What Separates Us?
by Kevin He -- November 26th, 2012

The naming of courses at Duke often seems like a mysterious process. Sometimes it lines up distinctly with the topics within the course. And sometimes? Not so much. And other times, our own interpretations of those names get in the way of appreciation of the actual content. Currently, I’m enrolled in a class called “Documenting the Environment.” What images does this bring to mind? When I first signed up for the class, I had grand visions, long treks through forests and atop mountains to find the most beautiful landscape portraits. Or perhaps even the patient stalking of a different sort of nature photographer, seeking the most candid of animal photos. These ideas drew me in. As an aspiring nature photographer, all I really wanted to do in photography class was to learn how to improve upon photos like this one:

The course had a much different idea of itself in store for us when we entered. Instead of photos like those above, our weekly assignment was to do portraiture. Film portraits, to be more specific. And so, with our newfound black-and-white film cameras, bulky to carry and completely unintuitive in its methodology, we trekked out to do our best impression of “portrait taking.” Over time, however, a common thread of questioning became “when will we get to the ‘environment’ part of Documenting the Environment?”

But over time, we all took a liking to this focus. More importantly, however, was our realization that, in many ways, we were still documenting the environment, so long as our ideal of the “environment” encompassed everything within it as well. Just the same, portraiture is just as all-encompassing. A landscape is just as much a portrait of the land as a composition of shape and color.

What really distinguishes this picture (portrait?) from your prototypical “portrait”?

Nature photography or portraiture?

Just to conclude, this brings to mind a somewhat larger problem that I won’t mull on much here, but rather, leave for personal introspection: are we, as humans, not an integral part of the fabric of life? What separates us from what makes Earth, Earth? Or, on the other hand, prevents the rest of life from exhibiting the same traits and beauty that we ourselves treasure?

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