Documentary Studies 450S

Documentary Studies 450S: Documentary Engagement

In Documentary Engagement, Alex Harris and colleagues Liisa Ogburn and Elena Rue teach students how photography and audio can be used as tools for social engagement.

Each year in this seminar, students focus their documentary work on a policy-related issue of both local and national importance.

  • Students use digital photography and audio recordings to document the lives and stories of the individuals they are getting to know.
  • Students learn and refine valuable technical skills such as Photoshop and Final Cut Pro in order to complete a multimedia project by the end of the semester.
  • As a class, students develop a web-based portrait that will resonate in Durham but have implications beyond the city and region.

Service-Learning in Documentary Engagement

This course is based on the premise that the best documentary work requires both technical and human skills. As descried below, students in the fall 2010 and 2011 sections of the class have become well informed about the issue of homelessness. Service-learning is a vital component of the class, helping students to accomplish the following:

  • Engage with the needs and problems of their community while building relationships and capturing stories
  • Take hundreds of photographs and collected many hours of audio, while learning how to edit those materials in a way that rings true to those who are deeply knowledgeable about the issue as well as those who are less well informed.
  • Produce a six- to eight-minute multimedia documentary rendering the story of subjects met through community partners, stories that are presented at the end of the semester to the partner organization and to the general public. 
  • Give voice to individuals often marginalized or forgotten by society.

Understanding the Roots and Complexities of Homelessness

Is it possible to truly appreciate, understand, and convey what it means to be homeless?

In fall 2010 and 2011, the class focused on the issue of homelessness in Durham. The class partnered with local agency Housing for New Hope (HNH), pairing each student with a homeless or formerly homeless person to create a cumulative portrait of people on their journey out of homelessness and towards a home of their own.

The 2010 and 2011 class projects have been compiled on a website called Coming Home: Stories of Finding Home Again.

Students spend the semester learning to use their cameras and digital recorders and the software necessary to edit their work into a tight audio-visual essay. They learn about homelessness broadly, looking at other documentary works, and most importantly, visiting once or twice a week with the individual they are paired with in various settings:

  • Visiting the street homeless on the streets and in their camps
  • Sharing meals and interviewing with transitional housing residents
  • Helping to serve meals at the local shelters
  • Accompanying HNH staff members as they go about their work
  • Listening to the stories of HNH staff members who themselves are formerly homeless
  • Helping to serve meals at the local shelters