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Documentary Arts

Lara Breitkreutz, ’20: Reconsidering the Oyster

Project Date:
Project Date: Summer 2019

I am exploring a changing human relationship to the ocean as resource in the midst of an anthropogenically altered coastal landscape and future. I focus on the oyster, an organism experiencing reconsideration in North Carolina's coastal communities for its potential ecological and economic significance.

About the Artist

My name is Lara Breitkreutz. I am fascinated by what we can learn from the natural world and how we can incorporate that knowledge in the process of reforming our systems and reframing our relationships – with ourselves, with one another, and with the natural world – for a sustainable future. I am developing a strong scientific foundation through pursuing a degree in Environmental Sciences towards understanding and applying the knowledge that nature offers.

Additionally, I feel inclined to challenge the dominating environmental narratives of the present and believe there is great opportunity in creatively communicating the challenges we face. I strive to practice effective communication, that illuminates varied and nuanced perspectives and develops a platform for strategizing solutions that adequately acknowledge these. My background in visual art informs my decision to pursue a Certificate in Documentary Studies and use it in exploring our relationship with the natural world.

About the Project

I am exploring a changing human relationship to the ocean as resource in the midst of an anthropogenically altered coastal landscape and future. I focus on the oyster, an organism which we are beginning to reconsider for its ecological and economic significance. I research the oysters current emergence in the North Carolina food economy through their cultivation, distribution and overall cultural significance alongside their uses in ecological restoration. I want to understand the current and future trends in this reconsideration of the oyster through the constraints and opportunities expressed by oyster farmers themselves, and explore how environmental solutions can best be incorporated into the living realities that already exist in coastal communities. Seeking to challenge the status quo using unconventional visual and audio approaches to bring a poetic perspective to this particular relationship of ours with the natural world, this project posits the oyster as an organism worthy of reconsideration in our state’s estuaries. An attempt at accurate research and honest communication, but just as importantly an attempt at an artful interpretation.

The final product

For me, the most difficult, yet rewarding, aspect of the documentary process is building relationships through establishing trust and a shared understanding of intent. The subjects are the vital crafters of the story that I seek to communicate, and the story should unfold on their terms. I began the investigation with no contacts and little prior engagement in the space – instead, I had a sincere curiosity for the oyster as this powerful organism and a superficial understanding of how it could be incorporated into sustainable solutions for coastal ecologies and economies. Oyster farming was novel and exciting, for me and for North Carolina, a place I now call home. Having spent one semester of undergraduate study at the Duke University Marine Lab, I began reaching out to faculty whom I thought could be engaged in this space and whom I felt could guide me towards the field, towards those holding more intimate knowledge of this organism. I finally established contact with oyster farmers, distributors, and individuals working in restoration. Oyster advocates.

Soon, I was invited onto the boat of an oyster farmer, Clammerhead, and spent the entire day wading knee deep in his intertidal oyster beds. I felt wind and water and alive. He handed me a fresh shucked oyster on the half shell, straight out of the water. I left humbled, with an overwhelming appreciation for those who know and work the landscape so intimately.

Upon returning from that first excursion I found myself unsatisfied with the footage. Too windy, too wet, and too shaky, my attention obviously divided between the conflicting tasks of absorbing information and trying to make effective cinematic choices with my camera. I felt unequipped for this new and challenging endeavor. Yet, my interest was unwavering and moving forward I hoped to apply my trained eye from visual art to learn the craft, through the many more excursions to come.

There is much to experience and learn, and I look forward to continuing to travel down to the coast and spend time with oyster farmers, scientists, and advocates. They are the experts. The insight these individuals share will direct the narrative.

I chose to use the Benenson Award to fund this project because I wanted full liberty to approach a reconsideration of the oyster creatively, with the intention of using experimental and unconventional techniques to communicate an environmental narrative. I want the final product to transcend categorization and challenge the audience regarding what documentary work is and how an artistic vision can be employed for effective science communication. To create an engaging piece of film that establishes common ground between the conventionally conflicting motives of art and science I would regard as a great success.