Are these two ants sharing an intimate moment?
This is just one of a long series of Azteca ant-plant ants I shot while they were coming and going from their nest. The ants were running every which way, sweeping their antennae about, and I just happened to push the shutter when two of them chanced to have passed each other in an anthropomorphic arrangement.
Yet this image, no more or less representative of the ants’ actual behavior than the dozens of other images in the series, generates far more attention that any of the others. This is the one people like. It taps into something in our primate brain that allows us to read human emotion into a random encounter of two insects.
Consider this hover fly by Mark Plonsky, or Igor Siwanowcz’s charming frog. We imagine the hoverfly launching into karaoke. We hear the frog saying, “hey.” These are powerful images. We’ve got emotional access to the subjects. Does it matter that the actual behaviors on display bear little resemblance to our anthropomorphic projections?
In some respects, emotive photography is the antithesis of the whole scientific endeavor. Imagine if we ran experiments the same way as we take photos, conducting hundreds of them until we found one we liked enough to publish. The scandal!
I was asked recently to write an article about the scientific applications of photography. I keep stalling on accepting the assignment, primarily because I’m still uncomfortable with the problem of anthropomorphism. If accurate photos are boring to our baggage-laden primate brains, but misleadingly humanized images gain emotional traction, what exactly can be the role of photography in science?
Much of what is billed as “science photography” is intellectually closer to marketing. A desired narrative can be composed through carefully choosing the moment of exposure and through framing away inconvenient details.
This isn’t to diminish the importance of strong images for scientists. If done properly, images communicate ideas more eloquently than words. Photographs can help a scientist convey the charisma or relevance of their study system. They help a study gain traction in the popular press. And they are perhaps the most important tool for environmental advocacy. But science photographs aren’t really science.
On the other hand, this tree clearly needs to urinate:
Top photo: Azteca alfari, Panama. Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 20D. ISO 100, f/13, 1/250 sec, twin flash diffused through tracing paper, image cropped in PS.
Middle photo: Epicauta pardalis, Arizona. Canon 100m f2.8 macro lens on a Canon EOS 20D, ISO 100, f/16, 1/250 sec, indirect strobe in a white box.
Bottom photo: Tree near Lake Tahoe, California. Nikon Coolpix 995.