“Coming Home: Stories of Homelessness and Finding Home Again,” Presentation of Student Documentary Projects December 6

Ten Duke undergraduates spent the fall semester documenting the people and programs of Housing for New Hope (HNH), an organization that has been working for almost twenty years to prevent and end homelessness in Durham County and Orange County, North Carolina. As part of the course Documentary Engagement, the students were required to spend more than twenty hours over the course of the semester building relationships and capturing stories. Each student took hundreds of photographs and collected many hours of audio. For their final projects, each student produced a six- to eight-minute audio slideshow rendering the story of one person they met through Housing for New Hope, which will be presented to the public next Monday, December 6.

COMING HOME: Stories of Homelessness and Finding Home Again
Monday, December 6, 3:30 p.m.
Williams Square Apartments, 501 East Carver, Durham, North Carolina

“Our idea for the class was to try to figure out an authentic way to enable a range of homeless or formerly homeless people to tell their stories, not just the stories of how they became homeless, but also their stories of moving out of homelessness and back into society, as well as their dreams for the future,” said Professor Alex Harris, who taught the Center for Documentary Studies course with Liisa Ogburn.

“Liisa and I were inspired by the work of Sister Mary Scullion at Project H.O.M.E. and the work she has done in Philadelphia to tackle homelessness as a multidimensional problem that requires a range of interventions (on the local level) and ways of helping people lift themselves out of homelessness,” Harris said. “We found an organization in Durham, Housing for New Hope, with a similar visionary leader Terry Allebaugh, that was also tackling homelessness here in the Triangle in a multidimensional way and, like Sister Mary, understood the potential power of photographs and stories to engage a wider audience in this issue.

“HNH partnered with our class to pair each student with a homeless or formerly homeless person. Students spent the semester learning about homelessness broadly, looking at other documentary works (particularly best examples of photo and audio projects), learning to use their cameras and digital recorders and the software necessary to edit their work into a tight audio-visual essay, and most importantly visiting once or twice a week with the individual they met through HNH.

“Our one caveat was that the students own voices couldn’t mediate the stories. Everything had to be told by the subjects themselves. The idea was that if the students could form close relationships with the subjects, the resulting first- person accounts would feel to a listener and viewer like the subject was telling the story directly to them. For me this gets back to Walker Evans years ago talking about how a particular kind of photograph can get the viewer as close as possible to ‘the thing itself,’ to have the medium disappear and the subject come forward to feel almost unmediated by the person behind the camera.

“I think the class shows that the best documentary work is about the documentarian being well informed about a subject, about that documentary practitioner forming a relationship of trust over time with an individual or individuals who come out of that world, and about that documentarian knowing how to edit and render skillfully the material they make and collect into a story that rings true for themselves, for the subjects of the documentary, and for an audience that knows little or nothing about the issue.”

Collectively, these stories illustrate the complex factors contributing to homelessness today, and they reveal the programs and support that enable people in crisis to move toward lives marked by increased levels of stability, dignity, hope, and independence. All of the material collected over the semester will be given to Housing for New Hope for use in their communications efforts.

More information about the project and the student documentaries can be found at the Coming Home: Stories of Finding Home Again website.


“Service-Learning Course Puts Face on Homeless.” By Steve Hartsoe, Duke University Office of News and Communication. December 8, 2010.

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