It’s amazing what a cup of tea can do. Metaphorically speaking, a cup of tea or a cup of coffee can be a search for a connection between two people.
I think so much successful documentary work is rooted in simple, daily connections, ones that begin with a search for commonality. Time and again, I’ve seen this played out not only in my work but also in the work of scores of others whom I admire.
It’s wonderful to see that connection in a new generation of photographers, namely in this year’s College Photographer of the Year, Graham Dickie, 24. He received the call about the CPOY award in November while continuing work on that project which earned him the recognition. The project is “The Old Man on Bank Street.”
“When I got the call, I was standing on the front porch where I’ve been staying when I come to work in Louisiana,” Dickie said. “It comes at a good time because there’s a lot of doubt that comes with doing this type of work.”
I asked him what he meant.
“When you’re working independently on these long-form documentary projects, you wonder in terms of where is this going to lead. Especially when you’re really early in your career like I am,” Dickie said.
Winning CPOY, from the University of Missouri, is notable. It brings recognition and validation in the work one is pursuing. “It’s going to keep pushing me along that path,” Dickie said. “And it means a lot to me that these images, which I consider really personal, like the ones of Richard.”
That would be Richard Kilbourne, “The Old Man on Bank Street.” It was over tea that Dickie began to learn more about Kilbourne.
In all, Dickie has spent months working on the project in Clinton, Louisiana. This struck me as a clear demonstration of commitment to his work.
He chooses to stay with Kilbourne when he photographs in the area, 45 miles north of Baton Rouge and close to the Mississippi state line.
This, in part, is a result of funding he received while working on his thesis as a student at the University of Texas at Austin. Dickie is a 2017 graduate of the school. The funding was via his honors program and various undergraduate research fellowships.
“I wanted to do a vérité documentary about underground Southern rap,” Dickie said. “That provided the money for my initial trip through the South. After that, I decided to focus on Baton Rouge in particular. Then I got interested in this small town, Clinton, shot the film there, and after going back a few times I met Richard,” Dickie explained.
“The work I’m doing today is still rooted in that project, but it’s become much less about hip-hop and more about just life in southeast Louisiana.”
While working on the hip-hop project, Dickie saw Kilbourne walking his dog one morning.
“He was just like, ‘Hey, you know, do you want to see the inside of my house too?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ I went inside, and we had tea.”
“He's such sort of a brilliant encapsulation of what I love about photography and the possibilities that it gives us,” Dickie said.
The photographer was recording some footage of his house, impressed by the post-bellum structure from the 1890s, which inspired him.
“His house is amazing. It’s like you walk into a Flannery O'Connor or a William Faulkner short story. There’s Venetian glass and his sister’s paintings everywhere. He also has a cobweb in the corner that he’s been sculpting with a can of air. It’s turned into this eerie sculpture by the window. I love photographing in there because of that.”
His sister, Nancy, battled mental illness for much of her life. She died of an unrelated medical issue in 2012. She was a passionate painter, and Kilbourne has kept a lot of her work. Their relationship was close but complicated and part of the family history that he’s dealing with in his writing.
He welcomed Dickie to return and stay with him, which started the immersive experience. The experience helped teach him how to become closer to someone via photography, offering intimacy with someone randomly met on the street.
Dickie grew closer to him on a road trip of a different kind and suggested a trip to Canada from Louisiana. “We’re both free in this moment of our lives, at a time where we don’t have a lot of other commitments,” Dickie said. Kilbourne agreed. They camped along the way and took turns driving Kilbourne’s old Buick, which he inherited from his sister.