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Artist Teaches Photography to UMUC Students Online

One of Ding Ren's greatest sources of pride as a photography professor is when her students tell her they're now looking at the world differently. "One told me, 'I was having a conversation with my friend, and all I could see was how the light was hitting her face.' And I was like, yes! That's what I want!"

Where many might be initially skeptical about the prospect of teaching photography to students online, Ren, a UMUC adjunct assistant professor of photography based in Amsterdam, sees some distinct advantages to the medium, such as being able to teach students all over the world.

"It really gives [students] a lot more independence. They do it on their own time," she added.

Online teaching also allows her to spend more time composing thoughtful responses to her students' work than on-the-spot critiques would and to link to items she mentions in her comments.

"In a classroom setting, you can reference it, but you're not showing it. You can really be more specific online," she said.

A professional artist, Ren was born in Wuhan, China, "a city about the size of Chicago" that is "one of China's furnaces" and gets very hot in the summer. She has lived all over the world.

When she was three-and-a-half years old, her family moved to Iowa City, where her father studied for his PhD. Her family then moved to the Washington, D.C., area, and Ren grew up mostly in the Maryland suburbs.

After graduating from University of Maryland, Baltimore County; working for Washington Project for the Arts; and then earning her graduate degree from The George Washington University, she moved with her husband to Amsterdam in fall 2010 and then to Singapore in 2013, when her husband earned a fellowship at Nanyang Technological University.

Afterward, the two traveled through Southeast Asia and returned to the United States for a few months before moving to Cork, Ireland, and then back to Amsterdam. Throughout, Ren has rarely worked within the walls of a studio. Instead, she has used the very cities she has lived in as her workspace.

"I was usually out just living my life and finding inspiration from my everyday experiences," she said. "It seemed pretty natural to draw from the different places that I was living in and traveling through."

Photography has been a very natural thing for Ren, too. She used her father's old Nikon FE2 camera when she took her first photography class in the eighth grade. "It's in my blood. It's been part of my life since then," she said.

One learning curve for Ren's students is that a camera outshines a smartphone in the photographic-instrument category. Students often ask if they can use their iPhone for the class, noting that they can take higher-quality images with their phones than with a point-and-shoot camera.

"In principle," Ren said, "a smartphone probably does take a higher-quality image. But it doesn't allow you to make any adjustments. It just automates everything. For the photography class, I want [students] to at least be learning some concepts of what the aperture does, what the shutter does, even though you don't necessarily need to know those things these days."

Still, Ren teaches that there's more to snapping pictures than technique. "A good photograph comes from you, not the camera. Too often people blame the equipment," she said.

Many of Ren's students respond to her assignments—such as constructing conceptual narratives, using shutter speed to capture frozen or blurred motion, or taking a photo every five minutes for an hour—by photographing their children. Ren reminds students that such photos can be much more innovative than the familiar posed groupings produced by family photo studios everywhere.

She advises her students, "Try to capture some in-between moments, maybe when your kid is least expecting it, not when they're posing on the couch."

And the assignment that calls for students to snap 12 photos in equal intervals for an hour is also aimed at teaching students to think differently about the photographic act.

Said Ren, "It's basically designed to show them that when they're not overthinking taking photos, as they tend to do, they actually take really good photos."

Teaching photography to UMUC students, who live and work worldwide, generates a rich tapestry of images, Ren added.

"We as a class get to enjoy seeing photographs of other people's lives across the globe. It keeps things diverse and interesting."