The walls of Wink Willett’s Fish Hill Road home are lined with portraits.
They make for a montage of ethnicities and personalities staring out across hallways and rooms.
What stands out, though, are the eyes. Rows and rows of eyes: Muslim girls peering fixedly at the camera, Sikh men gazing past smoke rings, Buddhist monk children laughing in a field.
“The eyes tell me about the life,” Willett said. “They give me insight into the person. I can see joy, I can see hardship, I can see happiness, sadness.”
Willett, 71, has been a travel photographer since he retired (“redirected,” he called it) in 2002. The work has brought him to six continents—following nomads in India, wandering the streets in Istanbul, exploring temples in southeast Asia, driving with guides through Ecuador.
Willett hasn’t been photographing recently, he said; he just finished fundraising $12 million for a building project at his alma mater, Williams College.
He also serves on the Rotary board, helps out at Chandler on occasion, and was preparing for a visit from his seven grandchildren.
When he gets the urge to travel, he finds trips with other photographers— once with Steve McCurry of National Geographic fame—and occasionally, with personal guides.
He’ll often take 10,000 photos in a trip, but fewer than two dozen will make the final cut. He sells them occasionally, or makes photo cards to give away.
Willett categorizes his photos as “environmental portraiture,” capturing the subject in his or her environment.
He described his love of colors: he gravitates towards reds, blues, and greens.
He looks for beauty, he said, as well as for lighting, and for the disarmed expressions of a person at ease.
“Seeing is more difficult than the technicality of taking the photo,” he added.
Willett pointed to a photo of a Bhutanese woman, spinning a prayer wheel in one hand. She’s looking just past the camera with a questioning expression, skin wizened by the sun or years or both.
“The eyes, the face, the bracelets, the wheel, it all has meaning,” Willett said.
The photography is successful, “if it really represents what I think I saw— am I capturing a moment of time in that person’s life?”
An Evolving Interest
Willett, a Connecticut native, was born William Ward Willett. He has tried to shed his nickname—for the nursery rhyme “Wee Willie Winkie”—several times over the years, to no avail.
Willett took his first photographs in 1964, while working a summer construction job in Anchorage, Alaska between his sophomore and junior year at Williams College. On Sundays, he would venture outside the city to take photos of the landscapes and wildlife.
Willett married his wife Bonnie in 1970 and when the young couple traveled around Europe on a honeymoon, he carried a camera constantly and would try to imitate the photos he found on tourist brochures.
They returned to the United States two months later to allow Willett to begin his MBA at Columbia Business School. Upon graduation, he was offered a job with Citigroup.
Over the next 30 years, Willett worked his way up to the position of managing director with the multinational investment bank. He made a home with Bonnie and his three children in New Canaan, Conn., and also spent 12 years in the ’70s and ’80s living in Taiwan, South Korea, and Denmark.
The Willetts built their Randolph home, and made it their permanent residence in 2010.
Imbued with Meaning
Willett’s interest in photography falls somewhere between informal hobby and obsession—quick bursts of intense work then months with little progress.
Now, he’s hoping to get back to it.
He has a cache of thousands of unedited photos to peruse and digitally develop, from trips he’s taken since 2010: India, Burma, China, Mexico, Vietnam, Ecuador, and more.
He’s scheduled for a fall show at Gifford on his 2015 trip to Cuba and he’s planning to publish a book on the faces of Burma in the near future. These two projects, Willett hopes, will put him back to work.
For Willett, photography is a medium of connection.
In part, Willett seeks to build an empathy and understanding between the viewer and subject of the photo. “I find there are many more similarities than differences,” he said. “People usually talk about the differences (across culture). Inside, we’re very much the same.”
He told the story of when he was in an Indian village, taking photos. He took photos of a couple of young boys, and showed them the result, before one sister came outside, then another.
“The next thing you know, you’re having tea in their home at quarter of seven in the morning,” he said. “Then you go outside and the whole neighborhood’s there wanting to have their photo taken.”
Willett focuses his subject matter on that which reveals intimacy, joy, and a depth of character. He prefers not to capture images of individuals who are clearly hurting, or those who are crippled or begging.
“I’m a very optimistic person, and I don’t want to show that side of life,” he said.
Still, Willett added, he doesn’t shy away from hardship—his photos show rural life, poverty, joy, the intimacy of relationships.
He recalled an image he had captured of an Indian grandmother, cooking chapatis on a fire while her grandson looked on.
“There are a lot of things that are beautiful to me that may not be beautiful to someone else,” he said. “That to me is joyful, because I see the reality of life.”
(This first appeared in the Herald of Randolph July 21, 2016)