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Outgoing Director Tom Rankin Reflects on 15 Years at CDS and the Road Ahead

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Tom Rankin at work near Money, Mississippi, June 2012. Photograph by Todd Nichols.

It’s hard to imagine the Center for Documentary Studies without Tom Rankin at the helm. He’s been here for the last fifteen of our twenty-four years, just the second director we’ve had (Iris Tillman Hill was our first). CDS—and the world—was a different place when Tom arrived in Durham in 1998. Under his leadership, it has adapted, grown, and thrived to become one of the leading institutions for the documentary arts both nationally and internationally. Tom will continue to head the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program at Duke as he passes the baton to new director Wesley Hogan this summer. Here, Tom answers questions from staff members about life at CDS and beyond. Note: this interview originally appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Document, the CDS quarterly newsletter.

“Documentary” is a big tent, from socially driven journalism to strikingly personal art, from linear narrative to experimental montage. How did you view your role in providing space for all of the above as opposed to, “We at CDS believe in x kind of documentary?”

We all come to documentary expression through our distinct garden gate, entering through whatever door we first found inviting and alluring. And my path into documentary was personal. I grew up with a number of very interesting, eccentric older relatives—great-uncles and great-aunts, and for a very brief time my great-grandmother. I found them all fascinating, what they talked about (and didn’t) and how so many of the stories they told were about earlier times I couldn’t see. They were storytellers, kind and generous in the deepest sense of those words. Being around eighty- and ninety-year-olds and then having to accept the cold truth as they slowly passed on, first one, then another, really marked me. I used to play checkers with my grandfather or just sit with him in the years after he got dementia, to listen to him talk and sing. And I made some audio recordings of my Great-Auntie Anne’s stories when I was ten years old; just having her voice on a reel-to-reel tape, that strangely mysterious narrative, hooked me.

I photographed as a young child, as a way both to understand my place in the world and as an excuse to engage. It just seemed natural. My own relationship to these kinds of acts is one reason I see the documentary impulse as universal. We can infuse it with all kinds of complex theory and methodology—deservedly so—but at the root of documentary is something more akin to human instinct, the urge to know, to remember, to affirm, to use our experience to change or reform what we deem to be wrong, to develop our individual voices that allow us to both be-long but also to be on our own.

Once I was in college I discovered a whole world of academic study: history, ethnography, photography, literature, film. While each one had its own department—it’s own offices—it seemed to me they belonged together, under one roof, talking to each other. I have always seen CDS as being that place, a true “center,” an actual crossroads of ideas. And any center that’s a true crossroads will welcome all kinds of ideas, will em-brace the idea of contested notions.

Has your definition of documentary changed over your time at CDS, and if so, what has inspired those changes?

I think the biggest changes over the past fifteen years have involved the further democratization of media and the fact that nearly everybody carries a camera at all times and has access to digital media that allows documentary storytelling by nearly anyone. This is an enormous shift. So if we define documentary as simply “bearing witness” through the making of a record of any event or moment—a photograph, video, sound recording—then documentary is happening 24/7 in every corner of the globe. And in some ways that’s true. But just as we all have access to a pen or pencil and can certainly find some paper to write our own story, that alone doesn’t make everyone an artful storyteller. So documentary has simultaneously become more open, more diverse, and yet at the same time there’s an even greater premium on the art of the documentary story. It’s like that idea that everyone has a microphone, but who has something to say? It’s becoming increasingly important to know what you want to say and to have the skills to say it in a way that cuts through the excessive proliferation of images, sound, blog entries, and the like. Why should anyone listen to us, why should they pay attention?

When you review your time as director of CDS, what are some of the accomplishments that make you most proud and that you’d most like to see endure?

My first response is more metaphoric than anything. I felt like when I came to CDS there were great things happening, but much of what was going on was isolated—more separate from campus and student engagement than I wanted, not as fully engaged with Durham as I thought we could be, and generally I didn’t feel there were enough entry points at CDS for various people to connect on their own terms. I distinctly remember thinking that the actual building needed the windows opened for more fresh air to flow through, for more ideas to float in and out. We needed to cede some control and to accept the risks associated with collaborative work. Whatever we want to decide about mission for a place like CDS, we have to recognize that it’s a “center.” And the center of anything needs to have fluid traffic coming and going, bringing and taking. You can adopt whatever metaphor you want: the heart, always pumping and exchanging fluid; or the county courthouse, with every citizen need-ing to come and go for this reason and that, both an intentional and accidental intersection of community life. That’s a tall order, because it’s constant; the traffic never stops and neither do the ideas. I have said many times that CDS can’t risk becoming a doctrinal institution that suggests to have figured out what documentary is and what documentary should be; the idea of a center embraces certain kinds of continuity but also eternal shifts and changes. That’s an important vision, and one that requires detachment from simple trends.

With that in mind, we built an undergraduate curriculum that cuts across medium and discipline, expanding our course offerings. We launched a continuing education program. But those are simply the “formal” ways to teach. I see so much of what we do—publishing, exhibitions, screening films year round as well as at Full Frame, our radio programs, all of it—as connected to our teaching mission. Documentary work is about reaching audiences, public and potentially infinite.

Over the past fifteen years we have also seen the proliferation of documentary initiatives in other departments on campus and institutions off-campus. There was a time that if CDS didn’t host a screening of a particular film it wouldn’t happen. That’s no longer the case. There are many institutions that recognize the potential of programming documentary, and we see across Durham and far beyond, many projects that complement what we do at CDS. There was also a time when there was little documentary activity on campus other than CDS. That, too, has changed. Working closely with CDS, the Rubenstein Library now has one of the premiere collections of documentary expression in America in the Archive of Documentary Arts. The important work that CDS does in the photographic community has served as a model for many other institutions, publications, and exhibitions. Likewise, we are an undisputed leader in documentary radio—in both the teaching and production of new programming. This is what active centers should do. And as other programs and institutions embrace documentary work more fully, we have the opportunity to move in new directions, to continue to experiment and grow.

I’d like to think, in various forms appropriate to the ideas and times, that these initiatives and programs will endure. It’s imperative, really.

What challenged you the most during your tenure as director?

I think the biggest challenge of running an institution like CDS is to always make decisions that incorporate the long view while also ensuring that the institution can be agile and take important risks. We have to operate financially with the long view in mind—CDS should be around decades from now—and we should be thinking about how the work we do today will resonate in later years. This is particularly important in documentary. Our recent book Colors of Confinement, which presents Bill Manbo’s photographs of Japanese incarceration camps from the early 1940s is all about the long view. Were it not for his images we might never get this very distinctive view of Heart Mountain. Did he know they would eventually find themselves in a book, becoming a centerpiece in the discussion of the history of this period? Very doubtful, but what is clear is that we can learn a great deal about the power of different points of view and the particular power of documentary expression that lasts. I think it was Ernest Hemingway who said of the writer, “The great thing is to last and get your work done.” Figuring out ways that we can both live in the moment in all the ways that means, being nimble and strategic, while also being aware that much of what documentary is about is time, across time. A documentary center has to work very purely and actively in the present but also realize that the documentary choices we make now can have a very lasting resonance far into the future. It’s simple to say, but it requires making sure the institution, CDS, stays energetic, hungry, like an overachieving visionary with something to say.

You’ve edited a lot of photography books with work of varying approaches. One Place [the most recent book] seems personal, maybe suggesting the type of photography you’re most drawn to. What style feels like home to you?

I like a range of photographic expression. One Place is certainly a body of work that I’m attracted to for a number of reasons. I’m attracted to photographic work that is simultaneously very personal and very observational. Paul Kwilecki is seeing his home county from that very personal position, always, in his words, “rearranging the sacred furniture” of his town to fit his own needs. But he’s also interested in much more than his own particular point of view. He wanted to create an homage to his home place, and it’s the combination of the personal and the profound understanding of the people—many known over years and years—that makes his work so lasting. One Place is at once deeply documentary and also very much one man’s point of view. I’m also drawn to documentary artists who stay put, who return over and over to the same terrain. We all can travel in and out quickly, and there’s often good merit in that sort of work, but looking at a place and looking back again, over and over, can create an unmatched magic. I don’t know of anyone else who has been as emphatic and obsessive in his commitment to staying in the same place for such a long period of time. And he did it with great empathy and love—the kind of love that recognizes the warts and flaws but is embracing all the same. That has always fascinated me about Kwilecki. And then finally, but no less important, is the true quality of his images.

Has being at CDS, specifically as its director, changed you as a photographer?

Being at CDS can’t help but change any documentary artist. I think completely differently about documentary work and photography than when I first came to CDS in 1998. Every day I see so much new documentary work—very diverse and across mediums—that reflects all aspects of life, from here in Durham as well as from across the world. My students show up with completely counterintuitive imagery, some solely intentional and other pieces the result of accident that comes from engagement with their subject matter.

In terms of photography, at the most fundamental level I think being at the Center for Documentary Studies regularly affirms my belief in the endless possibilities of the medium. I regularly am pleasingly shocked by seeing some completely original work. And being at CDS really informs how we think of the “new” and the “original”—not as new trends or new techniques but rather as fresh ways of seeing the world and the possibilities of photography to take us into a terrain of ideas we didn’t know existed. I’ve often referred to Walker Percy’s brilliant notion of having a “sovereign vision,” and I think being at CDS, awash in imagery day in, day out, can’t help but push one closer to an understanding of what he meant by that term. At the end of the day, I still feel that photography is at its most powerful when it confronts things we know about on some level but aren’t really acknowledging or revealing. And seeing the kind of rich archival imagery that we often work with combined with the most recent pictures made of the most ordinary slivers of life has simply revealed to me the deep truth that James Agee wrote years ago in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: that photography is the “central instrument of our time.”

What’s next for you, what are your plans?

My plan is to continue with many of the projects I’m working on, but with the hope that I’ll be able to finish much quicker. It’s not that speed of completion is necessarily a relevant measurement. But I feel like the gestation period of my work has stretched from the length of time it takes to birth a dog to that of an elephant. I’m looking forward to shorter gestations. I plan to continue to work with a range of authors on our Documentary Arts and Culture book series with UNC Press while also bringing to the finish line Truths of the Matter: Traditions in Documentary Arts, a collection of practitioner-centered writings from the last century and a half. I also plan to return to my own photographic work around sacred spaces and spirituality in the American South. Woven through all of this will be my continued teaching of undergraduates as well as my continued directorship of our MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts, the first MFA at Duke and a centrally important new program.

Desert Island Question: If you had to name one or more documentary heroes we should all pay attention to, who would they be and why?

I could list a host of documentary artists and works—books, films, and recordings—that we should all pay attention to and return to. But more necessary, sustaining, and influential to my own work is the world at large—overheard conversations; the landscape and objects around us, formal and vernacular; and regular engagement with creativity from other disciplines. I learn about much from the documentary arts, but I come up with my most exciting and creative ideas from other disciplines, from people living outside of the documentary world. It’s storytelling that fuels me, always has. So it’s listening and reflecting on what I hear that brings forth the most interesting ideas. My favorite art museums are typically free: the museum of the street or backyard or turnrow or pool hall. It’s the wonder of Saturday night and Sunday morning; the profane alongside the sacred that I like to be awash in.

Any predictions on where documentary is heading?

That’s a common question. And while it’s overly simple to say the more things change, the more they stay the same, there’s some truth in that response. There is no question that the fast-paced expansion of media delivery systems will offer completely new modes of dissemination of documentary storytelling, new ways to share still and moving images. But at the core of documentary is the power of the story, whether told through photographs, audio, film, writing, or all intertwined. I firmly believe we want to be told the truth, and we want to be told it in the most masterful and artful ways possible. It’s the documentary stories that bring us together, time after time. And it’s the documentary stories that often allow us to intervene on behalf of change and justice. “There is no more humble occupation than to be a storyteller,” said the writer Flannery O’Connor. “And though we invest it with theory and give it the platform for its occasion it remains all the same the primitive thing that it is: an attempt to make someone who doesn’t want to listen, listen and who doesn’t want to see, see.” Whether documentary artists tell stories about their own families or about the injustices of institutions around the world, we want, as always, to find in even the most mundane or poisonous place that brilliant and often redemptive light that comes from a well-told documentary story. Those are the stories that endure.

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