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Columbus Makes Art Presents Benjamin Willis on Being an Active Participant in Community

Lisa Steward Lisa Steward Columbus Makes Art Presents Benjamin Willis on Being an Active Participant in CommunityA portrait captured by photographer Benjamin Willis. See his work in Concourse B of the John Glenn Columbus International Airport.
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Benjamin Willis is a self-taught photographer aiming to show the richness and complexity of the inner fabric of Columbus folk. As an African American, Willis believes it’s imperative for him to tell the stories and show the perspective, imagination and creativity of his community. Willis’ work is currently featured in Lyrics for a New Century, on view through Sept. 30, at 934 Gallery’s new pop-up exhibition space on Concourse B of the John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

Lisa: You’re a Columbus native, deeply rooted in the community. What neighborhood did you grow up in and what neighborhood do you call home now?
Benjamin: I bounced around Columbus a lot. I grew up on the east side of Columbus, 18th Street and Main Street. I remember walking to the corner store and the park at Children’s Hospital. Shortly after my brother was born we moved to Worthington to go to school. I live in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood currently at the Milo Arts building on Third Avenue. I’ve been there since 2017.

Photographer Benjamin Willis.
Photographer Benjamin Willis.

It’s a vibrant neighborhood and reminds me a lot of growing up. Although it’s in the final throes of gentrification, a process that negatively impacts a neighborhood’s history and culture. It is important to me that media outlets, including this one, do not use their social capital to further the gentrification of neighborhoods like Milo-Grogan, and that they use their clout to preserve a neighborhood’s characteristics.

Lisa: What first inspired you to capture the world around you within your neighborhood and community?
Benjamin: Life is a spectrum. The unfortunate truth about that spectrum is that to appreciate life, you must know death. To appreciate beauty and gracefulness, you must know ugliness and despair. Some of these people know this about life and some don’t. But to interact with the world around you, you must understand that what you’re interacting with is also yourself. You come to know yourself through others. However, the gaze often diverts itself when it’s seen. You have to be a part of the world if you want anything out of it.

Portrait by Photographer Benjamin Willis.
Portrait by Photographer Benjamin Willis.
A scene captured by Photographer Benjamin Willis.
A scene captured by photographer Benjamin Willis.
A scene captured by photographer Benjamin Willis.
A scene captured by photographer Benjamin Willis.

Lisa: Has the narrative of what you intend to show changed over the years? Has it changed within the last year?
Benjamin: I think the notion of being an active participant in the community has really come to fruition through my work. I used to try and separate myself from what I make or what I’m showing but it just doesn’t work like that. I think that’s where a lot of photojournalism and documentary work gets it wrong, or feels so bad. There isn’t a sense of self within the work. We are always trying to be “as objective as possible” but what does that really even mean without addressing the context of how the world came to be?

Lisa: You’ve said, “When you walk around and interact in the city you’ve got to remember what you’re looking at is also you.” What do you hope people in Columbus see in themselves when they walk around your neighborhood?
Benjamin: I hope they see grace. That they can learn to be tender with one another and themselves. Life is hard. We often forget that we are one another’s best chance at making it through.

Lisa: 934 at CMH: A Travel-Sized Gallery is showcasing your photographs in their first exhibition at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport, engaging passengers in work that is reflective of the local arts community. What do you hope visitors to Columbus will take away from viewing your work?
Benjamin: That there are real people here. That within the comings and goings that take place in the airport that they remember real people reside here. That they call it home. That what you do might endanger or displace these people from their home. How we can move more carefully. You see how people move in beautiful spaces? They move with intention and care. I am trying to show the beauty in this place we call home. That you must move through this place with care and intention.

A scene captured by photographer Benjamin Willis.
A scene captured by photographer Benjamin Willis.
Portrait by photographer Benjamin Willis.
Portrait by photographer Benjamin Willis.

Lisa: Your first monograph, a detailed study of a single specialized subject, is being released soon with Soft Lightning Studio. Tell us about the conception of this project and how it fits into your artistic vision.
Benjamin: It’s about home. It’s about adjusting how we look at the ordinary. It’s about softly reminding one another that we are beautiful and we deserve respect, dignity and love. How we see is so necessary in what we recognize as doable, what is within our power and ultimately how we feel.

Lisa: What’s the best thing about the Columbus art scene right now?Benjamin: I think that art is back on display, there seems to be a lot of work being made and celebrated.

View lens-based work by Benjamin Willis and Julian Foglietti at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport in 934 at CMH: A Travel-Sized Gallery, located in Concourse B. Pre-order The Home We Know, Wills’ first monograph published through Soft Lightning Studio.

Columbus Makes Art Presents is a bi-weekly column brought to you by the Greater Columbus Arts Council – supporting and advancing the arts and cultural fabric of Columbus. The column is a project of the Art Makes Columbus campaign, telling the inspiring stories of the people and organizations who create Columbus art. Learn more about local artists, organizations, public art and events at ColumbusMakesArt.com.

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