Titus Brooks Heagins' neighborhood watch

Every city has its communities that the local tourism impresarios would
rather visitors not know about. (Summerhill, anyone?) Photographer Titus Brooks Heagins captures Durham, N.C.'s disowned area of East Durham in Durham Stories: Not Hell But You Can See It from Here, currently on view at Composition Gallery. The result is a trenchant living document of a community both entirely unique and utterly ordinary situated in the heart of a Southern landscape.

Durham Stories comprises five large-format color digital prints and a series of eight smaller ones. The photographs portray East Durham residents, usually in isolation, sometimes in a pair or trio. The subjects range from toddler-aged Devonte to way-over-the-hill Leon, whose weary lines and creases testify to a lifetime of grief.

Heagins' portraits are purposefully low-fi and casual. In "Kashe," a young African-American woman stands in the middle of a street, fixing her hair and holding a pair of sneakers protectively close. Although she makes direct eye contact, she looks more impatient than inviting. She seems just to want to get on with it. In "Campañeros de Vida," a husband and wife sit across from each other at a disheveled table. Groceries are still in the bags. A change purse has been thrown down haphazardly. This is the portraiture of life in progress, barely stopping long enough for a shutter click.

The documentary photographer's power is to reveal worlds unseen. Like Atlanta photographer Rose M. Barron or Athens-based Thomas Dozol, Heagins shines light on the denizens of an inaccessible world only to find out that they're not so different from someone we might know, living in a place we might have been.

Portraiture's history is littered with images of powerful people made to look even more powerful through all manner of artifice. Diane Arbus showed us that the less powerful have stories, too. Heagins is a fitting heir to the lineage, able to do the hard work of looking at the unlooked, and making the looking look easy.

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