Courtney Reid-Eaton

The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke
Documentary Diversity Project (DPP) (NC)

Through whose lens do we view the stories that shape our world view? How do we expand that point of view? What does access to the resources and opportunities that support a career in non-fiction storytelling look like? What do young artists from marginalized communities need to establish sustainable careers in the documentary arts? Those were some of the fundamental questions behind the Documentary Diversity Project (DPP) at The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. The three-year pilot program was created as a way to expand the pipeline through which the vast majority of nonfiction narratives created and consumed in our country are produced, to better represent the rich diversity of its population—specifically Black and Brown voices.

Through the DPP, emerging documentary artists (young people ages 18-24) and more seasoned documentarians (post-MFA) were invited to be mentored by and collaborate with CDS faculty, visiting artists and community members to develop professional relationships, network, experiment and hone skills. Emerging artists spent 18 months in paid residencies working with CDS’ resources; post-MFA fellows received 10-month residencies that included a stipend and health benefits.

William Page II was hired to coordinate the DDP for the grant period and CDS exhibitions director Courtney Reid-Eaton served as creative director. Reid-Eaton says the project was significant not only for the opportunities and outcomes it made possible for participants such as Sherrill Roland and Audria Byrd, but for the issues it raised for CDS and its contribution to the larger field of documentary work. “Like so many other forms of storytelling, the canon of documentary work has been dominated by white men. That is not a neutral or objective lens. It’s one thing to say that we as an institution value diverse voices, but when you have—as we did with DPP—young Black people questioning what that commitment really means, it forces institutions to listen and respond in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t.”

As a Black feminist and visual artist, Reid-Eaton says she brought both her personal experiences and professional perspectives to bear during the three years of DPP, which she describes as “amazingly profound, intense, joyful, and yes, frustrating. It was important for us to create a space for DPP participants to take chances and feel supported to do whatever they wanted to do, whether that was about Black people and the Black experience or not, and whether they chose to operate within or outside of the existing dominant cultural aesthetic which celebrates certain stories over others.”

As Duke and other institutions navigate what it means to be anti-racist, the DPP provided a tantalizing glimpse into the possibilities of expanding and democratizing the documentary arts. And it also underscores the imperative for all members of a community—including those who have dominated the conversation thus far—to be partners in expanding and valuing the stories we hear and tell to make sense of the world.