The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University will host a 25th Anniversary celebration and national forum on November 20–22, 2015, in Durham, North Carolina. Documentary 2015: Origins and Inventions will bring together photographers, filmmakers, podcasters, writers, media professionals, educators, students/alumni, and supporters to view compelling documentary work and to examine central issues in the documentary field, recognizing deep traditions while training an eye on the future.

In addition to panel discussions, presented work, screenings, and special events throughout the weekend, a special CDS 25th Anniversary celebration on Saturday, November 21, will honor photographer John Cohen, poet Natasha Trethewey, filmmaker Samuel D. Pollard, and NPR producers and hosts The Kitchen Sisters. This new tribute goes to artists whose extraordinary contributions create a lasting mark in the documentary field, make an imprint in the world, and deepen our understanding of the human condition.

The Rickhouse | 609 Foster St | Durham, NC 27701

1:30 p.m. | Documentary Then and Now
Wesley Hogan, CDS Director, and Iris Tillman Hill, CDS Founding Director

Fifty years after the publication of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the seminal documentary work by James Agee and Walker Evans, a newly minted Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University presented a one-day conference on the evolving practice of various forms of documentary work: “To Render a Life or to Change the World?” As the Center for Documentary Studies marks its 25th Anniversary, we take stock of where we started, where we are now, and where we may be heading. In a sea of digital technology, of multiple voices and visions, how do we recognize today what is documentary practice, what is documentary art?

2 p.m. | Created and Found
Documentary Performance
John Malpede

The work of John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), the first performance group in the nation made up principally of homeless people, embodies many of the essential themes and tensions in documentary: collaborative/individual artistic vision, activism/impact, investigation/meditation, credentialed sources/lived expertise, among them. Since 1985, LAPD has made artistic work not only to embrace and foster the powers of people living in the Skid Row area but also to fundamentally change the narrative about people living in poverty. All of John Malpede’s work springs from this vision.

For this presentation, Malpede asks, let’s not assume that empathy changes people or things, or that crafting the good story is the heart of the matter. Malpede will share a number of examples from performances and other interventions that run the gamut from crafted narrative to found object—all of which are examples of changing the narrative. And he will show examples of how the created/found spectrum is a valuable tool for situating work.

3 p.m. | Witness and the Documentary Imagination
Curated Presentation
Tom Rankin and Hong-An Truong

In making documentary work, artists draw from traditions and predecessors in the field to inform their creative vision, yet these influences are not always explicit. What are the ties that bind us together in the documentary enterprise? And when we diverge, as individual artists forging new pathways, what unexpected sparks send us in new directions? In this meditation on origins and inventions that illuminate the documentary landscape, we will view selected works and consider the fundamental nature of the documentary impulse and the abiding vision to create.

4:30 p.m. | Last Day of Freedom: An Animated Documentary
Screening and Discussion
Dee Hibbert-Jones, Nomi Talisman, Patricia J. Williams
Moderated by Marco Williams

Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman’s Last Day of Freedom (winner of the Jury Award for Best Short and CDS Filmmaker Award at the 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival) is a richly animated personal narrative that tells the story of Bill Babbitt’s decision to stand by his brother in the face of war, crime, and capital punishment. The film is part of Living Condition, an animated interactive web documentary about families living in extreme circumstances as they grapple with the psychological and emotional trauma of a loved one accused of a capital crime.

6:00 p.m. | Reception (Fullsteam Brewery)*

*21 and over only

8 p.m. | Photography, War, and the Human Condition
Peter van Agtmael and Richard H. Brodhead
Moderated by Tom Rankin

For the past decade, photographer Peter van Agtmael has documented the consequences of America’s wars, at home and abroad, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is drawn through his lens to life’s happenings outside the main frame, to contradictory and dissonant occurrences that require a longer, deeper look. Rather than reports from the battlefield or polemics on the tactics of warfare, his photographs evoke elements of our fundamental humanity; they resonate with unseen meaning, as they entwine a fragmentary narrative into something akin to the richness and mystery of lived experience. For the war photographer, who witnesses life in distant, dangerous lands, there is a certain imperative to illuminate grave truths before they disappear forever.

The Rickhouse | 609 Foster St | Durham, NC 27701

9 a.m. | True Stories: Facts and Fictions
Writing Panel
Randall Kenan, Phillip Lopate, C.D. Wright
Moderated by Jill McCorkle

Documentary is rooted in the experiences of real people, the recording of actual occurrences—but does this mean it is not the province of imaginary constructions? Interpretation, invention, memory, and other personal and literary touches infuse fine writing with force. Rootedness in the particulars of place and human connection drives powerful narrative. What “documents” do we take as signposts in our experiences and how do we put them into words to convey some sense of truths in our lives, no matter the form: critical essays, memoir, long-form nonfiction, fiction, poetry?

10:30 a.m. | In Place: Hidden Histories of Our Lives
Photography Panel
Danny Wilcox Frazier, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Sylvia Plachy
Moderated by Deborah Willis

Photographs capture moments in time, portray juxtapositions in space. Yet what they convey is neither static nor simply literal. Photographs can reveal things we fail to see in our daily lives, even as they comment on what we have lived through; and they can evoke things we cannot see—especially so when a photographer makes images in one place over an extended time, when that place carries connotations of home.

Lunch on your own

1:30 p.m. | Sources, Evidence, and Moving Images
Film Panel
Lyric Cabral, Kevin Jerome Everson, Bernardo Ruiz
Moderated by Cynthia Hill

Documentary sources, human or not, make their own demands. What happens when the necessary evidence, the backdrop to a narrative, is missing or is nebulous or is compromised? All filmmakers face challenges with trusting and conveying the essence and integrity (or lack thereof) of their sources. Can any source be trusted completely? What license does the documentary filmmaker have to interpret or cast a source in different lights, for the purposes of a constructed narrative with certain intent? What innovative approaches do these challenges inspire?

3:30 p.m. | Interactions and Impact: Possibilities for Listening
Audio and New Forms Panel
Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, Al Letson, Elaine Sheldon
Moderated by John Biewen

The storytelling power of audio—with envisioned characters and imagined scenes—presents rich opportunities for innovative approaches to the digital terrain. From the podcasting boom to new forms of interactive documentary, the capacity of sound, voice, writing, and layered narratives to spark the imagination extends outside the box (radio, tablet, smartphone) to reach people where they are and to inspire engagement, and possibly changes of heart.

8 p.m. 25th Anniversary Celebration

Honoring John Cohen, The Kitchen Sisters, Samuel D. Pollard, and Natasha Trethewey

Music by Justin Robinson & Special Guests

To celebrate and to champion the documentary arts, the Center for Documentary Studies is instituting a new tribute to artists whose extraordinary contributions create a lasting mark in the documentary field, make an imprint in the world, and deepen our understanding of the human condition. To inaugurate these annual awards for/with its 25th Anniversary, CDS selected honorees in four categories within the broad sweep of documentary arts that the organization historically has supported: photography, audio, film, and writing.

Seated dinner & dancing | Cocktail attire

Sponsorships & VIP Packages available

Full Frame Theater | American Tobacco Campus | 320 Blackwell St., Durham, NC
By Invitation

Doing documentary work in the digital age presents new opportunities and challenges. How has the digital landscape—supporting mobility, connectivity, participation, replication, interactivity, crowdsourcing—altered the ways in which artists view, conduct, and disseminate their work? And what do these developments mean for educators as they adapt to a shifting environment?

What time-tested attributes and approaches for making and presenting compelling work do we value and pass on? And how do we pass them on?

10:30 a.m. Teaching Documentary: Doing (and Sharing) the Work | Session I

This session will focus on university-based documentary education programs, looking at different approaches to teaching documentary methods and the thinking at different institutions, and by different teachers, about the role of documentary in higher education (and society) and the best ways to teach students to reap those benefits and support the creation of good work.


Alex Harris, Professor of the Practice / Sanford School of Public Policy / Duke University and Co-founder / Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University

Anuradha Rana, Professional Lecturer / Cinema Production, Directing, Screenwriting / School of Cinematic Arts / DePaul University

Anthony Major, Program Director, Zora Neale Hurston Institute for Documentary Studies / Associate Professor, Film, School of Visual Art & Design / University of Central Florida

Annie J. Howell, Distinguished Lecturer / Department of Media and Communication Arts / City College of New York


Deborah Willis, University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging / Tisch School of the Arts / New York University

Cynthia Hill, Co-Director and Associate Teaching Professor, Documentary Film Program / Wake Forest University and Cara Pilson, Co-Director and Associate Teaching Professor, Documentary Film Program / Wake Forest University

12:30 p.m. Lunch


1:30 p.m. Teaching Documentary: Doing (and Sharing) the Work | Session II

The session will focus on community-based or non-institutionally based projects/programs that teach and employ documentary methods, looking at how these organizations or programs get formed and sustain themselves, what role they play, what they can do that university-based programs cannot, and how their approaches may differ.


Alison Morley, Chair, Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism Program / International Center of Photography and Lacy Alison, Director of Community Programs / International Center of Photography

Rick Falco, President, Vision Project

Noland Walker, Senior Content Director and Independent Lens Co-Curator / ITVS

Laura Doggett, Community Artist and Educator


Brett Cook, Artist and Educator

Seating for Sunday’s discussions about documentary education is extremely limited. Please contact Kathryn Banas at 919-660-3687 or if you are interested in being added to the Sunday waiting list or with other questions about the Forum and 25th Anniversary celebration.

Attend the Forum

Friday (afternoon sessions) – $50 (discounts available for full-time students, working artists, and Duke staff/faculty)
Friday night – Free (registration required)
Saturday (day sessions) – $50 (discounts available for full-time students, working artists, and Duke staff/faculty)

Saturday night – $125 ticket
Sat night VIP/Sponsorship table options:

  • $1,000 – Table for 8 guests
  • $1,500 – Table for 8 guests + invitation for 8 to VIP cocktail reception with honorees before the event
  • $2,500 – Table for 8 guests, seated with honoree(s), invitation for 8 to VIP cocktail reception before the event, and sponsor credit at Forum

Thank you for your interest in Documentary 2015: Origins and Inventions. Advance ticket sales are now closed. 

Tickets for the sessions on Friday afternoon, Nov. 20 (1:30-6 p.m.) will be available for purchase on Friday, Nov. 20, from 12:30-1:15 p.m. ONLY on-site at the venue (The Rickhouse: 609 Foster St, Durham, NC 27701). Only credit cards accepted. 

There will be a Last Minute Line for the 8pm session on Friday, November 20. The Last Minute Line starts at 7:15 p.m. After all registered attendees have been seated, we will fill empty seats from the Last Minute Line in first come, first served order. Persons in the Last Minute Line are NOT guaranteed a seat. Venue is The Rickhouse: 609 Foster St, Durham, NC 27701.

Tickets for the Forum sessions on Saturday, Nov. 21 (9 a.m.-5 p.m.) will be available for purchase on Saturday, Nov. 21, from 8-8:45 a.m. ONLY on-site at the venue (The Rickhouse: 609 Foster St, Durham, NC 27701). Only credit cards accepted.

Forum Sponsor

25th Anniversary Sponsors

DBL Charitable Fund



Durham Marriott City Center
201 Foster St. Durham, NC 27701
(919) 768-6000

Aloft Durham Downtown
345 Blackwell St. Durham, NC 27701
(919) 402-5656


The Rickhouse
609 Foster St. Durham, NC 27701
(919) 264-1038

Full Frame Theater
320 Blackwell Street, Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701
(919) 687-4100

Fullsteam Brewery
726 Rigsbee Ave. Durham, NC 27701
(919) 682-BEER

Points of Interest

Center for Documentary Studies
1317 W. Pettigrew St. Durham, NC 27705
(919) 660-3663

Rubenstein Rare Book Library
411 Chapel Drive Durham, NC 27708
(919) 660-5822

American Tobacco Campus
318 Blackwell St. Durham, NC 27701

Please contact Kathryn Banas at 919-660-3687 or  with questions about the Forum and 25th Anniversary celebration.

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