CDS at 25: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Wesley Hogan, director of Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, discusses the center's history and path forward

For 25 years, the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) has pioneered education in the documentary arts. Along with offering an undergraduate Certificate in Documentary Studies, the CDS works with students in the Master of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts program as well as continuing education students. The center administers the annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and maintains a gallery space at the Power Plant Gallery on the American Tobacco Campus.

To celebrate its anniversary and success, CDS is hosting a national forum Nov. 20-22 called Documentary 2015: Origins and Inventions.

This week, CDS director Wesley Hogan, a noted oral historian, spoke with Duke Today about the center’s past and future. Here are excerpts:

The center is the only program in the U.S. that teaches, produces and presents documentary work in audio, film, still photography, new media and writing. Why is it beneficial for a student to learn all of these different forms of documentary work rather than getting a deep understanding of just one area?

Some programs around the country are well known for specific mediums. For example, New York University is so well known for its documentary photography program, while the University of Southern California is known for documentary film. But we are unique in that we have historically done four mediums and, over the last five years, we’ve added a new medium called “new media.” This includes everything that happens on the web, from interactive online documentaries and apps to documentary games.

One of the things that is exciting for a student who comes into any of those areas is that there is a lot of cross-pollination between the disciplines. A student who is confident that he or she wants to be a documentary filmmaker may take a class with a student who wants to be a writer or still photographer. Students are more exposed to other modes and can consider telling stories in other mediums that they may not have considered before.

Wesley Hogan

CDS Director Wesley Hogan: "One of the things we’re trying to do moving forward is strengthen our pipeline for under-represented voices."

It seems that everyone these days is a documentarian. There are several simple ways to get your images and stories out to the rest of the world via social media. Given that the barriers to enter the documentary world have been so drastically lowered, what is the value of a formal curriculum in documentary work?

I think it’s a wonderful and exciting thing that we don’t have this barrier to entry anymore. Cell phone technology and social media platforms have made publishing your work so much easier. In terms of what [our curriculum] offers, there are three important things. One is an immersion into the aesthetics and ethics of documentary work. I’m an oral historian, and if I spent three hours with you recording some part of your life story, I want to make sure I am comfortable with the aesthetics of how to share that recording. Do I want to write it up, or are there other documentarians who did something else that had more punch?

And there is also the ethics of it. When you are given the sacred gift of someone’s story, we know it can be sliced and diced or spun. We want our students to think about what their ethical obligations are to the person whose story you are telling. This is something that comes with experience. For young documentarians, this is often helped by being in a peer group where others can share their approaches with you.

The second thing we offer that I think is important is providing ways for students to get their work out. With this lowered barrier to entry comes this deluge of content. I read somewhere that there were over 70 million expressions of support shared for Paris [following the November 13 terror attacks] on Instagram over the course of three days. Understandably, documentarians are worried about getting their work out there so that people take notice. One of the key things that we also provide is help with platforms, so where you can show your work and make sure people can see it.

The third piece that we offer is long-term mentorship. We want students to have faculty mentors who can see their body of work develop over a long period of time and help you find your own voice as a documentarian. Everyone has the ability to do this work, but having someone with you to develop your voice as a young documentarian is a rare opportunity.

This weekend’s celebration and forum features an exceptional lineup of documentarians. At the awards reception, you will be honoring documentary filmmaker Samuel Pollard, former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, NPR’s Kitchen Sisters and photographer and musician John Cohen. What do you hope they will contribute to the discussion this weekend?

This is the first year we’ve done anything like this. We’re trying to honor the people who not only have an incredible body of documentary work, but also people who fundamentally changed the trajectory of documentary work. We really wanted to honor those whose work has been transformative for documentary practice.

One of the great and difficult things about this weekend is that we’re trying to create a gathering of the tribes. People tend to stick to their own mediums and do not mix too much. We want photographers to talk to writers and filmmakers. To this end, we’ve invited a variety of documentarians in different disciplines. So while our honorees will be here for the entire weekend, they will only be central to the awards reception and will attend the workshops and panel discussions [as guests] to interact with other documentarians.

What can students and faculty outside of CDS’s formal academic programs learn from attending the Friday and Saturday workshop sessions?

The shortest point between two people is always a story. It’s important that no matter what career you imagine yourself in, you can take control of your own story. I think students will find this weekend’s panel discussions interesting because it’s so powerful to see the world’s greatest storytellers talk about how they do their work.

What is in store for us in the next 25 years of CDS?

One of the things we’re trying to do moving forward is strengthen our pipeline for under-represented voices. For a long time, and this is not just in documentary work, white middle-class men have dominated these mediums. We want people from under-represented populations to take back the mic and tell their own stories. So we’re starting to expose children to documentary work from a very young age. We are doing Literacy Through Photography programs with Durham Public Schools and very young children.

But when students get to Duke and, let’s say, earn a certificate from CDS, then they may not know how to do documentary work [after graduation] and end up going into advertising. Well, if we want diverse voices in our profession, we have to find ways for our graduates to pay the bills other than writing copy [for ad agencies].

We were fortunate enough to receive the support from the Logan Foundation to start a year-long documentary lab pilot program. We want to see if we can create a collision space for documentarians of different disciplines to bring ideas to other artists and scholars who are interested in collaborating.

Finally, we are going to keep developing our work in documentary aesthetics, ethics and mentorship. We want students to feel like they have long-term roots here and that they are not just done after taking one class. We’ve loved having filmmakers who took our classes return to campus to act as mentors after receiving accolades for their work after Duke. Duke students feel somewhat bewildered by the idea of becoming an artist because there is not a clear pathway, and we want to be a part of defining that [for our graduates].

For more information about the Center for Documentary Studies, click here. To view a complete list of events and panel discussions at the Documentary Forum, click here.