A Camera: a Weapon and an Olive Branch

Guest post by Rachel Rubin ’19

Students from Hillside High School’s Drama Department put on a production of “The Wiz” in November of 2017. (Photo by Evan Nicole Bell)

On Sunday afternoon, Hillside High School’s Drama Department prepared for their Senior Night production of Fences—the program’s second play just in the month of February. The 1,200 seat performance hall was teeming with folks in their Sunday best, all wandering about, sharing hugs and laughs. Volunteers sold raffle tickets and passed out playbills that highlighted the various accolades of the department, from performing on six different continents to treating Hillary Clinton to a private show during her recent presidential campaign. As the audience found their seats, a slideshow on stage displayed a snapshot of their theater director being honored at the Tony Awards, a message of congratulations to an Oscar-nominated alumna, and stunning images of the school’s recent production of “The Wiz” (pictured right).

Like much of black Durham’s excellence, this program’s success is completely invisible at Duke University. Despite living six miles away, Duke students might only see Hillside’s spectacular performers through these photos. Until recently, prints of these scenes from The Wiz hung in “black.,” senior Evan Nicole Bell’s first solo photography exhibit. The images spanned four years and the entire range of human emotion, from impassioned, tearful prayer to the joy of the playground to scenes of outrage and protest. As the capstone of Bell’s self-designed major, “Documenting Justice: The Role of Photographic Narratives in Activism,” this exhibit attempted to showcase black culture, life and experience in an honest, nuanced way. Her thesis is uncomplicated: “to be black is to be.” But the simplicity of her message did not diminish the difficulty of her task.

When entering into this work of documentary photography, Bell was swimming upstream against both the carelessness of past documentarians as well as Duke’s reputation in the Durham community. She conceived of this project after watching the 2007 documentary “Welcome to Durham, USA,” a work Bell considers to be “profoundly unethical” in its portrayal of Durham’s black community exclusively as a dangerous, gang- and crime-ridden area. When she set out to create its antithesis, she carried with her the privilege of enrollment at an elite institution, as well as the entire history of said institution’s destruction of and disregard for the Durham community. Faculty at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies say that most students will take photos in Durham for one class before immediately moving on to other things, often feeling exhausted by the way the Duke-Durham divide complicates such projects. So why, and how, was Bell’s experience different?

Faces overflow with joy at Y.E. Smith Elementary (photo by Evan Nicole Bell)

What would eventually become “black.” began at Y.E. Smith Elementary during Bell’s first semester at Duke—when she was just 17 years old. As a student in professor Susie Post-Rust’s class, Bell selected a class or program at the school to document over the course of the semester. She chose to work with Ms. Sanders’ kindergarten class, spending two to three hours a week in the classroom; it was here that she first came to understand the antagonistic relationship between her university and the community at large. According to Durham Public Schools 2016-2017 data, 99 percent of students at Y.E. Smith are on free or reduced lunch, inspiring what Bell considers to be understandable “insecurity about a privileged Duke student coming to their school.” Ms. Sanders herself refused to be photographed until the tenth week she had known Bell.

“Eighty percent of the work in documentary photography is done when the camera is off,” said Bell. “You can’t get an honest portrait of a person when you don’t really know them.”

The class had a reception for the school to showcase the work from the semester, and picture at left, entitled “Childhood,” was placed on the invitations. “It was very heart-warming to know that you touched someone’s life just by capturing them,” recalled Bell. “How often do we get beautiful moment captured?” For Bell, seeing her work empower the students, and their parents, was the start of long and emotional journey to learn more about this new place she was calling home.

Kindergarteners in Ms. Sanders’ class admire the portraits of themselves displayed at the end of the year celebration of the partnership between Professor Susie Post-Rust’s class and Y.E. Smith Elementary. (Photo by Susie Post-Rust)

As Bell entered her sophomore year and began crafting her proposal for a major that would allow her to couple her twin loves of activism and photography, it was clear she wanted to use her camera as a weapon to disrupt oppressive systems, intending to elicit a strong reaction from the viewer. She began to conceptualize “Black life in Durham,” a precursor to “black.” In an effort to push back against “Welcome to Durham, USA, “she immediately thought of black excellence in Durham like Black Wall Street, Pauli Murray and Phil and Nnenna Freelon. Bell soon realized, however, that attempting to document only the positive would be equally dishonest.

Instead, Bell decided to learn as much as she could by being as immersed in the community as possible. Naturally an introverted person, Bell learned to use her camera as an olive branch to, both bring brave enough to venture into new spaces but also be honest, letting good intentions speak for themselves. “You’re not a different person,” she said. “You’re just in space you would have never been without your camera.”

Ger receives a meticulous hair cut at Flashlight Barbershop. Although it is right off east, very few Duke students ever enter the barbershop (Photo by Evan Bell)

She began at Northgate Mall’s Flashlight Barbershop, which she describes as a “watering hole” for black men. She snuck off campus to spend a number of afternoons there before she ever even brought her camera or explained to the owner and clients what she was attempting to do. From there, one forged relationship led to the next. One client at Flashlight invited her to his church, a historically significant center of black life. Humble enough to know how much she still had to learn, Bell was constantly asking people around her what spaces in Durham mattered to them and why. From ball games to NCCU homecoming, Bell found power in predominantly-black spaces. “It’s nice not being the minority,” admitted Bell. “[Members of the black community] uplift each other in a way that is so special because we have this common history of oppression and slavery and dehumanization that makes us close. That’s what I feel in Durham—a deep, deep love.”

Her growing respect for the Durham community as a whole was rivaled only by the mutual admiration she cultivated in her individual relationships with those who appeared in “black.” She first met Angel in 2016 through her work at Y.E. Smith, where Angel’s boys are in school. Through other photography projects, the two became close. The photo at left was taken during a day in which Bell was Angel’s shadow everywhere she went, a type of exposure to which Angel readily consented. “For every picture people see, there are 1,000 more they haven’t seen,” remarked Bell, chuckling at the sheer volume of photos she has of every part of Angel’s life.

Angel holds her goddaughter as she waits to pick up her sons from school (Photo by Evan Bell)

This level is trust is not something Bell take’s lightly. “I know lot about Angel’s life, and not all of it is great,” said Bell. “It’s not all stuff people need to know, but imagine if I put all of that in a wall tag. She has no reason to think I wouldn’t do that. It’s just honest. It’s just trusting people and hoping that they trust you back. It’s all just hope.”

Professors and faculty alike seem to agree not only that Bell is a gifted technical photographer, but that her dedication to relationship building and honesty make her exceptional. Bell tends not to blame other Duke students for their ignorance about Durham, arguing that they are “literally shielded” by foliage and policy from Durham. Staff at the Center for Documentary studies consider the Duke-Durham relationship to be “the elephant in the room” for most students attempting to photograph the city around them. But Bell’s own experience is not just about doing things that are less convenient than photographing food on campus. She seeks out ways to record people in a way that humanizes them, creating a representation that is dynamic and layered. As the Director of CDS, Wesley Hogan, puts it: “People with cameras and pens hold enormous power to shape the way others see the world. And Evan embodies a young person who’s really trying hard to handle that pen and camera in an ethical and responsible way.”

Lion prepares for a performance of The Wiz (Photo by Evan Bell)

Duke’s own role in disrupting black life in Durham—and even its habit of neglecting to admit graduates of Durham Public Schools—was not enough to make Hillside High School’s Drama Department suspicious of Evan Bell when they received a message offering to photograph the production of “The Wiz.”  By this time, Bell had a portfolio to highlight when she introduced herself and her work. Wendell Tabb, the director of the Drama Department for the last 31 years, and his son, Emmanuel Tabb, were immediately impressed.

“She didn’t have to do that. She didn’t have to reach out to us,” said Emmanuel. She really just gained our trust from the beginning. I don’t know, it’s just something about her and how she came across. She was just really compassionate. She’s a community-oriented person. It kind of feels like we’ve known her forever.”

The admiration is mutual; as is the case with many of those she has photographed, the reciprocal nature of the relationship was deeply fulfilling for Bell. When she was at Hillside, she remembers being overcome with pride at “seeing those kids being amazing actors.” According to Bell, being in spaces like that 1,200 performance hall, watching a majority-black cast knock it out of the park before a majority-black audience, was a perfect chance to “be able to just be talented and joyful and celebrate each other.”

On the other hand. Durham still has plenty of suffering and othering to interrogate and question.

With low-wage jobs and poverty disproportionally affecting Durham’s black community, there is ample work left for a documentarian. Empowered by the community she has forged for herself her, she says she would certainly consider staying in Durham. “I have a talent for photography and I have this talent for community-building and activism and sharing stories, so I feel like it is my moral obligation to do so,” says Bell.  “It’s my raison d’etre. I think that’s why I was put on this earth.”

Evan Nicole Bell poses by the artist statement for “black.” (Photo courtesy of Evan Bell)

Evan Nicole Bell’s latest exhibit, “Faith in Color,” is a continuation of “black.” which explores the deep roots of religion in black communities. The exhibit will be on display in Duke Chapel from April 4 to May 1, with an opening reception on April 12 at 7 PM.

See more of Evan Nicole Bell’s work at www.evannicolebell.com