The Forest

By  |  June 1, 2017
Photograph by Danielle Mayes Photograph by Danielle Mayes

A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University 


By the time she graduated from Duke University last month, Danielle Mayes had become a very familiar presence at the Center for Documentary Studies, having taken numerous courses here in video, photography, multimedia production, and social change and activism. Danielle is tireless in her commitment to her vision, which she pursues with a technical felicity and exceptional creativity that opens up new space for considering black interiority and subjectivity. For these reasons and more, we nominated her for a Louis Sudler Prize in the Creative and Performing Arts—a prestigious annual prize at fourteen major universities, including Duke—and were not at all surprised when she won.

Danielle entered college as a filmmaker, but a black-and-white film photography course with one of our instructors, MJ Sharp, helped her rethink what that medium might allow her to explore. Under MJ’s mentorship during Danielle’s last two years at Duke, she produced a body of work that is astonishing in its range and innovation. A selection of images from one of her black-and-white series, and her related text, are featured in this story for The By and By.

—Wesley Hogan, Director


My first successful print emerged as a narrow glimpse of a friend’s profile—an image that quickly took on a deeper meaning and inspired subsequent work. This photograph of a black woman, literally submerged in the water of the last darkroom tray, became a reflection of myself and my own experiences as a black woman in the United States. From my first prints, and by continuing to explore my identity through image making, The Forest series evolved.

Images from The Forest series depict those experiences as well as the experiences of people close to me. These shifting, chimerical photographs are explorations of subconscious thoughts embodied as subjective understandings. In them, I hope to evoke the physicality of our fear, our struggle, and our daily, waking reality.

The forest is both a literal and a metaphorical space: a representation of how black people must maneuver in the world, resilient in the harshest conditions, barefoot even, but moving forward. In the desolate forest lie many reflections of myself and those like me. In one image, a young woman moves whimsically and carefree, appearing to leap across the photograph. Yet if you look closer, there is a darkness that threatens to consume a part of her, to erase her existence. In these photographs, a deliberate juxtaposition of dark and light exemplifies the complex nature of the black subconscious. Afraid and fearless at the same time, we rise.

The remnants of Photo-Flo from developing the film recall that initial theme of drowning, or being submerged in water—that moment when I first recognized myself in a black-and-white print. And the dust sprinkled across the photographs from the darkroom processing evokes an idea of the black subconscious and mimics the complexity of our minds. It also reinforces the physical representation of external realities. There is a kind of magic laced into these images through the water marks and the dust, a starriness and superhuman-ness that teeters on the edge of reality and surrealism.

In the forest, we are enveloped by a magical darkness. We are afraid and fearless at the same time: fighting for our existence, fighting to be seen as human. So there is magic and strength, but there is also fear. The woman will become enveloped by a darkness of her own in this most magical of places. I hope you are afraid for her. I hope you are afraid of the forest, too, but I also hope you understand: Black people can fly. Just look, as she runs into the darkness, she is ready. One more step and she will fly.

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This installment of The By and By is curated by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (CDS). CDS is dedicated to documentary expression and its role in creating a more just society. A nonprofit affiliate of Duke University, CDS teaches, produces, and presents the documentary arts across a full range of media—photography, audio, film, writing, experimental and new media—for students and audiences of all ages. CDS is renowned for innovative undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education classes; the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival; curated exhibitions; international prizes; award-winning books; radio programs and a podcast; and groundbreaking projects. For more information, visit the CDS website


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Danielle Rene Mayes graduated from Duke University in May 2017 with a degree in visual and media studies. The St. Louis, Missouri, native is the recipient of a Louis Sudler Prize in the Creative and Performing Arts and is also a Gates Millennium Scholar. She is now living in Dallas, Texas, where she will continue to work on her film photography and develop her style as an artist. Alongside her fiancé, she is an art-director intern for a small creative agency.