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Photography as activism





Photography as activism

Evan Nicole Bell's mission to document Black life in America

Reed McLaurin


Following the advice of multiple friends, I decided to visit the Louise Jones Brown Gallery (conveniently located just inside the glass box entrance to the BC) a few weeks back. Senior Evan Nicole Bell was displaying a documentary photo exhibit called “black.” that powerfully examined the many dimensions of black life in America, and I had to see it. My friends were right.

I reached out to Evan to ask if she could provide a larger context of her life and vision through which I and others could understand the work more fully. Eloquent, fascinating, and warmhearted, Evan was one of the most engaging people I have met in my Duke career. We could have talked about race, social justice, and American society for hours. Though “black.” closes February 5th, I’m confident her career in documentary photography has just begun.

Evan grew up in Columbia, Maryland, a diverse community 15 minutes outside of Baltimore. Columbia was founded by developer Jim Rouse 50 years ago with the idea that people of all racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds would live together. “In Columbia, there’s Section 8 housing near mansions.” As a result, Evan grew up with an interest in discussing people’s similarities and differences.

Arriving at Duke, she had two passions she wanted to reconcile: social justice and artistic expression. Her first opportunity came through a project in her Humanitarian Challenges Focus cluster that asked her to resist the powers that be. Evan chose to create a black and white photography project in which participants held up signs rejecting stereotypes of people that shared their identities, such as a black woman asking: “What is an Oreo?”

Encouraged by Professor Charles Campbell to continue exploring documentary photography as a means social activism, Evan decided to pursue a Program II on the subject entitled Documenting Justice: The Role of Photographic Narratives in Activism. “He told me: ‘This is your Duke career. You’re paying for it. Get what you want out of it.’” That was all the encouragement she needed.

After taking a class through the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), Evan came to know CDS co-founder Professor Alex Harris. As a socially-conscious documentary photographer, Harris has become an advisor and role model to Evan under which she conceptualized “black.” Winning a grant from the CDS at the end of her sophomore year provided her the funding to realize her vision.

Initially, Evan wanted “black.” to be an “antithesis” to the documentary Welcome to Durham, USA, an award-winning work that largely “painted Durham as this crime-ridden, drug-filled, gang-filled place” and predominantly portrayed black Durham residents. She hoped to highlight Durham’s richness and history of black excellence. As she visited important sites of black congregation—the church, the barbershop, and HBCUs—her thinking began to shift. When talking and shooting with her subjects, she found herself asking: “Is this what I want to portray, or is this the real story?” She realized: “I’m not here to just tell the story. I’m here to learn it as well.”

Deciding to take a deeper, more honest approach to her storytelling, Evan decided to represent the black community broadly instead of only in its best light. “We still do have working class black folks protesting for their right to a make living wage. We do have upper class black folks who have gotten their doctorates. We do have black people who are college educated and those who are not…I wanted to tell [these stories] with beauty and dignity.”

The 23 images that came out of countless hours of conversations, thousands of photos, and years of dedication do just that. While the artistic composition and technical skill of the images is apparent even to the casual viewer, what “black.” leaves you with is a gripping human connection. Ranging from joyous schoolchildren to dejected protestors, each photo tells a different story and tackles a new aspect of blackness in America.

“It is in telling our stories that we emerge from stereotypes and statistics and become human to one another.” Evan’s favorite quote, from author Demetria Martinez, is a mission statement guiding her future. After graduation Evan wants to pursue a Masters in Public Policy so she can better learn how to use storytelling as a vehicle for policy reform. She also hopes to continue another ongoing documentary photography project highlighting the challenges and stigma facing the over 2 million children in America with incarcerated parents.

“Who knows what my career will hold. But I don’t really care. As long as I’m helping people through uplifting their stories and being able to do it in an artistic way, I would be happy. That would be dope.”

Agreed, Evan. That would be dope.

Photo credit: Sujal Manohar