Carrie Laben Wins the 2017 CDS Documentary Essay Prize for Writing

Pigeons, queens, 2017.

The CDS Documentary Essay Prize honors the best in documentary photography and writing in alternating years: one year, photos; one year, writing. The focus is on current or recently completed work from a long-term project. The 2017 prize competition was awarded in writing. The winning essay, “The Wrong Place,” was submitted by Carrie Laben, a freelance writer based in Astoria, New York. In her essay, Laben uses her knowledge of birds and personal experiences as a birdwatcher to “illustrate a land-use ethic for the way we live now.”

“An ever-increasing percentage of humans on the planet are city-dwellers, and this trend is likely to continue,” she writes in her project statement. “How do humans maintain a vital connection to natural cycles in such an environment? How can built and natural environments combine to provide crucial habitats for other species? What does nature mean as we move away from a development/wilderness dichotomy toward a more unified vision of human-impacted ecosystems?” Laben investigates these questions over the course of a year in New York City, starting January 1, 2015.

New York City. January first. A line has been crossed that is partly arbitrary and partly attributable to the hard, mechanical facts of the solar system. It is a new year, and now all things start over. Time to go outside, preferably at dawn, or as near as one can manage after New Year’s Eve. Time to find the first bird for the brand-new year’s list.

For me, that bird is almost always a rock pigeon, a European starling, or a house sparrow—species so common that they are rarely called by their full names. If every New Yorker kept a year list, one of these would be the first bird on nearly all of them. You might luck into a crow or a mourning dove instead, or a ring-billed gull; native species, at least, if not terribly romantic.

She goes on to write about the stories of the pigeons, sparrows, and starlings she observes, so common in the city, in connection to human beings, as well as mute swans in Prospect Park, monk parakeets in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, and New York State’s first sighting of a Couch’s kingbird, in Greenwich Village.

Each of these birds speaks to the life of the city. It’s not that native and introduced, natural and unnatural have no meaning here. It’s not that judgments cannot be made, or choices made based on those judgments. But simple assumptions, decisions weighed down with half-unconscious beliefs about the way things once were or someday ought to be, those go wrong quickly here.

The city is not just a loss of whatever it was once built on top of, although it is that, sometimes painfully so. It’s a new habitat, built from the pieces preserved and the new and different layers applied imperfectly over the top. Each city is as different as each forest, each desert, each seashore; each city is a habitat in its own right. And the humans within that city are as important an environmental force as the wind, the rainfall, the altitude, or the soil.


Carrie Laben is a freelance writer and avid birdwatcher based in Astoria, New York. She is a contributor to the 10,000 Birds blog and Birding magazine, and her nonfiction essays have appeared in such publications as the Indiana Review, About Place Journal, and the Montana Naturalist. Laben is also the author of numerous short fiction pieces. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana and a bachelor’s degree in natural resources from Cornell University.

Laben receives $3,000, and her work will be placed in the Archive of Documentary Arts at the Rubenstein Library, Duke University. “The Wrong Place” will be featured on the Center for Documentary Studies websites this fall.

Honorable Mentions

Richard Gilbert of Westerville, Ohio, was awarded honorable mention for his compelling profile of sustainable farmer Joel Salatin, whom he first met in 1992 at the beginning of his own farming career, in “Joel’s Mountain.” Gilbert is an editor at Swallow Press and an instructor of English and journalism at Otterbein University and Virginia Tech. He received his MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College, an MA in journalism from Ohio State University, and a BS in journalism from the University of Florida.

Renata Golden of Santa Fe, New Mexico, was also awarded honorable mention for her essay, “Bought and Sold,” which skillfully combines personal and historical narratives about “land fraud and broken promises” in the Southwest. Golden is a freelance writer and editor focused on creative writing; she also oversees a team of technical writers and editors as president of Golden Ink, Inc. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston and a BA in journalism from Arizona State University.