Documenting Durham: Capturing Place Through Words and Images


Photo of Alaadin El Hamalawi by Liza Hoos, from the Spring 2016 Documenting Durham class

This course, co-taught by a nonfiction writer and a photojournalist, explores the art and craft of documenting place through words and images. Using the city of Durham as a practice ground, students will learn the skills essential to create both documentary writing and photography, as well as explore how these two genres can be used in concert to deepen a story. Given its rich history and current state of growth and change, Durham offers many opportunities for place-based storytelling that motivates thinking and reflection in others.


In addition to studying writing and photographs that effectively capture place and discussing the ethical aspects of gathering and working with stories that are not their own, students will learn the practical skills of both genres. They will learn how to report and conduct interviews as well as how to focus and structure written work. And they will learn essential elements of good visual storytelling, with an emphasis on portraiture and building a narrative through photo essays.

Throughout this weekend-long course, students will learn by doing, spending time in the field reporting, taking photos, and then sharing their experiences back in the classroom. They will immerse themselves in a corner of Durham, conducting interviews with people they encounter and collecting the variety of photos necessary to tell a story. As they work, students will receive feedback from their classmates and instructors. In the end, they will walk away with the beginnings of a documentary essay about place (in both photography and writing), as well as a broadened skill set for documentary work and an understanding of how to bring places to life in textured and nuanced ways. 
(16 hours/All Levels)

Christina Cooke is associate editor at the daily food-policy website Civil Eats and a Durham-based freelance writer who writes about people, place, and culture for venues including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Oxford American, Our State, and High Country News. Previously, she worked two years as a staff writer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and another year as the only full-time reporter for a weekly paper in Portland, Oregon. Cooke finds herself drawn to tell stories at the fringes of society, about people who are offbeat and unconventional, passionate and obsessed, and masters of their own, very specialized domains. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Portland State University and is a graduate of the nonfiction writing program at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. Find out more and view writings at

Kate Medley is a documentarian telling stories about good causes, companies, and campaigns. Following a ten-year career in corporate communications as lead documentary storyteller for Whole Foods Market, during which time she spearheaded a journalistic approach to the company’s marketing of farmers and producers, Medley now leads a media agency in Durham, North Carolina. Through a longtime partnership with the Southern Foodways Alliance, she has created several documentary film projects exploring Southern culture through stories about food. Counter Histories, produced to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, is a series of five films documenting lunch counter sit-ins across the south, and A Spoken Dish celebrates the diverse food culture across the region through a series of 85 video vignettes. Medley received her bachelor’s degree in photojournalism from the University of Montana and her Master’s in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi. She has worked as a photojournalist for newspapers across the South, including the Charlotte Observer, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and as a regular contributor for The New York Times.


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