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How Do We Make Sense of a Place?

September 23, 2015

How do we make sense of place, and particularly old/abandoned places? Five artists explored this question through photography and documentary film. Their very different projects found common ground in representations of trauma and redemption, absence and companionship, solitude and engagement, fragility and resilience.

By Margaret (Lou) Brown

How Do We Make Sense of a Place

"Hidden Stories of Abandoned Places" was inspired by the ongoing exhibition, "Rural Revival: Photographs of Home and Preservation of Place," at the North Carolina Museum of History, featuring the work of North Carolina-based photographer Scott Garlock, and was co-sponsored by the North Carolina Museum of History, Duke University Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University MFA|EDA Program, and the Durham County Library.

Ghosts inhabit all the projects. As photographer Alex Harris guided us through his images of the home of Amadeo Sandoval, photos Harris had taken decades ago and over a two-year period, my eyes were quickly drawn to changes over time.

Pictures rearranged. A bed relocated from one room to another. Walls layered with different colors of paint. And, most dramatic, the change that made me wonder if I really was looking at the same rooms: a door moved from one side of a wall to another. Why the reordering of the home? (Some of those photos can be seen here.) I’m used to home renovation pictures in popular culture and social media. But the images of the Sandoval home aren’t filled with the recycled glass countertops, subway tile backsplashes, or DIY wall stencils that populate Instagram and Pinterest accounts, the stuff of generic, aspirational “after” photos leading us to think of our current living spaces as merely our “before” décor, awaiting a burst of trend-driven remodeling inspiration.

How Do We Make Sense of a Place

Alex Harris

Harris’s photos depict a life filled with longing, entangled in a search that can’t be satisfied by browsing through Houzz. Unlike other “before-and-after” photos that invite the viewer to imagine herself filling the voids in a renewed space, these photos, also unpeopled, ask us to imagine one man’s life and its unique passions. These images tell the story of one person and the scars he left on this house in his attempt to stanch the pain the home was inflicting on him. Although we never see Sandoval in the photos, the images give us a sense of a man in frenetic motion. Sandoval’s wife had passed away just before the initial set of photos taken by Harris. The power of her absence is what we see in the subsequent rearranging and redecorating of the home, as Amadeo, in Harris’s telling, struggles to recover his faith and joy without her. When his wife’s chair disappears from the later photos, we understand. Better to have it gone altogether than to experience its emptiness day after day, or worse, watch other bodies settle into its cushions.

We wouldn’t know about Amadeo’s relationship with his wife, nor be able to see the change over time, were it not for the relationship between him and the photographer. As I looked at these photos and listened to Harris tell Sandoval’s story, I was struck by the care with which he was drawing our attention to the details that made this home not just anyone’s home, but the home of Amadeo Sandoval and the spirit of his wife. Harris doesn’t carry lightly his responsibility as caretaker of this story and the knowledge that, without his images, Amadeo Sandoval wouldn’t exist for most of us in the audience.

Scott Garlock’s photos of the Robertson farmhouse in rural North Carolina are filled with competing evocations of lives in decline and lives in-the-making. An exterior shot of the home reveals sagging walls and a collapsing roof, eliciting a sort of nostalgia and sadness that the home is no longer loved. We imagine a happy family inside long ago. Maybe we even mentally place our own parents or grandparents behind its windows. However, the intimacy and specificity of the interior photos disrupt our imaginings and force us to tend, once again, to the particular people who actually made this their home. Garlock’s presentation began with a photo of a wall calendar, still tacked to the wall, displaying a picture of a building in Washington, DC, and the month January, 1967. His photos led us through the decaying interior. Brown wing-tip shoes, shoestrings missing. More men’s dress shoes. A partially packed suitcase. A table filled with empty mason jars. A rocking chair, repaired many times.

How Do We Make Sense of a Place

Scott Garlock

As Garlock narrated the slides, he told us the story of a family, proud of a son who went off to work in Washington, DC, who we can now surmise sent the calendar. We learned that Mrs. Robertson passed away first. Sometime later, Mr. Robertson fell ill, and his suitcase was in the process of being prepared for the hospital when he passed. This is the Robertson’s home, and the photos give us glimpses of their story. Garlock, too, feels a sense of responsibility for the story his camera captures. He was asked by the family to salvage what images he could so they would have some visual reminders of relatives who have passed and a home that will soon be unidentifiable. After photographing the home, he felt he had to give the family advance warning before they looked at his photos: It’s not going to be like they remembered it. It’s a broken place now.

What causes us to dwell on such images of decay and disarray? Popular culture’s fascination with “ruin porn,” a critical term for abandoned places photography of urban spaces, runs counter to our societal emphasis on happiness and renewal. Dan Smith’s photographic exploration of the remains of an old motel and a dismantled “fun park” in eastern North Carolina led us through his own journey into these spaces. Displaying a photo of the very long list of warnings at the cart track, Smith described this as an unlikely place for “fun,” with “danger” and “risk” dominating the scene. But of course, this is an abandoned fun park. When in use, there would be sound instead of silence. Excited screams of adults choosing to take the risks. Laughter. Children crying, because there are always crying children at a fun park. Now, all that’s left are signs and broken equipment and weeds and trash.

Smith’s images of the motel are similar. Familiar artifacts are scattered across the grounds. A linen cart. A door with a room number and “no-smoking” symbol in brass. A dresser, drawer open and empty. Smith stopped at the site frequently as he drove from Durham to New Bern, NC to deal with issues related to a family member’s violent murder. Each time he stopped, something had been moved since his previous visit, providing signs of life in a place that otherwise appears stopped in time.

How Do We Make Sense of a Place

Dan Smith

The photographs of the decaying sites contrast with the tranquil images of New Bern, with its docile waterfront and tree-lined streets and US flags hanging from the well-kept homes. That contrast seems to be what draws Smith to the disorderly, unoccupied spaces. In his discussion of his photos, he talked about finding comfort in the fun park and motel and the other abandoned entertainment sites en route to the profound sadness and emptiness of his relative’s home. If appearances mirrored the internal state of a place, New Bern should be the place that felt out-of-order and in need of repair. Its outward peace was disconcerting to Smith. The decaying places gave him permission, in a sense, to immerse himself in exploring the details of their inner workings, something he wasn’t allowed to do in the more controlled lived-in settings of his relatives’ home, where his cousin’s police uniform still hangs neatly in his bedroom.

Alina Taalman shared an excerpt from her documentary film, “Quiet Title,” in which she looks closely at the history of her own family’s home in a small Connecticut town. Taalman pores through land records, identifying previous owners and, even, occasionally, their relationships with neighbors. (One, named John, was granted a right-of-way to pass through the property to reach the main road.) She traces titles back as far as the early 1800s before losing the trail of the home’s previous owners. Nevertheless, we know that this house has a history that belongs only to it; once again, we can’t easily inject ourselves into its story. Taalman’s sister articulates her own sense of the uniqueness of this home, remembering, “I don’t recall going to anyone else’s house and thinking it was anywhere near what we had as our experience. It wasn’t special in the same way.”

One way the Taalman house is special is through the family’s experience with the home’s ghost, Emily. Like Amadeo Sandoval’s wife, the Robertson family, and Dan Smith’s deceased family member, Emily is invisible. However, unlike the other unseen presences, Emily’s relationship to the house with she is associated is completely unknown and, thus far, unknowable. Our knowledge of her doesn’t manifest in the physical form of an empty chair she once occupied or shoes she once wore. Instead, we’re aware of her only through the feelings she incites in people who were not her contemporaries. Her presence has force in the world, as she seems to inspire the Taalman family’s appreciation of their home’s unique history and of their own contributions to that history. The empty chairs that appear in this film make us think, then, of the Taalman family’s presence in the future of the house, because, as Alina Taalman says at the film’s opening, even though they left the house more than a decade ago, they have become part of its legacy. But their search for information about the home’s past leaves us wondering what the home’s current and future residents will be able to know about the Taalmans. What will even set them to wondering? Will the Taalman’s presence be felt by the home’s future residents?

How Do We Make Sense of a Place

Screening Jon-Sesrie Goff's film, "After Sherman"

Jon-Sesrie Goff’s film, “After Sherman,” explicitly addresses interrupted legacies in its examination of the relationship between African-Americans who fled the South during the Great Migration, and the lands and people they left behind in the Low Country of South Carolina. A sixth generation farmer describes the history of families broken apart first by enslavement, and then over and over as slaves, and, once again with the Great Migration North, concluding: “Think about how many people have left the South, went up North. They know they have people down here, but they don’t know who those people are.” The film shows an African American community drawing together into a collectively-identified extended family that struggles, celebrates, and mourns together. As the gospel song, “It May Be the Last Time I Don’t Know”, is sung in the background, we observe a congregation preparing to honor the lives of their brothers and sisters lost at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. And we hear a voice, “Celebrating fifty years of Selma. And the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.” For African-Americans, there is always the threat of a family tree being broken, of a cherished presence being violently transformed into an aching absence.

Goff remarked as he introduced his film that he’s exploring the question of whether or not it’s possible for the site of one’s pain to also be the site of one’s redemption. While many of the other presentations of the evening pulled us to “zoom in” on a particular quest and a specific story, Goff’s film forced us to widen our view and look at a community – an entire population – that is trying to give new meaning to the place they once abandoned. At the end of the film, Goff told the audience that he had come to understand the term “abandon” in two senses of the word: to desert or cast-off; and to be unrestrained and unhidden. The African-American men and women Goff documents in his film insist on stepping out into the light each day to reclaim their place in the South and establish their own lasting legacy of pride, faith, unity, and joy.

The combined effect of all five presentations in “Hidden Stories of Abandoned Places” was to challenge us to slow down and pay attention to the particular. What began for many in the audience as a nostalgic fascination with images of old, abandoned places that, perhaps, reminded them of a grandparents’ home or their own childhood haunts, became something much richer. Each presentation forced us to attend to and respect the people, seen and unseen, whose stories were being told. We were asked to, in a sense, sit quietly with their spirits. I often wonder if it does a sort of violence to the individual when their story is used as a symbol or placeholder in an effort to make a point or incite empathy about some broad social phenomenon. The presentations in this group demonstrated that an individual story carefully told can, without any overt symbolizing, both make us care about the individual and think more deeply about the larger conditions of that person’s life.

Lou Brown

MARGARET (LOU) BROWN has worked for the last twenty years in interdisciplinary program development and community engagement. She holds a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis, where she also taught and developed education and outreach programs in Anthropology, American Culture Studies, Social Thought and Analysis, and the Center for New Institutional Social Sciences. She is a Senior Research Scholar and the Director of Programs at the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke.