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Southern Cultures is deeply indebted to photographer Tom Rankin, former director of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and current head of Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts, for serving as guest editor of this special issue. Rankin offers his own reflections on documentary and its meanings so we have omitted a detailed introduction to each piece, but the contents include photo essays, archival analyses, and ethnographic accounts. Tom has also found some deeply reflective discussions of the documentary impulse itself. The ensemble provides a rich sample of current documentary efforts to make the South perceptible, both to other people and itself. [End Page 1]
As you explore these field reports from the land of modern documentary, you’ll probably notice that most of the authors realize that the supposed distinction between “biased” storytelling and “authentic” documentary doesn’t hold up. First, facts and images alone may not be meaningful without fair but creative framing. The naïve author or editor who ignores this rule may hopelessly jumble or distort the material. Second, even if we think and hope that a Sergeant Joe Friday “Just the facts, ma’am, only the facts” approach can tell the “real truth,” can the documentarian ever keep herself out of the picture? Will her own perspectives, agendas, and failures of perception or analysis distort her report no matter what? Finally, does the documentarian really have the right to invade the privacy of others to record and publicize their lives in ways they would not choose for themselves? The question is especially difficult when—as so often happens—the subjects are poor and powerless while the reporter comes from a world of power, privilege, and condescension.
Scott Matthews raises the last question with particular urgency in the case of Hale County, Alabama, the target of numerous of uninvited describers. The most famous were the Depression-era team of James Agee and Walker Evans, whose Let Us Now Praise Famous Men became a hallmark of documentary art while deeply alienating many of its subjects. As if in reply, other contributors recount some efforts by the powerless to document themselves, replacing the hierarchy of observer and observed with a democratic affirmation of personal identity. We see this process plainly in Paige Prather’s photo essay, “This Is a Reflection,” featuring photos of their hometown by children in Tutwiler, Mississippi, and in Emily Hilliard’s description of the archive that banjo player Nora E. Carpenter assembled about herself.
But if subjects should document themselves, how should we treat a self-report that is clearly untrue or even dishonest? Historian Kenneth Janken shows us that it’s not a far-fetched question. Researching a biography of African American intellectual Rayford Logan, Janken found that Logan’s autobiography—his self-documentary, if you will—was almost always reliable. When he turned to the autobiography of naacp leader Walter White, however, he found exaggerations and distortions that invariably made White look grander and more heroic than the unvarnished facts—though White was amply heroic already. So should we read White’s self-documentary the same way that we read Rayford Logan’s? Obviously not. But Janken also concludes that White’s distortions revealed deeper truths about his expansive personality that the facts alone would have obscured.
So what is the truth about documentary? Providing an answer is not in the spirit of this genre. Whatever your conclusion, we hope you find the path to it rewarding. [End Page 2]