnership with the Grammar School.Photograph by Zachary Stephens, © In-Sight Photography Project

You also host an annual fundraising auction. How long has this been held, and how significant is this in terms of fundraising and community outreach?

VH: I believe this will be our 23rd year, so it's been going a long time. It's definitely our best-known fundraiser and, even better than that, it's a great means of outreach. We have some pretty incredible photographers from all over the world who have donated for a long time.

Do you have other types of fundraising initiatives, and is there a specific type that you've found to be most effective?

VH: We employ a good mix of individual donations, grant writing, the auction and other fundraising events. Sometimes, we also sell equipment, which isn’t a huge revenue stream, but it’s very helpful. Folks donate old cameras or other types of gear, and if it's something we can't use for classes but is in good condition, we sell it.

What percentage of program support comes from grants, and what different types of grants do you receive?

VH: 2020 was a bit different because of COVID, but we had about 57% of our income come from grants that year, mostly from private arts- or education-based foundations, plus a little state support through the Vermont Arts Council.

Group work produced by In-Sight’s Large Format Photography class in 2020.

Generally, how much of your time as executive director goes into fundraising and grant writing?

VH: It ebbs and flows throughout the year, but with very specific times that are very fundraising focused. Our fiscal year ends with the calendar year, so fundraising takes up about 75% of my time from October through December. Outside of that, fundraising takes up maybe 30% of my time, but it is a big chunk.

You have a nine-person board of directors. What responsibilities do board members have? Do they take any active role in program operations?

VH: Our board handles our long-term strategic direction, and they’re also fiscally responsible for the organization, to make sure everything's running very smoothly financially. They’re less involved as a board with general program operations, but we do have board members who volunteer individually. We have a volunteer teacher who's a board member or board members with marketing experience, so they'll help with that.

Group portrait made during In-Sight’s Large Format Photography class.

What do you look for in the volunteers and interns who serve as instructors?

AH: We look for a background in photography. A teaching background is awesome, but it's definitely not a requirement. If an instructor has never taught before, we usually start them with a seasoned In-Sight volunteer or a staffer. We have to do a background check, but besides that, just enthusiasm, dedication, and ideally a connection to the photographic arts. We also branch out sometimes, so we've held graphic design courses, and there might be a film course this summer, so we'll lean into those skills too.

What kind of a commitment is expected of In-Sight students, and how does one apply?

AH: Our Exposure program definitely entailed an application process, but for our core classes, it’s just a matter of registering on our website. The main thing is to sign up early to secure a spot. In terms of expectations, we just ask them to show up. However, with COVID, we expect that they're honest and understanding of the fact that we're trying to maintain a safe community. If someone is a no show for a few weeks, we have to talk about that, but besides that, just show up and have a little bit of enthusiasm.

VH: Our biggest goal is to minimize barriers to entry, so there's no application, it's all self-reported. Students sign out cameras, all based on trust. It's all about making sure any kid who wants to take class can take class.

Student photographing a public art installation in Downtown Brattleboro during Fun with Photo class, taught by In-Sight staff members Jadian Bryan and Lily LaGrange, spring 2020.Photograph by Lily LaGrange, © In-Sight Photography Project

What methods are used to measure program success?

VH: We use the surveys that measure individual student growth, and student retention is also a big one for us.

AH: I check in with volunteers midway through each class. They're a huge indicator of success, because they're pretty honest about whether students are doing well. And, of course, the work students produce. But, I think student retention is one of the biggest compliments we can get.

Is there a Youth Photography Program you’d like to see featured in a future article? If so, tell us about them in the Comments section, below.

And, to view more of our profiles with Youth Photography Program directors on Explora, click here.


Hey Jill! Super cool how you highlight our photographic youth.

My name is Zach Weston and I run a photography non profit called The Weston Collective. I teach underprivileged 5th and 6th grade students in Seaside, CA traditional darkroom photography. A friend told me that you like to feature non profits in the art sector so I thought I would reach out! Our website is We have what I believe is the only community darkroom on the central coast of California as well. My great grandfather was Edward Weston. We have a tradition of film photography in the family and we have been passing the tradition along! I hope we can connect soon. Thank you so much.

Hi Zach, thanks so much for your comment. I'm so glad that you learned about our coverage of youth photo programs, and congratulations on the program you run. Long live photographic traditions and darkroom magic! I'll definitely keep your name and details in my rolodex. Thanks again for writing in and for reading Explora...