Rust and Dreams

By  |  December 6, 2018
Road leading to open land, Johnston County, North Carolina, 2017. Photograph by Karen Healy from her project A Palette of Rust and Dreams Road leading to open land, Johnston County, North Carolina, 2017. Photograph by Karen Healy from her project A Palette of Rust and Dreams

A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University 

North Carolina artist Karen Healy has been taking classes through the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) continuing education program for a number of years, and received the program’s Certificate in Documentary Arts in 2017. Her final certificate project was about North Carolina’s trains—the people she met and the towns she encountered while riding the rails. A Palette of Rust and Dreams is currently traveling as a multimedia exhibition, with still photographs and audio recordings. Selected photographs from the series are on permanent exhibition at Raleigh Union Station, Raleigh, North Carolina. The project is ongoing—she plans to expand the work throughout the South, starting with a trip next month to New Orleans, then up through Mississippi to Memphis. A selection of Karen’s images is included as part of her essay below.

—Elizabeth Phillips, CDS Communications Director

Every year, hundreds of participants from the U.S. and abroad take classes through the Center for Documentary Studies continuing education program, CDS Courses. A wide variety of both onsite and online classes are offered throughout the year, including one-day and weekend workshops, longer courses, and summer intensives. Registration is now open for spring and summer 2019 classes in photography, audio, writing, video, and more.

The lonesome sound of a train whistle evokes such a longing kind of feeling deep inside. Time is speeding along, it says to me, taking me to the outskirts of my own world, causing me to dream of what has been, what lies ahead, what lies beyond.

I began riding the trains in North Carolina in 2015, hoping to create a visual narrative that would tell this story. I made photographs, and later, audio recordings, to document the people and the communities touched by North Carolina’s railroad. I wanted to capture the complexities of the travelers and the landscape itself: the identities of both seemed to be in flux. 

In the mid-1800’s, the railroad opened up the interior region of North Carolina, and with it, jobs, goods, and services moved across the state—new towns sprung up along the tracks. These towns continue to undergo change—and now the pendulum is swinging back again, with investment in the rail system’s infrastructure and new trains passing through. I see this transition through the train window, as the towns nurture the seeds of revitalization and begin to redefine themselves. 

Many of the people I met while traveling on the train spoke of change themselves, of carrying with them both their past and their dreams as they moved forward, full of promise, hoping to reimagine their lives.

02 train approachingPiedmont Train 75, approaching station, Durham, North Carolina, 2015

03 conductor through windowAmtrak conductor assisting passengers taking Carolinian Train 79, Durham, North Carolina, 2016

04 passengers boardingPassengers waiting to board Carolinian Train 79, Durham, North Carolina, 2016

05 coupleCouple traveling on Piedmont Train 74, departing Charlotte heading north, Hillsborough, North Carolina, 2016

06 girl in the windowGirl looking out window from southbound Palmetto train, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, 2016

As I began to ride the trains regularly, I noticed the regulars. Or rather they noticed me. For nearly ten years, Joe has been riding the train weekly with a group of friends. They travel from Durham to Burlington, North Carolina, and have lunch at a well-loved hot dog joint. One day they invited me along, opening up their world to me—telling train stories from recent trips and all the way back to their youth. Joe: “When I was real, real young—I’m going to say four or five years old—my father used to take me down to the old Union Station every afternoon, and I was fortunate enough the engineer would let me ride in the cab. I remember it being hot in there because it was a steam engine, but I won’t never forget the engineer’s name was Mr. Knight, I do remember that, and if he was working I could ride. He’d shoot me up there in the cab and away we went. He’d tell me, sit on right over there in the fireman’s seat, and that’s where I sat. I vividly remember those days, and I guess that’s where the love of trains came in.”

Winding through these towns, behind buildings and homes, across fields—I am struck by the train’s intimate perspective. The very idea that I was looking into people's backyards felt voyeuristic; I could not avert my eyes. The fields seemed close enough to touch as we plowed through. I could almost feel the wind, the tall stalks of grass. From the confined space in which I sat, the expansiveness out the window felt endless, a portal through which to look, to dream. This connection—between the people and the lands crossed—seems symbiotic. The train and people aboard are projected onto the landscape and the landscape projects itself back. There is a rawness, a stripped down understanding. I am drawn to the immediacy of it all.

07 cafe windowCafe car window on Piedmont Train 75, Charlotte, North Carolina, 2016 

08 wilson upholsteryWilson Upholstery building from Carolinian Train 80, Wilson, North Carolina, 2016

09 neighborhoodHomes from Carolinian Train 80, Enfield, North Carolina, 2018

10 man cafe with cigaretteMan riding in cafe car on Carolinian Train 79, Salisbury, North Carolina, 2016

11 passing couple on porchCouple on front porch watching Piedmont Train 74 pass, Burlington, North Carolina, 2016

12 single houseHome from Piedmont Train 74, Mebane, North Carolina, 2016

13 girl in window imprintGirl looking out window on Piedmont Train 75, Burlington, North Carolina, 2016

There is vulnerability in this space as well, strangers crowded together. I found myself talking to people. Almost everyone spoke of home—whether they were moving towards it, or away. Trying to recapture something lost or attempting to put space between them and a place they hoped to leave behind. So much of what people talked about centered around belonging and connection.

In 2016 I met Joan at Selma passenger station. She recalled the games she would play growing up with her brothers, counting the freight cars, and the time a train passed by as she picked blueberries along the track—the wind of the train passing knocking her down the hill. She then grew quiet before speaking about the sound of the trains passing by, “Our home was near, maybe about half a mile from the railroad, and we would see and hear the trains passing and I think pretty soon you get accustomed to it so it doesn’t bother you.” Smiling, she added that she still hears the trains now, from her condominium in Clayton, North Carolina, many miles and years away from her childhood home.


I’m sitting in my seat—it’s dusk and the train has become quiet, except for the whistle as we pass through towns and cross intersections. It’s difficult lighting to make a photograph, with the darkening sky and the glare on the window, although I’ll still try. I let the day sink in. The gratitude I feel towards the people who have allowed me to photograph them, who trusted me with their stories, overwhelms me. I wonder if they got to where they were going, if they found what they were searching for, what other journeys they may have taken. 

I remember Nick—he was leaving home for a third time when I met him in 2016, departing Salisbury, North Carolina, heading to Florida. Earlier, while waiting for the train to arrive, his mother had told me she was hopeful for him. As the train pulled away, I could see her crying on the platform. “I want to go out and see the world, you know, I’m at that age, I’m searching for something in life and I’m going to keep looking until I find it, whatever it may be,” Nick said. “And I just want to find somewhere that I know I can be me.” As Nick then settled into his seat, I looked out the window again—the station, and his mother, were no longer in sight.

14 conductor o salleyAmtrak conductor on platform for boarding Piedmont Train 73, Greensboro, North Carolina, 2017

15 man waitingPassenger waiting on station platform, Wilson, North Carolina, 2017

16 man readingCommuter reading in cafe car on Carolinian Train 80, Raleigh, North Carolina, 2017

17 woman concessionsAmtrak employee working at concessions counter on Carolinian Train 80, en route to New York City, Raleigh, North Carolina, 2016

18 selma stationApproaching Selma Station on Carolinian Train 79, Selma, North Carolina, 2016

19 man leaving homeMan looking out cafe car window on Carolinian Train 80, Wilson, North Carolina, 2016

01 and 20 road to open landRoad leading to open land, Johnston County, North Carolina, 2017 

Enjoy this story? Read more at The By and By and subscribe to the Oxford American 

Karen Healy is a documentary photographer and artist based in North Carolina. She has a Certificate in Documentary Arts from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and a B.A. in communication studies from the University of Massachusetts. Through portraiture and environmental landscapes, her work explores quiet moments that illuminate the larger story.