It is important, I think, in the crafting of a certain identity—be it national, regional, personal, et. al—to call upon the identity-crafting work of those who came before. So Chuck Reece, editor of the online magazine The Bitter Southerner, does in his attempt to explain the origins and purpose of the magazine. In his editor’s note (“We Are Bitter”), Reece quotes William Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom, as Mississippi-bred Quentin Compson’s Canadian roommate demands of his Southern friend: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” Reece builds on this in his own writing: Why, and how, to live with so much historical baggage, so much collective guilt? To what degree is the guilt even collective?
The solution for some, it seems, is to refashion the South’s regional identity into something at once sweet, edgy, and newfangled (hence the ever-popular branding of the “New South”). I worry that this branding, in an effort to make amends, sidesteps the loaded history that our region has moved through, and that has placed us where we are now—it gets over without the work of having got over, so to speak. When he visited Duke and UNC a few weeks ago, Reece talked about the work his publication is trying to do in contrast to a quick and easy celebration of a “renewed” cosmopolitan South. Perhaps paradoxically, The Bitter Southerner offers beautifully designed multimedia stories about the South every Tuesday—stories so beautiful I might even call them sweet, edgy, and newfangled—while their content attempts to get at the confusing, bizarre, unique, and—dare I say—ugly aspects of the contemporary South.
The story published this week is called “Made in Durham,” and it’s an excerpt from a larger multimedia zine project by local photographer Justin Cook. I think it’s powerful and worthwhile for several reasons. It’s likely the first mainstream media photo essay consideration I’ve seen of the interplay between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Durham(s), with an attention to who, specifically is making said claims—and who’s reaping the benefits. (See the Fullsteam water gun shot, contrasted with nearly every other photo in the series). It brings the incessant talk about “urban renewal” into glaring contrast with what residents of Durham’s Southside neighborhood call urban “removal.” Perhaps most importantly, Cook’s photo essay doesn’t shy away from talking about urban violence and incarceration and how these things are bound up with race and civic responsibility. Cook’s individual note is especially potent in its grappling with questions of agency and empathy that should come up in any serious conversation about the claims we stake for the cities and regions that we live in. “We hope these images will celebrate Durham,” Cook writes, “but also challenge us to create the best Durham for everyone.”
I often tell people that Andrea Patiño, a Colombia native and a 2012 Duke graduate, is the most well-traveled person I know. She grew up in Bogotá, went to high school in Norway, has spent summers and semesters at Duke in the Netherlands, Ghana, Togo, Palestine, and New York City, and always seems to be traveling between continents. As a photojournalist and a cultural anthropologist, she seeks out multicultural stories; as an immigrant, she thinks a lot about mobility. In 2012, directly after graduation, Patiño was awarded a Hine Fellowship through the Center for Documentary Studies, and it was through this program that she moved to Boston, encountered the immense cultural diversity of neighboring city Lynn, and embarked on a multimedia documentary exploration—From the World to Lynn: Stories of Immigration, which opens as a full-fledged exhibition at CDS tonight. I spoke recently with Patiño, who is currently a graduate student in visual communication at UNC-Chapel-Hill, about the exhibition (which is also online here), how she finds herself in her documentary work, and the power of personal narratives.
KI: Tell me about the entry point to [From the World to Lynn]—was it through a particular person you met?
AP: I moved to Boston [to partner with nonprofit RAW Art Works] and was commuting to Lynn, and I realized pretty quickly that it was an incredibly diverse place. I did some research and found out that almost 30 percent of the population is foreign-born, which is a ridiculously high number—a lot higher than Massachusetts, and more than the national average. That was fascinating right away, and also in contrast to Lynn’s reputation. When you go to Massachusetts everyone says, “don’t go to Lynn, there’s a lot of crime and gang violence,” and so you never really get to hear the fact that it’s such a diverse place, and so rich, culturally and historically. That’s kind of outside of the narrative. Also, just the fact of going [to Lynn daily] and seeing all the different restaurants with different foods and walking the streets and hearing all these different languages. There was a Russian bakery, and a taco place, and lots of Iraqi people around as well. Lynn’s a refugee resettlement city.
When I was doing my work with RAW, I started reaching out to resettlement agencies, and the first one I went to was an Arabic association. Also through RAW I met children of immigrants and second-generation immigrants.
KI: I remember earlier this year we were talking about your current work, about how you’re trying to orient a lot of your documentary projects around immigration. Did [the Lynn project] cement that interest?
AP: I think doing this project reaffirmed a profound interest that I have [in immigration]. It’s such a relevant and important issue—especially in terms of questions about mobility nowadays when everyone’s moving around constantly. Once this project was done, hearing from the subjects [of the photographs] was really powerful, and validated my work in a way that was very profound. That really confirmed that [immigration] is a topic I want to keep working on, because it also felt important to them—having those stories out.
For me as well, I’m trying to figure it out. I’m an immigrant myself, and it’s a completely different kind of immigration story. I’m here for education and sometimes that gets lost; [immigration stories] are nuanced. But here in North Carolina, unlike in Boston, there’s more of a Hispanic presence and I will probably continue doing work on that for the rest of grad school.
KI: Speaking of the story of your immigration, I was struck by your exchange with Antonio [an immigrant from El Salvador, photographed as part of From the World to Lynn] who flipped it back on you, and asked you why you were so interested in immigration. Can you talk a little bit about that dynamic?
AP: That was so surprising and honestly so good to me, to be confronted with that question. He was an undocumented, unaccompanied minor, which was a huge thing last summer in the States, but he came 11 years ago. At that point, as I was doing all the interviews, I was trying to figure out my own status. My work permit was running out in the States, and honestly it was a very hard. It produced a lot of anxiety. I was trying to figure it out: either I would have to leave, or try get a job that would sponsor my visa. And I’m explaining all of this to [Antonio] and he’s like, “why don’t you stay, and be undocumented?” It’s the first time anyone has asked me that. That was very powerful. Of course it’s something I had never considered, because of the implications of it. It meant I wouldn’t be able to go back home [to Colombia], or if did, I wouldn’t be able to come back [to the U.S.]. Some people choose [to stay, undocumented] because they don’t have any better option. I think that also reveals the nuances of why people come, why people stay, why people make those kinds of choices.
KI: Has, and/or how has, your thinking about immigration changed?
AP: I think it reaffirmed that personal narratives—though often dismissed—are so important in showing how complicated these decisions are. It also got me thinking about the right to migrate, but also the right not to migrate. The idea that if you don’t want to move, why would you have to move? Which is the case for a lot of people who are forced to move.
Mobility for me is such a big issue. When I first came [to the U.S. and Duke], I did my first summer abroad in Netherlands. I said I needed a visa, and everyone was like, “what is that, why can’t you just…?” Which is completely understandable: If your mobility has never been questioned, growing up, why would you even think about it? I’m somebody who has been able to travel a lot despite all these limitations. I’ve been denied a visa here and there, which is really frustrating. Of course a lot of people say, “why don’t people come [to the U.S.] legally?” but don’t realize that there are all these processes. It’s virtually impossible [to immigrate legally, to obtain a visa] if you are, for example, an impoverished person from Central America.
Also, for me, the situation in Lynn with the Iraqi refugees was really interesting. It connects to the idea of the war in Iraq, to America’s involvement and how that had a very tangible impact on people’s lives who are now coming here. What’s that relationship between an American citizen whose taxes paid for the war and someone who’s coming here? How does that relationship work? How are we involved and responsible?
KI: How has your photographic style evolved through your other projects—including photographs of slave castles in Ghana and Palestinian youth in Nablus—up to this point, a show made up solely of portraits?
AP: [During a class] last semester at UNC was the first time I really had to think more deliberately about style. [With the Lynn project], I was going with my gut, trying to figure things out by myself. I thought portraits were more important in this project because I really wanted them to go together with the voices of the people telling the stories, so you can see the portrait while listening.
KI: What does it mean to you to come full-circle and exhibit your work at Duke?
AP: I’ve been at the Center for Documentary Studies forever, from [being a] front-desk receptionist to having an exhibit there. It definitely feels like a bit of a completion. [The place] was so important in my Duke experience, even though I only took one class there.
This is the first time I have an exhibit up. I remember [at the beginning of the fellowship], my advisors were talking about how you’re going to try many ideas and maybe many of them are going to fail. But you’re going to have time and support to do the project you want to do. I think that kind of support is kind of rare, for somebody to tell you right after graduation that you have the opportunity to fail if you need it. So going back to Duke, and back to CDS, feels like a good first exhibit and also a closure to a long circle.
KI: What are you working on right now? What’s your next big project?
AP: I’m thinking about my [graduate] thesis pretty soon. I would be interested to see how Obama’s recent executive action is going to play out and unfold for a lot of families.
From the World to Lynn is on view at the Center for Documentary Studies until April 13. See more of Patiño’s work here.
Last Saturday, multicolored lights swirled outside The Bar in downtown Durham and a crowd of what were ostensibly nighttime clubgoers filed in. Rather than sweaty bodies on the dance floor*, though, a large projection screen, rows of chairs, and tables holding bowls of movie popcorn filled the space. People were gathering for MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts Candidate Amanda Berg‘s thesis film screening, part of her documentary project called ‘Every Body Hit Somebody’—a combination of still photography and film documenting semi-professional women’s tackle football team The Carolina Phoenix. Central to Berg’s work, both ‘Every Body’ and otherwise, are questions about gender, sport, community and society formation. Michaela sat down with Berg to chat about her current projects, the ethics of getting to know a group of people while documenting them, and the “everybodyness” of tackle football.
Kenan Insider: So, first: why the title ‘Every Body Hit Somebody’?
Amanda Berg: The phrase came from one of the loudest Phoenix fans. A father of one of the players liked to cheer from the sidelines, “Everybody hit somebody! Everybody hit somebody!” It is a spirited description of what goes on during a football game. It also implies equality in saying that “everybody” should participate in the hitting. Tackling is one of the most masculine aspects of the game and the thing society has the hardest time giving women access to.
I chose to make it “Every Body” to hint at the relationship between playing football and forming an identity, the separation between mind and body. There is something very special about tackle football that other sports don’t have. The way bodies collide is unique to this game. For many of the women who play football that contact is an empowering part of the sport and affects their lives in positive ways on and off the field.
KI: Your photography and documentary work has ranged from photo essays concerning women and binge drinking to film,photography, and zine work that engages the military communities of Fayetteville and Fort Bragg. What about this current project—and the stories of the women on this team—felt important to tell, to share?
AB: It’s almost indescribable. The Phoenix seemed important from the first time I ever saw them practice— their love of football, their willingness to challenge gender boundaries, their vibrant, confident, diverse personalities and most importantly their success as a team. Winning a national championship is news— where was it printed?
KI:At the film screening on Saturday evening, [Arts of the Moving Image Lecturing Fellow and Artist in Residence, as well as one of Berg’s thesis advisors] David Gatten talked about your relentless approach to artistic revision: you made a version of this film, and then made it again, and then made it again. What were some of the hardest decisions—possibly ethical decisions— you moved through before ending with the film/the project in its final state?
AB: The hardest decision was editing out voices. I was able to do four big interviews. When I set out I imagined I would interview everyone on the team. In the final edit you only see two of those four. I struggled knowing how many perspectives the audience was missing out on. I think editing a project at all can be seen as an ethical dilemma, especially when you are representing other people’s experiences and not your own.
KI: The mood of the event on Saturday is hard for me to describe. The screening and the event felt, in a lot of ways, like they belonged to the team—most of whom were present, chanting and being open about recognizing themselves onscreen. But that magic didn’t feel exclusive, either; I can connect to so many aspects of the work, from gender, to communities built around a sport or art, to the ways we carve out space in busy lives to pursue our passions. Would you say that there is an ideal audience for this film and for this project or not?
AB: Saturday was special. I’m so glad you could make it! I don’t envision a ideal audience. I do think watching the movie for the first time with the team can’t be replicated. They are as much an audience as I am. I was a spectator of their season.On Saturday the roles reversed as they watched my performance. I hope the film moves through the world as a product of our collaboration.
KI: What was it like to get to know the team through documenting them? Were there ever points when you had to take off the ‘artist’ or ‘documentarian’ hat?
AB: Getting to know the Phoenix was like stepping into your favorite sports movie and being taken under the wing of the main characters. It was fun, inspiring and instructive. It’s a little hard to answer the hat question. Working on this project taught me how to be myself; the Phoenix showed me what it meant to be a confident woman. So even though there were moments [when] I was less focused on pictures and just enjoying myself, I was always in touch with who I was, why I was there. I think I just wore a really bright hat the entire time.
KI: If you were to combine the words “ethics” and “art” in the same sentence, what comes to mind?
AB: A few words pop into my mind: vulnerability, consistency, plurality, thereness, process, human, beautiful.
*Writer’s note: There was, indeed, a dance party—after Berg’s film screening.
Berg’s collection of photographic prints, part of ‘Every Body Hit Somebody,’ is on view in the Allen Building First Floor Gallery through this Friday, April 5. Find more information about the ongoing MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts here.
The walls in the central hallway of the first floor of West Duke function currently as a gallery. On one, between a long sequence of color photo prints, is a plain text document tacked to the wall, made up of several statements like the following: “It can be a picture of a child burned by napalm running along a highway in South Vietnam. A picture that would turn public opinion on a war thousands of miles away.” At the bottom of the document, these statements are attributed to The Picture: An Associated Press Guide to Good News Photography, published in 1989.
This text—and the photos—are part of Advance for Use Sunday by Caitlin Margaret Kelly, who is both curator of the exhibition “The Icon Industry: The Visual Rhetoric of Human Rights” (in which Advance for Use Sunday is featured) as well as Kenan’s first Graduate Arts Fellow. Kelly came to Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts after a long career as a photojournalist in the U.S. and South America. In a recent Recess article about the exhibition, Kelly credited the shift to her feeling limited by the photojournalism field. She sought out the “ability to pull strengths from photojournalism, from [her] documentary work, from [her] other interests.” Fittingly, the panel gathered on Monday for the opening of “The Icon Industry” reflected this spectrum: journalism (Francesca Dillman Carpentier), documentary (Wesley Hogan), and visual art (Pedro Lasch). Kelly began by asking each panelist to discuss what it means to represent something “well” in their respective fields. Carpentier mentioned a list of rules utilized by journalists to best depict “what’s there”—rules, essentially, for the representation of subjects and/or events deemed newsworthy. I immediately recalled Kelly’s piece. In Advance for Use Sunday, the AP’s “Guide to Good News Photography,” uncannily similar to this set of journalistic “rules,” critiques photojournalism’s traditional standards—and, by extension, the ways in which the media employs iconic images to flatten the public’s understanding of complex events.
After the panel discussion, I chatted with Kelly next to a snack table of cheese cubes. Kelly, whose master’s thesis in visual anthropology examined Vietnam War photographs on the front page of TheNew York Times between 1962 and 1973, told me that the “picture of a child burned by napalm” was taken, and taken up by the media and the public, rather late into the war, in 1972: a visual coup de grâce for an overseas struggle that, by that point, faced near-universal negative public opinion. In this context, it was the “right” image—a “Good News Photograph,” emphasis on the capital “G.”
But, and as Lasch suggested in the panel, situating this discussion of news images—and I’ll go a step farther and term them “human rights images”—in terms of “good” and “bad” already brings up questions of, as he said, “morality and taste.” These images, once publicized and “rallied around,” become morsels suitable for critical judgment; a critique, in a sense, but too often evaluated only within the framework of the discipline and assignment in which the image came to be. It’s one thing to understand details of the event that produced an iconic image. But, as Hogan pointed out from the documentarian’s perspective, it’s another thing to consider—and take dead-seriously—the photographer’s intent in capturing the image, the circumstances in which the image came to be, the type of relationship between the photographer and his or her “subjects,” the extent of aesthetic control, etc (the list could go on forever). Each of these considerations alters our value-added assessment of an iconic image—or any image, for that matter—and this multiplicity seems the only logical starting point for any discussion, or possible “use,” of such images. But when our culture needs the news, and needs it now, such discussion is quickly shunted in favor of what makes headlines pop and sales go up.
Is such a forum for discussion possible, then? In a way, the panel ended with this question, and we were unleashed to wall-mounted art and refreshments. I spent a while in front of Advance for Use Sunday. If you stop by the exhibition, you’ll see the flippable paper captions atop each photographic print. The exhibited side of each piece of paper provides a condensed description of what’s happening in the photo and categories such as location, event, and action verbs. The large photo to which these captions are attached, however, is immediately discordant. For a description of “a man look[ing] at female sex workers” in Yangon, Myanmar, we see two young white girls chasing each other in apparent playtime glee. The trick is to flip the paper caption: on the other side is the AP image that originally accompanied the AP caption on the front.
The space between these two images is the zone that’s begging to be discussed, to be flipped over constantly, to gnaw on while chewing cheese cubes. It’s an invitation to critical practice in lieu of one-sided critique, and more than anything this exhibition feels like an endless forum for such practice. One of my favorite moments last night was sidling up to Antoine Williams’s enormous painting, characterized by hybrid figures both human and not (it reminded me stylistically of Wangechi Mutu’s collage works, recently exhibited at the Nasher Museum). The person standing next to me turned out to be Williams, the artist, himself. We talked about the painting’s content and his desire to represent race- and gender-based hierarchies in a visually ambiguous way. We “rallied around” his own iconic images for a few minutes, but only in the sense that we immediately got into the thick of the issues Williams wanted to treat in the painting. And then, eventually, we parted, lending our voices to the overall [critical] din of the hallway.
 “This rallying around iconic images can be important,” said Kelly. “But to me, the lack of critique afterwards is what the exhibit was trying to start talking about…the lack of understanding that an event or a group of people or a thing is often much more complex than what the iconography shows it to be.” (Recess, Duke Chronicle)