Freelance journalist and Pulitzer Center grantee Justin Cook spends his spare time hunting for fossils in the creeks and tributaries of the Tar River in eastern North Carolina, which hide a 3 million-year-old seafloor ripe with prehistoric whale bones. Here, Cook uncovered a very modern story about a community building climate resistance through Black autonomy.
His Center-supported project, 'Origins': Climate Change, Resistance, and Solutions in Princeville, North Carolina, America’s Oldest Black Town, centers activists and residents in Princeville, the oldest town in America founded by formerly enslaved people. Princeville exists in a flood zone on the banks of the Tar River. Flooding is no new phenomenon for residents (archival photos dug up by Cook show flooding as far back as 1919), but as climate change increases the might of storms, the devastation experienced by Princeville increases, too.
In 2016, floods in Princeville after Hurricane Matthew drew Marquetta Dickens back to her hometown. She rejects the term “natural disaster,” viewing biased political planning and systemic racism as the real culprits threatening Princeville. Her solution is Black self-sufficiency. Through her nonprofit, Freedom Org, which she runs with her cousin Kendrick Ransome, Dickens organizes cemetery cleanups, manages a land trust, and sustainably farms food for the community.
In his reporting, Cook insists upon the solutions-oriented nature of Princeville, a town often painted as a doomed example of climate displacement. He illustrates a community uniting for its own survival, drawing upon the Black agricultural methods of the residents' ancestors and advancing climate justice. The lessons are in the land, Cook’s reporting suggests. Colonialism and extraction drive both ecological ruin and racial injustice; Princeville set out to tackle both at once.
Origins is "slow" climate reporting, as Cook puts it. He spent extensive time in Princeville, meeting his sources, crafting careful portraits, and digging through archives. Pulitzer Center Editorial Intern Alexandra Byrne spoke with Cook about his fossil-hunting hobby, photographic process, and solutions-oriented local journalism.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alexandra Byrne: How did you get into journalism?
Justin Cook: My background is sort of the standard journalism school route. I graduated from UNC (University of North Carolina)-Chapel Hill, with a major in visual communications in 2006. I did the traditional track that people knew at the time—I worked in internships across the country. I was in Dallas at the Morning News, I worked at the St. Petersburg Times, which is now the Tampa Bay Times, The Flint Journal in Michigan, which was an incredible place to work, and then got a full-time job at The Roanoke Times in southwest Virginia. I worked at INDY Week here in Durham for a couple of years. Then I went freelance in 2011, and I have been freelancing ever since.
Through this whole process, my goal has been to tell stories about issues that are affecting regular people, that center them, and do it in a way that's very relational, where I spend a lot of time getting to know them and integrating my life with theirs. Because to me, the work I'm doing is only as good as the relationship that I have with people. That's something that was impressed upon me early in my career, and it's driven my sense of ethics ever since.
AB: Have you always been interested in science and climate?
JC: I've always been interested in the natural sciences. When I was a kid, I was always artistic from the jump. My earliest memories are watching shark documentaries that my mom recorded for me in the 80s, trying to figure out how to draw great white sharks. For most of my childhood, I wanted to be a marine biologist, which I think a lot of children want to do. At the core of it was always having this sense of childlike wonder about things. When I was at UNC, I wasn't sure if I wanted to do graphic design or photography. I was really interested in journalism because I was the editor of my high school newspaper. For whatever reason, I just didn't think that a marine sciences background would be practical.
I ended up going with journalism because I felt like a career where I could live a wide life, as opposed to living a vertical life, where I'm climbing through the ranks of some ladder. Instead, living this wide life, where I'm able to bump elbows with, love, and be in community with all sorts of different people, and get to know them in an intimate way.
It wasn't until probably 2016 or 2017 that I really got interested in environmental storytelling. I had worked on a project in Durham for over a decade about the effects of incarceration and gun violence. I'd finished that in 2015, and I was just devastated by it and wasn't sure what to do next. So much of my identity was connected to that work in a really unhealthy way. But I met some really incredible people through it, who I continued to be in (a) relationship with. Navigating trauma and understanding what happened to these moms—a lot of their children had been shot and killed in Durham—built up a different sense of how I wanted to do reporting. I wanted to do it way more intimately and spend more time on stuff.
I had a close relationship with my maternal grandfather. His name is William Albert Best Jr., and he was from Stumpy Point, a little fisherman's village on the mainland across from the Outer Banks. He and I were really, really close. He's the reason why I got into journalism. My grandfather was a gentle human. He's everything I aspire to—he was emotionally intelligent and tender. He had a garden of sunflowers every year and grew his own food. But there was always something underneath it that I didn't really understand.
When I was in high school, I had to do a report where I had to interview a World War II veteran. My grandfather fought in the army; he was in Europe. He and I got really close through spending time with him and getting to understand his experience in Europe. He was in the Battle of the Bulge. He was in the Hürtgen Forest. He was in the first unit across the Rhine River. And he was there through the occupation. It really devastated him. What I realized is that so much of his life was centered around living this gentler way as a way to recover from PTSD. I was drawn to him.
I spent the summer on the other side of Greensboro from him. I worked at a Winn-Dixie down the street from his house and I ate dinner with him. Every night I worked, he would cook dinner, and he would spend the day writing me letters about his experiences. I would open my mailbox and there would be a letter from him. That's how I fell in love with storytelling.
When I was a freshman at East Carolina before I transferred to UNC, he wrote me a letter that he wanted me to open on my first day. He went to ECU and became a teacher. He told me that in the eastern part of the state, at the intersection between the high-tiders and the low-landers, you'll meet some of the nicest people you've ever met. There was this line in there, he said, ‘Get to know a few.’ In 2016, I was thinking about that. I wanted to spend some time sort of in his native part of the state. That's how I got connected with the Outer Banks.
AB: How did you identify your Pulitzer Center-supported project, Origins, in Princeville?
JC: I was assigned to photograph a story about Princeville for NC State Magazine. They were covering the professors and students who were working with the town to help it become more flood-resilient and resistant. My job was to photograph some of these people, but also photograph locals who were working to make the town what they envisioned it to be, what they dreamed it could be. Through that, I met Kendrick and Marquetta, who co-founded Freedom Org. Kendrick runs Golden Organic Farm. We just really hit it off.
My whole introduction to Princeville was this is a place that people love and are really passionate about. They're all working to preserve it and make sure that there's a Princeville 100 years from now, against all these different odds, like flooding, and white supremacy that's terrorized the town forever. I fell in love with the place, and I knew that there was something else there. I also realized that there were just a lot of similarities between what people cared about in Princeville versus what they cared about in the Outer Banks. Climate change was threatening these things.
AB: Your projects tend to be ambitious with a lot of moving parts. What kind of research and development work do you do before going into the field?
JC: I'm a voracious reader. I joke that I build a graduate-level research class for myself so that I can understand not just the place, but also how the place came to be. I was one class away from being a U.S. history minor in college, so for me, this sort of history-informed journalism approach is really important and something I’ve always been interested in. I don't think it was until The 1619 Project came out that I understood that it's such an important way to do storytelling.
When I started on the Outer Banks story, and when I started on the Princeville story, I spent so much time trying to understand the town from different perspectives. The science is important, the history is important, but I'm interested in how professors and scholars and people in the humanities are talking about and writing about Princeville as well.
I also spend a lot of time on the ground, not making pictures and not reporting. Marquetta and I really hit it off and I was just like, hey, I think there's a bigger story here. I remember bringing her a copy of Tide and Time and copies of the zines I put out. She really liked the work I did. The picture that I made of her and Kendrick in the river kind of had legs—I would hear about it from people around Edgecombe County; they had seen it.
Marquetta invited me to hang out with them during cemetery cleanups as a way to meet people. I would show up and hang out and work in the cemetery. I felt like I was back in the Outer Banks. Because here I am in another cemetery, again, with people trying to preserve it. It was a way to meet people, but it's also a way just to strengthen connections with people like Marquetta and Kendrick—they got to know me and we got to trust each other. The whole story unfolded in this really serendipitous, almost inevitable, way. The right people fell in the right place at the right time. It almost felt cosmic. Something I'm still processing to this day.
Key to my creative process is working with an editor who really knows my heart and compliments my process. Someone with whom I can be in community. Lisa Sorg was my editor at the INDY Week and she taught me how to write by turning me loose. Today she’s an incredible, renegade environmental reporter at NC Newsline. She lives down the street from me, so she is literally my neighbor. She edited the book version of Tide and Time, and when it came time to apply for a grant for Origins, I asked her if she’d edit the book version when it came time. I sent her a sample of the story, and she immediately asked if she could work with me on it and publish it in NC Newsline. And that process has been one of the greatest collaborations of my life. Lisa not only makes my work better, she makes me better as a person. It's a reminder that we have all we need right where we are, and local journalism matters now more than ever.
AB: There is a huge visual component to this piece, combining scientific photography, portraits, and archival images. How did you envision the visual elements of this story? What is your photographic process?
JC: I think about this a lot. What I've learned over the years is there are so many different ways to illustrate a story visually. Classically, I was trained to do fly-on-the-wall documentary approach journalism, where I would invest a huge amount of time and wait to photograph moments, in nice light, and in a candid way. But the older I've gotten, I want to do that so much, but I also want to craft really careful, iconic portraits of people. It's an intimate exercise where you can build rapport with someone and they can feel comfortable with how you're representing them, especially as an outsider—as a white person working in a Black town. That was something I was trying to focus on when I was working on these stories.
The stories are about the land as much as they're about people. I love the land of eastern North Carolina, it's so rich with history and mysteries, and things that I'll never understand. I wanted to find a way to capture that. Instead of trying to photograph things and nouns, I try to photograph adjectives and feelings. I focus a lot on time of day, light, and color. Over the process of working on the story, a color palette developed throughout all the images based on the time of day I was making pictures and how things felt.
I think a lot in colors. I’m neurodivergent, I have ADHD. When I'm out in the land, I'm thinking, what does this feel like color-wise? What's the tone that I'm trying to convey? The Tar River, for example, looks different during different times of day. I was always struck by the way, if you fly a drone over the river near sunset, the river reflects the purple of the sky, the green in the trees, and all the old cypress trees that are this brown color. That's that color palette unfolding. You can make pictures of moments, you can make portraits and all that stuff, but the color sort of drives the overall tone for the story. It just develops organically.
The whale story is a good example, too. It's a natural history story and a climate story. But it's also a love story. That's how I went into it: How do I write a love story about a sense of possibility, in terms of climate, imagination, or childlike wonder about the world? I think about all the times my brother and I would go out fossil hunting; that's what led to that story. It's about this love that I have for my brother and my love for being outdoors and ultimately, not knowing. The world is still full of mystery and a sense of wonder. When we're reporting about the climate crisis, it's easy for that to get completely crushed by anxiety.
In some ways, that story was a way for me to chase a sense of childlike wonder, which, in the age of the climate crisis, is how I deal with climate anxiety. It's another way of reconnecting to this bigger mystery of life and how all these things are interconnected.
Beyond photography, I'm really affected by music and sound. When I was working on that story, I was listening to an album by Kacey Musgraves called Golden Hour on repeat, because that album is essentially a love story about a sense of wonder, possibility, and ultimately, not knowing anything. Sonically, there is this cosmic feeling to the album. Some of my fondest memories working on that story are being down there in early fall with my brother, when the air has cooled off, and the water is so warm, and the sunlight is shining through the water and rippling off the old seafloor that we've exposed. There's a 3 million-year-old seafloor under this creek, and the sunlight that's traveled millions of miles is rippling across it. And to me, an album like that sonically feels like that light, it feels like that sense of wonder. There's a sense of possibility and melancholy in it, too. That was the tone I wanted to take in the story. So I draw not just from science, but also feeling—figuring out ways to translate science into poetry.
AB: Your story is very solutions-oriented. Why did you report it in that way? What do you hope people take away?
JC: During the process of this work, I was in the inaugural Solutions Journalism Network Climate Solutions cohort. I had been bitten by the "solutions journalism" bug already and was trying to find ways to weave that into the Outer Banks story. When I worked in Princeville, I didn't want to be this fly-by-night white reporter who flew in and told a story about what was going on there, without also offering solutions and possibilities.
During this fellowship, they trained us to focus on solutions. The network came along at the right time for me and affirmed what I was already thinking about and doing. How do you make a braid of stories that are based in history-informed journalism, science, and a deep connection to land, and offer a way forward? The more I spent time with Marquetta and Kendrick, that's the type of storytelling they wanted to be a part of, that's the spirit of what they're doing. There was some really natural alignment there.
I had read a lot of stories about Princeville, and it was the same thing over and over again. There'd be a reporter from a staff paper who was crunched for time, and only had the space to tell the same story about Princeville being founded by formerly enslaved people and all the struggles it’s dealt with. But that's such a small part of the experience there.
I mentioned in my introduction to Princeville that this is a solutions place. I remember reading a story by this reporter who lives in Brooklyn, and he flew down and painted Princeville as a doomed place. It was really annoying. I'm an outsider, I don't live in Princeville. I'm a white guy. But even I know there’s way more going on here. I felt like there was an opportunity to tell a really different story.
AB: After the story is published, how do you continue engaging with your sources and the community?
JC: My connection with the people I report with is a relationship that should have life beyond the reporting process. I take that stuff very seriously. It goes back to this idea of living a wide life. My feeling is that if folks are going to be so open with me about their lives, I should reciprocate. I'm a human first and a journalist second, and that's how I should operate. The people I worked with in Princeville, including Marquetta and Kendrick—we have a connection now that we both should nurture for however long we can. In the outreach phase of this work, how do I have them front and center? How does it benefit them?
When people talk about the climate crisis, so much of the solution to it is us returning to a more reciprocal way of being with the natural world and with each other. If that's what I'm writing about as a solution, my work should also reflect that. I believe that very deeply. I would share photos with people like Marquetta and Kendrick, they kind of knew what I was doing all along. I think it made the reporting process easier. Part of the work, in principle, is preservation. If I'm there as a photographer, I can use my skills as a way to preserve a historical record. The people I worked with, I just want to be in community with them. Being in community is also the first step in building climate resilience.
AB: How do you, as a local reporter, think it’s important to tell this story about North Carolina to the rest of the country?
JC: My job as a Southern reporter and storyteller, considering the way people outside of the South perceive us, is to show new and advanced understandings. I don't blame these organizations for sending reporters or photographers from out of town to do the stories, because they're trying to do what I'm doing—put these stories on the national stage. I just think people who are close to the community might be able to operate with greater care and understanding of the nuance.
I operate from a position of extreme privilege, because I'm a freelance journalist, and I make my own hours and I decide how much I want to work on something. A reporter in Brooklyn may not have that time—they have deadlines, maybe they're working on a book, or whatever. But I've been fortunate enough to create a life where I'm able to invest almost obsessive amounts of time into it.
My thoughts about climate reporting are that if we really want to do this, we need to slow down and report on climate slowly. Part of the same culture of colonialism and extraction that created the climate crisis has also created this crisis in journalism. The concept that everything is urgent, we need everything yesterday, we only have a week to work on things. Well, why do you only have a week? We don't have the resources we need.
This is why we have the Pulitzer Center. The Pulitzer Center is not only telling stories about climate, but they're acting against some of the worst inclinations of the industry that are bound up in the same systems and cultures that have created the climate crisis, to begin with. The Pulitzer Center has helped me have the luxury of doing this long-term storytelling.
AB: What’s next for you?
JC: Currently, I'm working on having a better work-life balance. I'm taking a little bit of a break right now, just to gather myself. I feel like I could tell climate solution stories about the eastern part of our state for the rest of my life. And I really want to. But I want to find ways to make that more sustainable. There are some bigger projects I want to look into. There are also some smaller, more bite-sized projects I will look into, because not everyone has time to read a 6,000-word story. I’m trying to figure out how to serve multiple audiences.
I'm working on a book version of Origins that is basically laid out, I just have to make some new pictures for it. That should come out in the spring.
Otherwise, I'm trying to stay out of the heat. It's really hot right now. I hear the climate is changing. And I've been taking naps, which are pretty great. I finally got to go fossil hunting again for the first time since June because it's been too hot. That was so much fun. I went back to my favorite spot and found some cool stuff. I'm just trying to spend a lot of time reconnecting to nature and recharging.