This is the first story in a two-part series about documentary photography and its connection to poetry.
This month, my partner grey and I have seen two exhibitions of documentary photography in Durham: Witness, a retrospective of works by Titus Brooks Heagins at NCCU’s Art Museum; and One Place, a sampling of black-and-white prints taken by Paul Kwilecki in Decatur County, GA, over the course of four decades, on display at The Center for Documentary Studies. Since we moved from the midwest to the south at the end of the summer, it’s been a few months since either of us has visited a gallery, and I was hungry for the experience.
I’m not a photographer, but these two documentary artists have inspired me to consider the role of poetry as documentation of our world, however subjective it may be. I have produced my own records of these exhibitions, and if you’ve visited either of them (both are on display until the first week in October), I hope you’ll share your perspective in the comments.
This piece focuses on the work of Titus Brooks Heagins. Please stay tuned for my thoughts on One Place, including a poem I wrote in response to one of Kwilecki’s photographs.
Witness: Seeing with the Heart
Heagins, a North Carolina photographer whose work has taken him all over the world, is a poet of the lens. His portraiture is thoughtful, accessible, and respectful of the humans in front of his camera. Written statements accompany the images, describing his approach to his art, but it’s the images themselves that spoke to me with a meaning beyond words. After making my circuit through the space, I had become, as the exhibition’s title suggests, a witness.
Since Heagins primarily photographs people of color and folks who are Other in some way, I was deeply moved by his commitment to giving the power back to his subjects. This power is visually evident in the way he allows the folks he photographs to pose themselves (in the East Durham series, for example):
I want people to reveal themselves in ways that celebrate aspects of their lives that are typically hidden. My camera is a witness. It serves to illuminate their soul and create a visual record of an experience between two people: photographer and the person photographed.
[ from Artist’s Statement here]
Witnessing these emotional, poignant, beautiful photographs got me thinking about the different choices we can make as artists, especially when working with or portraying others is part of our process. We can see ourselves as a voyeur, objectifying our subjects and placing them just so in order to make them vessels of our own meaning; or we can make ourselves into the vessel, the medium through which our subjects can communicate with the world on their own terms, in their own languages. Heagins is a master of the latter, an ethical approach to documentary photography.
Language is my medium, not photography, and spending my afternoon in that gallery awakened my senses to the physical connection between poetry and image. Of course, I got myself to the dictionary when I returned home, and here’s what I found: Documentary describes something that is ‘meant to provide a record of’ something else. The word record, which Heagins uses to describe his own work, offers a linguistic parallel for what the photographer does with his images: to record is to remember, call to mind, think over, or be mindful of, and stems from the Latin roots re-, meaning ‘restore’ and cor, meaning ‘heart.’ A record is a testimony committed to writing, from the Old French root meaning ‘memory, statement, report.’
To learn by heart. To have heart. To both remember and report. To provide a testimony that endures.
These objectives shine through the photographs on display in Witness. Traditional language around camerawork tends to refer to the inherent power a photographer can exert over those pinned underneath his lens–he shoots the portrait, captures an image, turns a person or a scene into a subject. Heagins’ photographic language is so contradictory to these terms that I exited the gallery with a phrase emblazoned in my heart: there are no captives here.