“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
When you’re a kid, you can answer this question differently each day. As you get older, the question becomes more and more difficult, especially when you find yourself at a small, liberal arts university with a multitude of fascinating disciplines and a finite number of semesters.
Rachel Laughlin ’14 was going to be a photojournalist when she grew up. She bought an expensive camera and took classes to learn the principles of photography. The uncertain nature of a photojournalism career, however, discouraged Laughlin from pursuing her passion of taking photos.
That’s when Laughlin, a starter on the Denison varsity softball squad who hails from Winter Park, Fla., discovered a love for biology and decided to pursue a career as an emergency room physician’s assistant.
But the urge to take photographs never quite went away. After taking a Diversity of Microorganisms course taught by Christine Weingart, associate professor of biology, Laughlin became fascinated by the “nice textures and colors” featured in the cultures of bacteria she studied under the microscope. Laughlin decided these same images were the perfect subjects for an assignment in a different class—Advanced Photography, taught by Sheilah Wilson, assistant professor of photography and new media.
Wilson encouraged her students to break the routine of darkroom procedure and create something technically flawed, but artistically beautiful; she wanted her class to appreciate the artistic value of the unexpected. The project emulated the course’s theme of the photo as an imperfect index—the idea that a photograph is a means of tracing a past event.
Laughlin appreciates Wilson’s unconventional encouragement “to do things technically the wrong way,” as a means to get an authentic photographic experience.
As such, Laughlin took a non-traditional approach to the project. She shot the photos through the lens of a microscope, used digital editing, and manipulated their development in the darkroom. Wilson described Laughlin’s technique as a “mirrored experiment” because of the experimental nature of the bacteria cultures, combined with freedom in the darkroom.
Weingart is thrilled to see Laughlin’s creative side and plans to share the photos with the Denison biological community. “Rachel’s project has opened my eyes to what we could do,” she explained.
Wilson finds a lot of similarities between science and art. “Art-making is a commitment to process. Science is a process too.”
Reflecting on her experience, Laughlin urges other students to participate in interdisciplinary activities because she believes “that’s where you end up getting your more unique, interesting products.”
Wilson echoed Laughlin’s attitudes, and will encourage future students to engage in cross-disciplinary projects. “You have to speak to the things that interest you. I love it when students can tap into something they are passionate about in their work.”