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RiverRun 2016: Decay, War, and the Power of Starting



by Cynthia Briggs

gustman & spiller

gustman & spiller

It was curiosity, plain and simple, that started the whole thing. “I love these buildings,” says photographer Ryan Gustman. “I wanted to know the story behind them.” So he began sneaking into abandoned factories and office buildings in downtown Winston-Salem to photograph them before they disappeared forever. “Natural decay is glorious,” Ryan says in a new documentary film about his work, “Winston’s Ghost” by filmmakers Daniel Spiller, Brian Binder, and Brian Mizerski.

At first, there was no plan, no safety measures, no goals. Ryan simply wanted to photograph what remained of these quietly dying relics of a previous era. “I was a dumbass when I started,” he states in the film. Now Ryan wears safety glasses and carries a mask to filter asbestos, but embraces other risks, such as being caught by security guards or police. As a person with autism, Ryan doesn’t feel he’s as cautious about limits and boundaries. His curiosity drives him beyond these risks.

What he calls “the hobby” has become an area sensation. His photographs have been displayed in several local galleries, and now this documentary about his work will be premiered at the 2016 RiverRun International Film Festival, held in Winston-Salem from April 7-17. “It’s weird. I feel like a celebrity,” Ryan says. “I never expected any of this.”

I asked him why he feels people are so drawn to his photographs. “I think because they’re real. People get used to Instagram, where everything is filtered and edited. My photographs are real.”

I suggested another alternative: that people long to feel they, like Ryan, might step out of bounds once in a while. Break the rules. Take a risk to find adventure. Perhaps when our lives become to orderly, neat, and tidy, we long for the reminder that we, too, might step away from our safe lives long enough to discover a world we never knew existed.




Tyler Hickman’s grandfather served as a tail gunner on a bomber during World War II. Tyler gestures with his hands, describing the claustrophobic conditions in which his grandfather fought: “In this little bubble beneath the plane, he could have been shot at from any angle at any time.” We both shudder a little imagining it. “I don’t know if I could have done it. But he felt he was just doing his job.”

Like Ryan, Tyler’s curiosity drove him to learn more, ask questions and excavate the past.“He always spoke of his service with such reverence,” Tyler says about his conversations with his late grandfather. “It was about having the back of the soldier next to you, of helping one another. On both sides, people were asked to do things they didn’t want to do. I wanted to bring that humanity to a film.”

During his sophomore year at UNCSA, Tyler directed a narrative short film based on a true story of a paratrooper who lands behind enemy lines and faces grave danger as he tries to find his way back to the Allies before being caught. Filmed over a weekend, Tyler found the limitations of filmmaking within a short span of time and with limited resources creatively inspiring. “The whole process had a guerrilla quality to it. Everyone involved cared so much about this film.” Passion and hard work paid off:“LZ Lost”, will premier at the RiverRun International Film Festival in April. This is Tyler’s first film festival entry.

As the granddaughter of a World War II veteran myself, I ask Tyler what he feels he learned from his grandfather: “No issue is black and white,” he says. Even in a war with a clear moral compass, as World War II seemed to have, infinite shades of gray complicated the choices made by soldiers. “Listening was essential,” Tyler continues. “They had to pay attention to what was happening around them, all the time. Then they brought back what they learned and applied it to their every days lives here at home. Above all else, he taught me to be a good human being. It’s the most important thing.”


For both Ryan Gustman and Tyler Hickman, seeds of curiosity pushed them out of their comfort zones and into deeply personal explorations of the past in present time. Both men have day jobs and responsibilities. Yet in spite of limitations and restrictions, their passion to understand and experience something beyond the mundane ultimately manifested into art.

Their bravery and daring can serve as a reminder to us all. What will we do with that spark of inspiration that keeps us up at night? Will we pay attention to nudges of curiosity that invite us into the unknown? What beauty awaits, what unexpected treasure, if we trust our intuitive nudges and just start.

You can see screening times and purchase tickets and passes to RiverRun 2016 HERE.


cyndi briggs

cyndi briggs

Cynthia Briggs is a teacher, speaker, documentarian, and writer of fiction and creative non-fiction. She’s the co-editor of Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing (HERE). Her memoir and essays have been published in numerous print and on-line journals. Visit her at her website HERE.

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