Ilsley Public Library photography contest challenges community to look at Middlebury through a new lens

By Haeun Park

The library released guidelines for their amateur photography contest, which will run throughout the year in several segments.
(Courtesy of Ilsley Public Library)

At Ilsley Public Library, staying safe during the pandemic doesn’t have to mean sticking to screens. Renee Ursitti, one of the librarians there, wanted to get people out of their houses, away from their Zoom meetings and back into nature. So, she planned a series of photography challenges that will take place over the coming months. The challenges are open to all amateur photographers and each challenge involves a different theme. 

The theme for the first challenge, which is open for submissions until Oct. 24, is “The Beauty of Nature.” Participants are limited to one entry per theme and must submit original work. Ursitti oversees this series as part of her focus in programming and outreach. 

Trent Campbell, a photographer for the Addison County Independent with 20 years of experience, will judge submissions alongside Jason Duquette-Hoffman, a prominent local photographer and assistant director at the college’s Center for Community Engagement, and Cyndi Palmer, a professional family portrait photographer. The panel of judges will choose two adult winners and two youth winners per theme. All winners will receive an enlarged, mounted print of their winning photo and be featured in a lobby exhibition. 

“[In determining what the winners would receive], we thought about how it’s such a digital world. If you looked on my phone, you would find thousands of images, and they’re wonderful — we love them, we post them, we do great things with them — but nobody prints them anymore. ” Ursitti said. “We felt that getting an actual enlarged, mounted print of your beautiful work might be a great incentive.” 

Kate Tilton, a semi-retired artist and professional volunteer living in Middlebury, is one participant excited to submit her piece for the first prompt.

“They posted [the event] several times on the church forum, and every time I read it, I thought I should just do it,” Tilton said. “I’m constantly taking pictures of the natural world. I go out to the woods a lot with my dogs, and I’m always telling them to wait a minute ‘cause I gotta take a picture. I just love nature; it fills my heart.” 

The library will be accepting submissions for the second challenge, the theme of which is “Our Town,” from Nov. 2 to Dec. 17. The prompt asks participants to submit a work that expresses what Middlebury means to them and how they feel about their community.

‘We’ve just gone through this long construction period, and I think that our town is changing,’ Ursitti said. ‘I wanted people to not only be able to reflect on their memories but also get out there and look at all these wonderful new things we have — to really be able to embrace this time of change as we’re trying to reinvent our downtown.’ ”

Submissions for the final challenge, titled “We Are Family,” will be open from Jan. 4 to Feb. 14 and will revolve around the participant’s idea of family. 

“I left [the prompt] vague on purpose because I think the definition of family is so wonderfully diverse right now that I wanted people to incorporate whatever their ideas were on that one,” Ursitti said. “Submissions start in the beginning of January, which is after the big holiday season, so we’re all going to have family subjects around … It just seemed like really good timing to let people express their love for their families.” 

By the beginning of March, Ursitti hopes to have all winning photos printed and mounted for the library exhibit, where they will be on display on the walls of the main lobby for four weeks. Visitors will be required to abide by the most up-to-date Covid-19 guidelines in addition to the library’s current policies. 

“Assuming we’re in the same situation, it would be masks, social distancing and being allowed in the building for 20 minutes at a time,” Ursitti said.  

While the Ilsley Public Library is open with limited hours, part of the motivation behind hosting the photography challenge is to foster greater engagement between the library and its community residents. 

“Many people are missing the social aspect of going to the library, so I was just trying to think of a way to have people feel like they’re still connected to the library even though we all can’t sit in the same room together right now,” Ursitti said. 

For some residents, this goal has been realized. “I know that the people at the library are working very hard on figuring out how to be available for the community and yet be safe,” Tilton said. “I realize that in normal times, loads and loads of people visit the library everyday, and they can’t do that now. I appreciate that the library is doing an outreach event that can help people still feel connected.” 

All contest submissions can be sent to [email protected].