Paul Kwilecki and the Center for Documentary Studies

by Eric Ginsburg | Follow me on Twitter @Eric_Ginsburg

I’m taking the plunge.

When I graduated college three years ago, I adamantly swore I wouldn’t be going back to school anytime soon, even betting money that I wouldn’t enroll in grad school before I hit 30. I’m not losing the bet, but I’m making a compromise with my younger self.

Last week I enrolled in the Center for Documentary Studies’ certificate in documentary arts program, a continuing education program through Duke University (I will remain a Tar Heel fan). The program offers four primary tracks — audio, video, photo and writing — but students are encouraged to blend mediums and draw in others. After taking two classes there in the last year, YES! Weekly gave me the green light to spend a week there taking the intensive introduction class earlier this month. I just can’t get enough.

The first thing I wrote in the 12 pages of notes I took that week summed up why I’m drawn to the program: “Part of this class is figuring out who we are as documentarians, and we’ll explore different methods and approaches to help us find our way/style.”

Between scribbled lists of books, websites and films to check out are self-reflections — ideas for projects, thoughts of collaboration and formats to explore.

I scrawled notes in the margins of assigned readings with questions: Who might benefit or be harmed during the documentary process, what are the boundaries of interviewees, who is the audience and how close or distant do I want to be from interviewees?

We dedicated a significant amount of time to guest speakers, readings and formulating our own project ideas. It would be impossible, even unwise, to attempt to summarize it all — just take the class, it’s pretty cheap — but the one exhibit we visited and discussed (with the curator!) seemed to grip us all.

Paul Kwilecki photographed his hometown of Decatur County in the southwestern corner of Georgia for four decades, and his work — currently on display at the center and the subject of a new book, One Place — is like nothing I can remember seeing. Through his lens, we see deeply into the daily lives of working class black and white residents that Kwilecki both identified with and slightly distanced himself from.

I just couldn’t stop staring into these men’s eyes, four black loggers in the woods, some of them wearing suits that seem too sharp for their profession and stern looks on their faces. Or the woman in line at the grocery store, smoke curling around a disgruntled, worn facial expression. The laborers, the shoppers, the baptism attendees — and don’t get me started on the newly married couple or the prisoners.

In an adjacent room, curator and center staffer Courtney Reid- Eaton assembled a room to look like Kwilecki’s office, desk and all, with blown up copies of the artist’s letters on the walls. Her work, our discussion and the evocative images floored us, and I’ve already looked up his work online numerous times since completing the course.

There’s more floating around in my head — about the poetry we heard, the Jazz Loft Project or the film Stranger with a Camera — but the most rewarding element was the other students. Their discussion, feedback and friendship affirmed why I do this type of work, but more than anything I’m excited to watch their incredible project ideas unfold.


Paul Kwilecki’s exhibit is on display at the Center for Documentary Studies through Oct. 5, 2013. 1317 W. Pettigrew St, Durham. Call: 919.660.3663