By Hailey Stiehl
Vann Powell, a Master of Fine Arts student in the Experimental and Documentary Arts program, is a Durham-based photographer who focuses on documentary and landscape photography. He isn’t, however, just photographing historical landmarks or surrounding landscapes.
Instead, he is studying American Civil War photography in an effort to answer complex questions surrounding identity, how identity is influenced by our environment, and how the past informs the present.
“I am researching the relationship between Americans and the American Civil War, with an aim at trying to get at and understand the interpolating effect of the American Civil War on contemporary American Identity,” Powell said.
To do that, Powell is studying the era’s photography and conducting fieldwork at American Civil War battle sites, capturing contemporary portraits of visitors in an attempt to convey the war’s effect on the current American psyche.
Powell’s interest in photography began at a young age when he tried to capture photos of ghosts on film, beginning a life-long interest in making photographs. That interest became serious in the last few years, and he recently decided to complete the documentary photography certificate program at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies.
“Once I realized that my personal happiness was dependent upon my ability to practice photography daily, I understood that I needed to throw my whole intention behind my photographic pursuits,” he said.
Powell is a Raleigh native and attended Appalachian State University for his undergraduate education. After earning his bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, he traveled for a few years and got more serious about photography, and it felt natural to combine his passion for capturing photographs with his Southern roots to explain history’s influence on the modern-day American identity.
“I do feel a strong connection to the Southern photography tradition as I am out working with the Southern landscape and the people that inhabit these environs,” Powell said. “As a Southerner myself, I take special pride in picturing its landscape and its people. I feel very privileged and lucky to be doing what I am doing.”
Powell was one of the recipients of the 2021-2022 Dean’s Research Awards for Master’s Students, which provide up to $1,000 to fund the purchase of materials and supplies to support research. He is using his award to purchase film and camera equipment.
He is currently working in the field, gathering images and information that he will use to make a book about Alamance County in North Carolina. As he continues to travel to Civil War sites, Powell hopes to further explore how American culture, history, and identity are connected to the past in an effort to answer how the past and the present come together to shape our experiences and perceptions.
That work, however, can be difficult at times.
“A lot of my fieldwork relies on interactions and conversations with strangers at American Civil War sites, and along this line, some of the most difficult aspects to my research is initiating a conversation with a complete stranger and then becoming comfortable enough with this person to then make an intimate portrait of them,” Powell said. “This can be stressful as each encounter with an individual is different, as you can imagine, and does not always produce a successful portrait.”
Powell said that given the current political climate, it can be difficult to ask strangers about topics or issues surrounding the Civil War. For instance, he once approached a man at Gettysburg National Battlefield and was greeted with immediate distrust that he was going to ask the man about his views on the Civil War and how it connects to the current political atmosphere.
“Once I explained my own interest and the fact that I see the work I'm doing as stemming from my original interest in the Civil War as a child, he was much more receptive and opened up to sharing his views,” Powell said. “It’s my belief that the shared past trauma of the Civil War unites us more than it separates us, though it seems that we focus on past hurts instead of trying to figure out how to make a better future for each other.”