This photo essay was written originally as part of a Visual Literacy class at the university in coordination with professor Kimberley R. Williams. The curriculum for this course is developed to teach students about the aesthetics and production of visual images and build an appreciation of the significance of images in communication and advertising. Each semester, the class partners with a nonprofit organization; in its most recent semester, Visual Literacy students paired with Izilwane—Voices for Biodiversity.
The relationship overlooked most in today's modern culture is that between humans and the basic, natural environment. We live such regimented lives that require a number of mechanized processes to maintain order. We work in cities, live in apartments and homes that rely on electricity and gas to keep them comfortable, travel in cars and trains that consume fossil-fuel-based resources that are often shipped from thousands of miles away. Like our fuel, much of our food is produced by factories and shipped to our grocery stores from a great distance. All of these aspects of society have contributed to what is regarded by some as a raised standard of living. We live a life of comfort. More importantly, though, we live a life of isolation. We create buildings to block out the elements. We heat and air condition those concrete cubicles to maintain a sort of stasis, and we light our dwellings to block out the night. We build fences not only to provide safety from other people but also to create a personal bubble in which we are our own masters. Each of these developments of affluent societies effectively separates us from the uncertainty of the natural world. Yet in both subtle and obvious ways, this bothers us as human animals.
We all seek to reconcile this separation in various ways. We have the power to shut out the natural world completely and live within artificial worlds we build for ourselves. Yet we still venture out into the forests, we hike the mountains, swim in lakes and oceans. We consider these activities a form of escape. We also bring back influences of nature into our domain. We plant trees in our yards, grow flowers in our gardens, and we value time spent outdoors.
In this collection of photos, I seek to highlight these contradictions. The first half of the series includes photos with empty scenes in natural environments followed by the same scene with people involved. This serves to highlight how we interact with the surroundings of a place in which we enter as explorers, guests, or otherwise. The second half of the essay focuses on our efforts to bring the outside world back into our lives, with "domesticated" scenes closer to our dwellings preceded by a scene in the forest with a similar feel.
Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., provides a stretch of forest that is surprisingly unaltered by man considering its proximity to a major urban center. Families and their kids picnic, hike, and explore the forested hills and streams on a summer afternoons. The featured photos with the father and his daughters highlight the beauty of learning and exploring the outdoors; the girls are soaking in the world around them, and the adventure that led them to that spot beside the river is likely a memory that will stay with them well into adulthood. Their natural curiosity that led them to climb up on the log over the water shows their desire to learn about the natural world around them.
Sometimes there is no better place to carry out a discussion than on a park bench. Much as the log serves as a catalyst for the girls to initiate a balancing act over the water, the bench in the American University garden provides a spot in which people gather and take in their surroundings. Any meeting like the one between these friends could take place in the office building just steps away, but the deliberate nature of this particular spot shows a significant desire to enjoy the outdoors whenever possible.
The flower-lined path to the emergency entrance to McDowell Hall is not just an example of an alternative driveway; it attempts to curb the influence of human activity. The small strip of brush and trees provides a fluid connection between the areas of brush for subterranean organisms, an insect highway.
The final photos of the forest thicket and the newly-planted trees draw a connection to our fascination with wild settings and open spaces. It's interesting to see a previously open, grassy field become home to so many trees, especially in a heavily developed area in our nation's capital. Logically, it doesn't make sense at first glance. This panoramic view of the field below Katzen Center on the campus of American University demonstrates the act of bringing back a section of forest.
Ryan Saunders is a student at American University.
All photos are copyright protected and may not be used without permission. All images are courtesy of Ryan Saunders.