If you asked anyone I have spoken to in the last week about this column, you would understand how difficult it was for me to choose a topic. I have thrown around so many ideas—both internally and aloud—that I could not choose one to focus on. In the end, I concluded that after working as a photographer for The Chronicle for the last four years, it wouldn’t be right for my first and only column to be about anything other than photography.
Recently, I tried to imagine how I would depict my experiences here at Duke in a single image. I think it would be a Where’s Waldo-style bird’s-eye view of my last four years. It would capture all the people I have met and key moments of my life. The image would be chaotic, and most details would only be revealed when zoomed in.
The subjects of this photo would be the people of this University. While every person I met would find a place in the photo, a select few would stand prominently in the foreground. They are the ones who best describe my life at Duke. They are the friends that have been with me since Orientation Week and others whom I have met over the years. They include the mentors who have changed my perspective on life and my future. They are the main characters of my story at Duke.
Upon closer inspection, the image would also capture the individuals who have affected me in the worst way—weaved in with the people I love the most.
This photo would be a patchwork of lighting—some parts overexposed, some perfectly lit and some lying in shadows. The emotions caught fluctuate from loneliness, insecurity and anger to excitement, confidence and seemingly-endless bliss. The lighting of each patch would appropriately match the mood. Just like the characters, these variations would be interspersed throughout the shot—not a perfect mix, yet blended enough that it would be impossible to crop out the ugly pieces without losing the beautiful ones.
As the photographer and photo editor, I would have complete control over the aspects of this picture I want highlighted and the parts I want to crop out or fade away.
I would have final say on the lighting and ambience of this photo. I could underexpose the photo and darken the shadows until they are inscrutable, but this comes at the expense of losing detail in the mid-tones and even the bright areas. On the other end of the spectrum, I could overexpose and capture every detail hidden within the shadows, but only at the risk of washing out other parts. Ultimately, I think I would choose to slightly underexpose and let the deepest shadows—the darkest memories—fade away. Although I would leave enough detail that I would still be able to learn from the shadows of my past, I much prefer to save the brightest moments.
As for the crop—I would only trim enough of the edges so that the most important experiences and people are not lost to the background, creating an accurate and tight shot.
As college fades into the background, I expect that life will take me through a number of different cities and living situations. And at each stop along the way, I imagine my snapshot of Duke would find a different place in my future homes. To be honest, I am really not sure where I would want to display it yet.
One thing is certain—I will never throw it away. It is a part of who I am.
A photograph is meant to capture a specific moment in time, permanently recording the setting, the action and most importantly, the emotions of the scene. A great photograph tells a story to viewers so they too can witness what the photographer experienced firsthand. Taking this snapshot, however, is not an easy endeavor. Once the instant is over, you are only left with what you caught on film—you cannot erase anything from the image, nor can you alter the scene. Despite these constraints, you are the photo editor of your life and you have complete control over the story the final image tells.
As the end of my time at Duke approaches, I have realized that this place and the experiences I have gained from it—both good and bad—will remain fond memories, and I would not want to portray it any other way. This is the image that I will frame and keep for the rest of my life.
Thanh-Ha Nguyen is a Trinity senior and former online photo editor of The Chronicle. She would like to thank all the people that have made her snapshot of Duke worth keeping forever and The Chronicle for sending her to so many events and places that she otherwise would never have gone to.