When a freight train whizzes past the Center for Documentary Studies, something quite rare happens. An entire building of Duke people freezes for a couple of seconds. As the train passes, the worn banners on the porch shutter from the sidewinds. Pollen that caked the blue sign in the circle drive is tossed into the air. Inside, John presses the space bar on his audio piece. Michael Betts jokingly points his hand towards the track as if to record the sound of the passing train. Susie’s rhythmic reiterations–“ISO, Shutterspeed, Aperture // Moments, light, composition…”–are interrupted by a bellowing horn. Even Kelly, whose voice gradually raised as the distant whistles approached, succumbs to the power of the passing train. For ten to twenty seconds, several times a day, the entire building stops.
The train is a minor inconvenience. A lovable flaw, unique to this old home on the outskirts of campus that I have heard called CBS, CVS and the CDC. But I think it’s somewhat fitting that a train passes by CDS. Over the past couple of years, I have come to view documentary work as a train of its own. It’s not a forty-car freight train. It’s not even a zooming Amtrak. Rather, documentarians board what I have come to call “the people train.”
I started calling it the people train while working on a project about land loss in the bayou of Louisiana. One interview with a tribal chief lead to a visit to a community’s levees, which lead to an invitation into a family’s home for an overflowing table of crawfish. The web of connections within this community took me down a path that I wasn’t able to envision while planning the project. So I threw out my scheduled itinerary and spent each of my remaining mornings talking to people, trying to hop on the people train.
There is no ticket that you can buy in order to board the people train. Instead, tickets are earned through mutual trust and understanding. Sometimes you’re invited down a short segments of track. Other times, you’re in it for the long haul. Once onboard, you feel the unique rhythm of the train, as you ride the tracks of someone else’s life.
Throughout the journey, you ask subjects rudimentary questions, do they cross this path everyday? Do they know who built this track? You pay attention. Occasionally, you get off to examine the patterns of wear that are embedded in worn spikes and rail ties.
Sometimes, as you ride the people train, you get to accompany others as they enter unknown territory. You see the joy of a sixth grader finishing her first violin solo. Or the excitement on an eleven year old’s face as he welds for the first time.
Other times, the track is being ripped up under people’s feet. You hear from the nomad who has witnessed hundreds of families abandon the traditional herding lifestyle as they are relocated into rows of concrete housing. You hear from a Durham grandmother who watched as the city’s African American community became fragmented by highways, housing prices and gentrification.
The best part of the people train is that you never really know where it is going. In two and a half years of coming to classes at CDS, the people train has pushed me to befriend middle schoolers at the Durham School for the Arts and photograph blacksmiths in Hillsborough. It’s helped me attempt to whistle like a yak herder (except, of course, I was doing it inside which means I was summoning ghosts). The people train taught me that I need to work on my cooking and that I shouldn’t distract a fourteen-year-old blacksmith with interview questions while he’s in the final stages of heating his knife.
When a blacksmith burns his project, the metal sparkles like a firework. Unfortunately, it also means that it’s time to start the project over. Sorry Andrew.
Perhaps more importantly, the people train has pushed me to question more intentionally, write more pointedly, and photograph more carefully.
But it’s not always a smooth ride. I’ve made countless mistakes while riding the people train. I’ve gotten off at the wrong stop. I’ve gotten on the wrong train. I’ve been on the right train but almost kicked off, completely unaware of the fact that my ticket was no longer valid. The people train has also made me lost—stuck on a shrimping boat in the middle of a thunderstorm with Donald. We swayed back and forth while listening to the intermittent crackling voices shouting french over the radio. The only bit I could make out was the name of a fisherman whose radio had gone dead. “Rodney… Rodney… Rodney…” his neighbors shouted through the airwaves.
After riding the people train for a while, each documentarian must eventually shift his focus, making a delicate turn from his subject to his audience. This is where that big old freight train comes into play. The one that shakes Lyndhurst House and Bridges Building.
In any endeavor that I undertake, it is my goal to be like that freight train. I hope to share a story that becomes so undeniably present in the life of the viewer–even if only for a passing moment–that they must stop what they are doing, lower their voice, pause their thought, and be temporarily connected to a world that is bigger than their own.
It’s a world with ten thousand thousand miles of track and filled with a hundred hundred trains. Trains that are waiting to be heard.