Refuse to forget: Justin Cook photographs the 'other' Durham

Justin Cook's photos on the Cordoba Center for the Arts blast wall in November. Justin Cook's photos on the Cordoba Center for the Arts blast wall in November. // Photo by Chris Vitiello.

Justin Cook stands with his hands on his hips, looking up at his monumental portrait of a woman wiping tears from her eyes.

Justin Cook's "Made in Durham."

It’s early November in east Durham at the Cordoba Center for the Arts blast wall — a freestanding, L-shaped concrete wall about 14 feet high designed to protect the former mill from a chemical tank explosion. Cook and Alex Maness are carefully wheat-pasting long, photocopied sheets onto the concrete, fitting them together to form six-by-nine-foot images from Cook’s “Made in Durham” series of photographs.

Cook fishes a phone from his pocket and dials a number. After a pause, he says, “You’ve got to see this. Can I come get you?”

The woman in the portrait — and on the other end of the phone call — is Joslin Simms. Her son, Ray, was shot to death on May 21, 2005. A father of four, Ray was 30 years old. His killer has not been found. In the photograph, Simms stands at the corner of Broad and Leon Streets where Ray was killed. In the photograph next to it, her hand touches his gravestone.

Cook’s photographs have been taken over a decade of covering the continuum of homicide, incarceration, and urban change spanning his undergraduate years, through internships in Dallas, St. Petersburg, and Flint, Michigan, to the last four years shooting for Indy Week. It’s now a stunning, heartbreaking 56-page photo essay book about the widespread community effect of unsolved murders. “Made in Durham” shows how grief, anger, and frustration both haunt and activate families and communities.

In this, the book also leverages demographic data to reveal two sides of Durham that have virtually nothing to do with one another — the white wonderland of foodies, academics and tech entrepreneurs, and the black gangland of drug commerce, the victims and survivors of its violence, and an ambivalent law-enforcement and legal system.

Cook takes pains to connect systematic poverty and socioeconomic disparity to the narrative of street violence and shattered families. The familiarity of these segregation-era lines of connection magnifies the tragedy that so many of the photographs depict.

Some of the photography has shown at Durham’s Through This Lens Gallery and Chapel Hill’s FRANK Gallery this past fall, and eight images were chosen for the blast wall installation, before which a public ritual was held in November as part of the Durham Storefront Project. But the book expresses Cook’s mission to its full depth, using his insightful, well-researched writing to contextualize the imagery.

Several storylines run through this book. One is Simms’ personal purgatory as she tries to make the loss of her son mean something. In one image, she’s sitting in a hospital bed after a 2012 stroke, covering her face from Cook’s camera. Tubes and wires enlace her forearms. In another, she manages a determined smile, standing in brilliant sunlight among politicians and community members after speaking at a Mayors Against Illegal Guns rally in Chapel Hill in 2014.

Another storyline of “Made in Durham” is the difficulty of establishing a stable, normal life after a felony conviction. Rashard Johnson, convicted of multiple felonies by the age of 18, sits in his front doorway to smoke while keeping his ankle, fitted with a monitoring bracelet, inside the house. Johnson is seen again at a job fair for felons; then picking through a rubble pile on a job site. Locked out of much of the workforce by dint of his criminal record, he attends job fairs for service-industry work that pays a fraction of what criminal activity might. It’s a bad cycle.

And still another story is the relationship between the Durham that Johnson and Simms live in and the Durham that makes the national “best places to live” lists as upscale restaurants and boutiques power a rejuvenated downtown. Johnson’s job site used to be Black Wall Street; soon it will be a café. Cook shows the scars of “urban removal” — a catch-all term for the destruction throughout the 1970s of the thriving, black Hayti neighborhood and essential resegregation of Durham’s downtown — in the concrete wasteland of the former Fayette Place public housing projects (razed in 2007 and not yet re-developed).

Cook’s overarching message in “Made in Durham” has to do with those scars. Without cooperative, broad-based solutions for closing income and education gaps between the two Durhams, how will cycles of violence be changed? How will Rashard Johnson establish a stable life? How will mothers like Joslin Simms stop burying their sons?

Back at the blast wall, Cook ends his call and roars off in his car. Fifteen minutes later, he returns. Simms, still hobbled by her stroke, climbs out, her eyes fixed on her son’s image on his headstone. It’s a heavy, anxious moment.

Then she turns to Cook. “Bless you,” she says. And then she says it again.

“Made in Durham” is available at Durham’s Letters Bookshop, Mercury Studio and other local independent bookstores. Also on his website.


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