Poignant Images of Struggle and Hope in Durham, N.C.

The Photo Blog
March 20 2014 11:01 AM

Struggle and Hope in Durham, N.C.

People sit along Fayetteville Street during Hillside High School's homecoming parade. Hillside has a predominantly African-American student population and serves many low-income communities in East Durham. Hillside once had graduation rates as low as 50 percent but has improved to 83 percent.

Justin Cook

Justin Cook’s photos tell a story of two Durhams. “We've always been taught the story of America is one of upward mobility. Durham very much embodies that. But some of the darker sides of the American story are here too,” Cook said.

Once a town dedicated to the production of tobacco, the medium-sized North Carolina city has undergone a transformation, becoming a hub for a vibrant young professional population. It is consistently rated as one of the most up-and-coming cities in the South.  But urban renewal and revitalization hasn’t reached all of Durham’s residents, and historically African-American neighborhoods in the city struggle with high rates of violence and poverty. “There's been powerful work about violence and renewal in places like Chicago. But these issues aren't isolated to the big cities. You can see them more and more in small towns and medium-sized cities across America,” Cook said.

A bulldozer fills 9-year-old Jaeden Sharpe's grave following his funeral at Beechwood cemetery in Durham. Jaeden was shot in the head as he sat in with his mother in their car in their driveway on Jan. 4, 2014. He died five days later.

Justin Cook

In 2007, at the height of his drug-dealing career, Tyrone (left) was shot eight times by a friend. Tyrone's dad, Allen (right), is a "mortician for hire," preparing the dead for burial. Above, Tyrone and Allen finish an embalming.

Justin Cook

"Since Ray's been murdered, I have nightmares. I dream of him in the morgue, and when they are cutting his body I wake up because I can feel the knife cutting me," says Joslin Simms, who weeps at the corner of Broad and Leon streets, where her son Rayburn, 30, was shot to death on May 21, 2005. A motive and killer for the murder have not been determined. Rayburn left behind four kids.

Justin Cook

Cook was a student at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill in 2005 when he started riding along with a Gang Resistance Unit in Durham to photograph murder scenes and drug raids. That’s when he was first exposed to families who were victims of violence and felt compelled to understand how they perceived the issues in their area. After returning to the Durham area in 2011, he was struck by the changes the city had undergone in just a few years. “I was wondering if this revitalization was for everyone. I was wondering if it was impacting the people I had been working with,” he said.


Cook’s series, “Made in Durham,” follows four people he’s gotten to know closely over the years. One is Joslin Simm, whose son, Rayburn, was shot to death in 2005 and whose killer has not been found. Another is Rashard Johnson, a former gang member who is struggling to turn his life around. He also tells the story of a father and son: Allen, a minister and mortician, and Tyrone, a former drug dealer who was shot eight times and survived. “Having a toe in so many communities—from law enforcement, to victims of violence and their survivors, to gang members, to morticians—has pushed me to understand their positions in a nonjudgmental way. People are human on their best and worst days,” Cook said.

Cook’s series is ongoing, and he frequently publishes stories related to these themes in the Indy Week, a Durham-area alt-weekly. As he continues living and making photos in Durham, Cook said he wants to find ways for his subjects to speak about their situations at public events and to be involved in the process of publishing the project. “It's easy to call it ‘my work,’ but truthfully it's their work,” Cook said.

A man who calls himself "Lil' Salt" flexed in triumph after climbing the corner store dressed as Spider-Man during Halloween festivities in Durham's Southside neighborhood.

Justin Cook

Crips remember a fallen brother by spilling liquor. They prefer to be called a "family" and not a "gang."

Justin Cook

In 2013, Joslin (far left) comforted her 21-year-old granddaughter Shae (center) as she remembered her dad, Rayburn, during a Circle of Hope and Healing. The event is held for grieving parents by the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham at Shepherd's House United Methodist Church in East Durham.

Justin Cook

A summer storm rolls in over Angier Avenue and Driver Street in East Durham at sunset. The neighborhood has struggled with violence in recent years.

Justin Cook

Rashard Johnson (right) jokes with executive director Gayle Erdheim (center) and his tutor at Achievement Academy of Durham, where he was making strides in his reading comprehension while working toward his GED. Rashard dropped out of school in the ninth grade. He's struggled with a mood disorder all his life and ran away from home at 16 and joined a gang. By 18, he had been convicted of 11 felonies, all nonviolent property crimes. At 20, he dreams of using his troubled past to inspire young people to be more than the sum of their inner-city surroundings.
Demolition and construction in the Southside neighborhood of Durham, N.C. The goal is to revitalize the area by driving out slumlords and drug dealers and building nicer and affordable housing. But some are wary of gentrification in their proud, historically black neighborhood and dub these projects "urban removal."

Justin Cook


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