Getting the Picture

With his latest project, Indivisible: Stories of American Community, the director of the Center for Documentary Studies is helping to bring to light the stories of common people performing heroic acts on the local level.

In 1968, as a gift for his eleventh birthday, Tom Rankin received a reel-to-reel tape recorder. It was a miniature version of the old-fashioned machine his paternal grandfather used for listening to classical music on the family farm near Louisville, Kentucky. That Christmas, with some encouragement from his elders, Rankin concealed the recorder’s microphone in a poinsettia plant on the living-room coffee table. When his voluble Auntie Ann arrived and positioned herself on the couch, Rankin prompted her to launch into the most vivid Kentucky folk tale in her famous repertoire.

The story, Rankin explains, was along the lines of a traditional “Jack tale”—that family of Appalachian stories that have ancient Celtic roots, brought to the United States by Scots-Irish immigrants and passed along through generations by oral tradition. In these stories, Jack is the common hero who meets danger and difficulty at every turn, but always prevails by some combination of native wit and luck.

“Of course I violated the first rule of documentary work by not letting the subject know she was being recorded,” says Rankin, now director of the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke. As it turned out, his aunt soon died after that clandestine recording session, and Rankin put the tape away. He didn’t listen to it again until he was sixteen; by then he knew he wanted to memorize the spooky tale himself so that he could tell it to friends at late-night sleepovers and camping trips.
In the story, an idle country boy is swinging on a fence when he is approached by two old women dressed in silk petticoats and long green veils. At their request, the boy first fetches water for them and then, with his mother’s permission, leads them toward the crossroads they are seeking. On the journey, the old women grow weary and are soon walking on their hands and knees. All at once they are transformed into vicious panthers and chase the boy up a tree. When the panthers’ tails turn into axes and begin to chop down the tree where the boy has sought refuge, his mother, back home, intuits her son’s danger and releases the family dogs. They race to the boy’s aid and chew the panthers to death, sparing the boy and, implicitly, the entire community from the wicked women.
In his first undergraduate course in folklore at Tufts University with ethnomusicologist Jeff Todd Titon, Rankin wrote a paper about the story. By this time, he fully appreciated the treasure he had captured and made copies of the original tape for various members of his family. Today, his sons Julian, fourteen, and Alexander, ten, can recite the tale word for word in the energetic style of the great-aunt they never met.

Aristeo Orta works with Proyecto Azteca, an organization that develops homes constructed mostly by and for Mexican-American farmworkers in the Rio Grande Valle.

That first coffee-table oral history project was predictive of Rankin’s career. He has co-produced two documentary record albums —one featuring fiddle-music traditions from Mississippi and another presenting a sound portrait of a rural African-American community in Tennessee. Three documentary films —in which Rankin has served by turns as cameraman, director, and co-producer—have all focused on the expression of the cultural traditions of common people. Rankin’s still photographs of folk and blues musicians, farmers, fishermen, hunters, and writers have been widely published and exhibited in venues across the South. And in his most recent role, co-director of a $4.2-million project funded by the Pew Memorial Trust, Rankin has helped bring to light the stories of common people performing heroic acts on the local level. Indivisible: Stories of American Community is a nationwide, multi-media project designed to encourage similar documentary efforts in local communities across the county.

To begin the project, Rankin and co-director Trudy Wilner Stack of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona selected teams of distinguished photographers and interviewers to spend a month in a dozen communities across the country where citizen-driven projects have brought about profound improvements. The fieldworkers were given the freedom to pursue their own cultural and artistic interests within the set goal of Indivisible—namely, to document the people and initiatives that have made such an impact. 

Reducing crime in Delray Beach, Florida; revitalizing small towns in western North Carolina; improving the status of youth in Chicago and San Francisco; humanizing the practice of obstetrics in Stony Brook, New York; and restoring marine habitat in Sitka, Alaska, are among the grassroots efforts now presented in a large format, coffee-table book and an accompanying compact disc, Local Heroes Changing America, published by CDS in cooperation with W.W. Norton. Alongside intimate portraits of the people and the landscapes where they live and work, citizens explain in their own words how organizing direct action to solve a local problem has empowered individuals and transformed communities. Local Heroes is less interpretive than it is the beginning of what Rankin hopes will become an ongoing, nationwide conversation about citizen activism on the local level.

As he writes in the book’s introduction, “Hero is used here not to put certain folks on a pedestal above others or to shine some kind of divine recognition down on particular individuals. Rather, I have in mind the countless parables in almost all cultures of the lone, ordinary soul, whose modest act reverberates throughout a group as heroic, as an act that brings about a positive change.” 

Arguably, these stories are contemporary Jack tales, though neither fable nor sensational. The idea, Rankin says, is to offer a hopeful vision of contemporary democracy at work. Or, as public broadcaster and author Ray Suarez writes in his foreword to the book: “There is a common thread running like a vein of ore through these stories. It’s the surge of confidence, in themselves and in their neighbors, that comes to people when they take those first, tentative steps toward acting instead of being acted upon.”

The Indivisible staff has also created a traveling museum exhibit, an extensive website (, a collection of free postcards available in kiosks placed in a number of public spaces around the country, and a K-12 teachers’ guide offered through the website and the museum venues. Archived collections of the photos, interview tapes, and other project materials will ultimately be housed at both Duke and the University of Arizona, and each of the twelve communities that participated in the project will receive a set of photos and tapes from its portion of the project. 

One additional resource that’s been created as a part of Indivisible perhaps best represents the particular vision Tom Rankin brought to Duke when he assumed his post nearly three years ago. “We have a mission,” he says, “ to share these tools of documentary work and then turn them loose.” To this end, the project staff has also created a workbook called “Putting Documentary Work to Work.” Offered in both Spanish and English on the Indivisible website, the handbook is targeted to community groups interested in conducting their own documentary projects about civic life and community participation. As the handbook states, “Out of shared telling and remembering grow identity, connection, and pride, binding people to a place and to one another. These ties form the basis of community life.”

This take on documentary work as a grassroots practice for community building is a relatively new notion. In 1936, when novelist James Agee and photographer Walker Evans received an assignment from Fortune magazine to collaborate on a series of articles on daily life among Alabama tenant farmers, documentary work was understood to be a form of ethnographic study or investigative journalism performed solely by outsiders, mostly academics. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the classic work that came out of their assignment, Agee first expressed his concerns about the ethics of such a practice—the voyeuristic dilemma of well-meaning interlopers who seek to document the lives of the less fortunate for academic analysis and/or popular consumption: …these I will write of are human beings, living in this world, innocent of such twistings as these that are taking place over their heads; and that they were dwelt among, investigated, spied on, revered, and loved, by other quite monstrously alien human beings, in the employment of others still more alien; and that they are now being looked into still by others, who have picked up their living just as casually as if it were a book, and who were actuated toward this reading by various possible reflexes of sympathy, curiosity, idleness, et cetera, and almost certainly in a lack of consciousness, and conscience, remotely appropriate to the enormity of what they are doing.

Unwittingly, Agee, with his lyrical language, and Evans, with his stark and startling photographs of Depression-era farm families, gave notoriety to a discipline that has, by turns, been criticized ever since as everything from an awkward marriage of literature and photojournalism to fine-art-as-social-work. The problem, says Rankin, is that “it has been the paradigm of documentary studies up until very recently that the privileged are the documentors and that those in need are documented.” “In the 1960s, some came to believe that if you go and make pictures of people who are impoverished and sick, you are ‘doing good’ by drawing attention to their plight,” he says. “However, in that paradigm, documentary studies looks only toward problems, what is missing in a community, rather than toward what might also be that community’s gifts and assets. I think we need to do both.”

Working in a Texas cabbage field

This criticism has likewise been leveled at DoubleTake magazine, formerly published in association with the CDS at Duke, and now produced in Boston by the DoubleTake Community Service Corporation. The award-winning magazine that made a big splash with its founding in 1995 regularly showcases the work of top-flight photographers, poets, and other documentarians who have focused on subjects ranging from African refugees to barrio workers in Chicago, from the homeless to women and children living with AIDS.

When the publication’s substantial production budget exceeded its apparent fund-raising capacity, creating a potential liability for the long-term sustainability of the CDS itself, the board of directors of CDS decided it was time to rethink the long-term goals and mission of the center. Their first step was to hire Rankin as the new director. They then embarked on a year-long process that culminated in the magazine’s separation from the center and DoubleTake’s move to Boston. 

Here he was associate professor of art and Southern studies, Rankin had already helped establish the Center for the Study of Southern Culture on the Oxford campus—a high-profile project that had been the brainchild of folklorist William Ferris, now chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. As director of documentary projects and the Southern Media Archive at Ole Miss, Rankin had a strong track record of creating well-attended public exhibits and conferences on Southern culture and history that were explicitly designed to speak to a non-academic audience. Bringing the nascent Indivisible project with him, Rankin signaled a sea change in the focus of CDS. 

“Tom Rankin is a folklorist who understands his job as more than to document and interpret,” says his earliest mentor, Jeff Todd Titon, now professor of music and director of the Ph.D. program in music at Brown University. “Beyond those tasks, the folklorist’s job is to collaborate with the people you are visiting, to learn what they are hoping for, what they might want from you, how they might be able to use your expertise, or your credentials, to further an end of their own that’s consonant with your purpose in documenting.” 

As an example of this philosophy at work, Titon cites the 1995 book Deaf Maggie Lee Sayre: Photographs of a River Life, published by the University Press of Mississippi and edited by Rankin. “Giving the camera over to the subjects themselves, and letting them say what they see, allows communities and individuals to present their own agenda, not the agenda of an outsider,” he says. 

a Haitian church outing on Delray Beach.

In the early 1980s, after finishing his graduate coursework in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Rankin discovered the work of fellow Kentuckian Maggie Lee Sayre, a woman born deaf in 1920 and who had first used the box camera her sister received as a gift from the Kodak company in 1930. Sayre has spent more than fifty years living on a river houseboat making photographs of her family and friends as they earned a livelihood fishing. With Rankin’s assistance, Sayre not only got a book contract but has exhibited her photographs at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, the Olympic Games in Atlanta, and a number of other sites. 

When Rankin set out for his graduate thesis to document the life of Andrew Jones, a Tennessee blues musician, he asked Jones if he could record him. “You can tape me talking and playing,” Jones said, “but I’ve already done it all myself. I ain’t braggin’ on myself, but I really got some dandy tapes they already made.” Jones took Rankin to his room and opened a drawer that contained more than fifty audiocassettes. The musician had actually created an ongoing faux radio show in which he cast himself as host, musical guest, and preacher, retelling the story of his decline as a gambler and blues singer and his eventual spiritual conversion to gospel preacher.
“He had interviewed himself,” Rankin explains. “The tapes were like a diary or a family photo album, and they changed forever the way I see the documentary process. The impulse is not academic. It is natural to all of us to want to tell our stories.”

And that, says Titon, is the distinctive vision Rankin brings to the classroom and to his ongoing research and photography in the Mississippi Delta. “It’s not about going out into the field to gather data and bring it back into the academy for examination, or about going out and gathering images to make an artistic statement for art’s sake, only to be wracked by the kind of guilt James Agee had,” Titon says. “It’s about the preservation of cultures and recognizing what we as documentarians can do locally by offering our services to the communities we enter.” 

a daughter of one of the dancers rehearsing for the Haitian Flag Day ceremonies at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Delray Beach.

As evidence of this perspective, CDS, under Rankin’s leadership, has launched a noncredit certificate program in Documentary Studies for local citizens in conjunction with Duke’s Office of Continuing Education. The certificate courses, conducted in the evening and on weekends to accommodate working adults, cover documentary traditions, techniques, fieldwork theory, and ethics. To earn the certificate, participants must complete six sixteen-hour courses, including a final project that records some aspect of their own family history or local community life. To date, some 225 people have enrolled in the courses offered.

Rankin has also been team-teaching an undergraduate course with the center’s director of curriculum and education, Charlie Thompson, on the culture of tobacco farming in North Carolina—an enterprise on the cusp of dramatic change. Rankin, Thompson, and their students are exploring the contradictions inherent in those fiercely religious North Carolina communities—communities where smoking has been understood as a sin, and yet where the livelihood of the people is built around this single crop that requires so much tedious handwork and cooperation. It’s a topic that Rankin understands first-hand. His grandfather and great uncle worked in tobacco, and his father bought and sold tobacco leaf. 

“We’re interested in finding out from the growers what it means to have all that come crashing down,” says Rankin. “And there is a certain irony, of course, that of all places for us to be doing this, we are at Duke. But the center would be remiss if we didn’t complicate the debate about tobacco by listening to the voices of those with the most at stake.”

Davitus Gosnell, a ninety-year-old tobacco farmer from Marshall, North Carolina.

Rankin represents the generation that found its calling in the social activism of the late Sixties and Seventies, having been forever affected by the images of civil-rights protests, the films of villages under siege in Vietnam, and the photos that documented Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. But the black and white of those times has given way to multiple shades of gray. At the heart of Rankin’s convictions is the belief in bringing the voices of the marginalized and the mainstream together at the table in order to enrich, and often complicate, our contemporary questions about social policy and economic justice. He notes that in the post-Cold War era, we have seen more barriers drop than just the Berlin Wall. Radical demographic shifts in communities such as Durham, and a gradual breakdown of racial and social barriers in schools and neighborhoods, have helped to open profound new avenues for community-based conversations. 
“Things change so fast in this country today,” says Rankin. “The only way to understand or make sense of our collective history is to have the benefit of multiple voices. Our challenge at the center is to communicate with and engage viewers and participants in our exhibits, books, and classes—to get more people in the conversation.”Though never explicitly stated, the Indivisible project suggests by its title the words in the Pledge of Allegiance that immediately follow. Liberty and justice for all is a lofty goal. But for Tom Rankin, that goal is approachable through the telling of our many tales. 

Eubanks ’76 recently completed work on a documentary video, Something in Common, about diversity in North Carolina public schools for the state’s public television network.

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