A photograph currently hanging in the Porch Gallery of the Center for Documentary Studies depicts a troop of residents of TROSA (Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers) gathered around the refurbished cars they will receive upon graduation. People stand tall next to their vehicles, heads erect and spines straight, proud and maybe a bit stunned at their hard-earned, much deserved loot. The cars are new to them but in varying degrees of vintage, and already bear signs of caring maintenance all the way down to the scent of the interior; familiar tree shapes dangle from many rearview mirrors. Not one is an unsightly wreck, and front and center is a Volvo station wagon that, judging from the picture, most would be happy to call their own.
Photographer Cedric N. Chatterley is pointing toward the back and a little to the right. “That was my car,” he says. “I donated it before I really knew what TROSA was.” He studies the photo for a few minutes, eyeing the prime locale of the pine-scented Volvo. He looks back to his old automobile, a few rows behind. “I should have had it up front.”
Chatterley blithely bequeathed his car several years back, on the advice of friend and colleague Barbara Lau, the center’s director of community documentary programs (she’d handed over her former wheels some time before). As he mentioned, at that time his acquaintance with TROSA was fleeting, his primary knowledge of the program that it pertained to drug and alcohol counseling of some kind and they were a nonprofit ready to accept his donation. Chatterley got a closer look at their methods last fall, when he was enlisted as photographer for Each One, Teach One, an exhibition at the center that investigates the mechanics of leadership at TROSA through photographs, writing and interview text.
The exhibition grew from TROSA President Kevin McDonald’s honor as a semi-finalist in the “Leadership for a Changing World” awards given out by the Ford Foundation in May of 2001. With the support of the foundation and the center, Lau set out on an ethnographic research project to determine what it is about the young organization (TROSA was founded in 1991, and began welcoming residents in 1994) that makes it a model of effective leadership. She suggested photography as part of the process, and Chatterley joined in, spending a total of about a month at TROSA last August, October, November and December. The Each One Teach One exhibition collects about 20 of the pictures generated from these visits with Lau’s text, and is devised to share their discoveries with the community.
Chatterley began with no preconception of what a photo of leadership would contain, or particular ideas about what he wanted to register, save for a few photos McDonald wanted to include in the archives. He ended up with hundreds of shots of residents and staff members working together in dozens of diverse ways. “We wanted to document the interaction that goes on,” Lau says. “We want to give a visual image to the depth and complexity of the community.”
TROSA is a name that many recognize but few know much about. It gives residents, there of their own volition, a two-year program designed not only to overcome the stranglehold of addiction but to do so by enabling each to find their way of contributing to the community, an undertaking that offers a sense of achievement and purpose. The enterprises that TROSA has created, including catering and moving companies, have been successful enough to supply them with the bulk of their budget–95 percent of their funding comes from their own efforts–and provide their rehabilitative services completely free of charge. “People know the businesses, maybe, but don’t know how the company works,” Lau says. “We’re trying to use photos to give the image to that.”
The images show daily operations as well as special events, in candid and posed shots. The portrait of McDonald shows a man of determination, the corners of his mouth turned slightly skyward for the camera, but with robust forearms folded solidly across his chest. It’s not a protective gesture on his part but a confident one, and conveys a strength to be reckoned with, making him look something like a benevolent mountain–if we think of addiction as an irresistible force, McDonald is the immovable object to conquer it.
A set of three images across the top of one frame shows a man trying on a suit jacket, lifting arms to test the fit, head turned presumably to regard himself in a mirror. Three images across the bottom show him clad not in the previously modeled suit but in graduation gown, trying on his cap. In the snaps above he looks to be preening; in one, he’s captured in mid-cocky strut, his shoulders all aswagger. In the ones below he’s reverent, reflecting over the cap before donning it.
A group portrait of the graduates of the Summer 2002 ceremony displays a comparable gravity. A circle of 19 in folding chairs faces the camera, those closest turning backward in their seats. Mouths are closed–no toothy “cheese!” grins here; jaws are set firm, hands are folded neatly in laps, sharp and precise, like overstarched napkins. The only smile comes from an instructor in the back of the room. The rigid countenances don’t give off boredom or attitude, but communicate an appreciation for the solemnity of the occasion, a respect for the significance.
“I was worried at the end that I was just scratching the surface,” says Chatterley. “I jumped in and quickly saw that it was a complicated place.” Despite the wealth of material he’s produced, he would have been glad to have even more time within the community, but feared his extended presence might have interfered with the work at hand. The photos chosen came from a pool of thousands, but some elements still went unrecorded. “Think about trying to document your whole life,” says Lau. Her specific task as a researcher was to learn how this community (which Chatterley describes as “a small town that’s not very small,”) defines and practices leadership. She conducted interviews with residents, staff, and board members, and held a writing contest for residents, accepting essays, poetry, and song, on the meaning of leadership. “The idea was to allow everyone opportunity,” she says.
This direct involvement raises some questions of the layman about the nature of documentary work. A lot of us are accustomed to the object of study being approached by the documentarian from what may be a close physical distance, but with an uncrossable gulf between in terms of connection. The documentarian and cohorts remain outside, no matter how frustrating it is for the viewer of their project to ask why a cameraman can tape a subject in peril but take no steps to lead them to safety–we scream at our tuned-to-PBS sets that if you can film the damned snake trying to eat the baby bird, why can’t you shoo the menacing reptile away? The citizens of TROSA are finding their own paths away from danger and don’t require additional help. But Chatterley spent a great deal of time there, and Lau has been teaching as a volunteer for years. It’s wondered how they maintain the aloofness we imagine is required.
Fortunately, it’s not. “The idea is that people don’t really believe anymore that the work is objective,” says Lau, “so you embrace how your position colors your view.” There’s also the idea that an object observed is altered simply by the act of observation. In this case, the observer is as well.
“Life will not be the same for them,” Lau says of TROSA’s residents. Of her and Chatterley’s witness of their progress, she says, “Life won’t be the same for us, either.”