Photo Synthesis

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Are these two ants sharing an intimate moment?


No.

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?

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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:

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Photo details.
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.

Comments

  1. #1 Rana
    April 25, 2009

    I hadn’t thought about scientific photography in the ways you’ve described, but they make a lot of sense. I wonder if the issues faced by scientific photographers aren’t without parallels in creative nonfiction and photojournalism – on the one hand, there’s that pressure to make an appealing story, while on the other is the need to be an honest witness. I’ll have to think about this some more.

  2. #2 Princess Pepper Cloud
    April 25, 2009

    I think I hear Barry White playing in the background.

  3. #3 Lassi Hippeläinen
    April 26, 2009

    Framing, composing, exposing, even focusing are all subjective issues that the photographer can use to manipulate the audience. They must be expunged from scientific photography.

    The only true form of scientific photography is lomography.

  4. I’ve learned something very useful today. This is a great resource and this is really beneficial for me being new to photography. I wish one of these days I can do the same thing like this. Right now, I am still learning the basics.

    By the way, what’s the best camera model? or I am asking for the brand…thanks..
    ========
    roy

  5. #5 Julie Stahlhut
    April 27, 2009

    Azteca? The first anthropomorphic thought that came to my mind was, “Aw, cheer up, sis. There’ll be other photographers to bite!”

  6. #6 Nestor
    April 27, 2009

    Sorry to be that guy but shouldn’t the title be “humanizing the hordes”

  7. #7 Alex
    April 27, 2009

    Roy: All the major manufacturers make excellent cameras these days. You’ll want to figure out which lenses you’d like first, and then buy the camera back that works with those lenses.

    Julie: That’s true! I neglected to mention the part where the ants were chewing on my eyelids. Ow.

    Neastor: Yes, the title *should* read that, but it doesn’t. I’ll go fix it now.

  8. #8 sonia
    April 28, 2009

    I’d suggest that saying that photos aren’t science is like saying that writing isn’t science- both can be used for different purposes: scientific, emotive, etc. Certainly some uses of photography are more “scientific” than others, but photos can also be tools to provide important documentation. For example, time series photos of glacier retreat are clearly important for scientific research. If those photos are used for an environmental campaign, does that diminish their evidentiary value? I’d say no- they’re just being used in a different rhetorical context.
    So maybe the best practice for science photography is to explicitly define how the photos were taken & selected- if you put your rationale for selecting the cute anthropomorphic ant photo up front, at least you make your selection clear?

  9. #9 Miserere
    April 29, 2009

    Alex, I applaud your reluctance to write that article about photography in Science. You are quite right in stating that Photography (as Art) is mostly incompatible with Science.

    As I stated in this recent post, Art is nothing but the transferral of emotion through physical means, which flies in the face of Science, which is the use of facts to derive an explanation for a physical phenomenon.

    On the other hand, Art must have a message, which is more easily communicated through (human) emotions, and Science can also have a message to transmit. Ponder this: If studies into the effects of deforestation on the local fauna in the Amazon reveal that a whole ecosystem is on the brink of disappearing, this could be communicated via a 50 page scientific paper…or with a photo showing fish carcases floating on the surface of a polluted river…or a pair of scrawny, malnourished predators crossing a man-made clearing in the forest…or… You get the idea. Maybe we need to consider who the message is intended for.

    Tricky subject indeed!

  10. #10 Dave
    April 30, 2009

    “In some respects, emotive photography is the antithesis of the whole scientific endeavor.”

    I think I would disagree – it should read “In all respects..”

    If the purpose of science is understanding nature, then any photograph that gives people the impression that insects have human emotions can’t be scientific – but it can be art. It can also be propaganda or humour or parody or any number of other things. Insects have their place in all of these endeavours, but I don’ think you can call them scientific and when you mix them with science, the science is what is lost first.

    On the other hand, my organisms all look pretty creepy, so cute is not an option, and I like the picture of the Azteca with the mandibles and antennae spread best, so I’m probably just strange (or a myrmecophobe).

  11. Looking at those photos I realized that we just underestimate the beauty (or humor) of our surrounding as we don’t pay much attention to it.
    Even if it’s not science it’s still conected to it as:
    1) it makes us focus on some interesting points as ‘do animals have emotions?’,
    2) it helps us find human’s features (as we can define ourselves just because of differences between us and the rest living creatures),
    3) seeing something helps us to memorise it – even (or above all) in science,
    4) it developes creativity and abstract reasoning.
    I love those pictures!

  12. #12 Warren
    January 30, 2010

    There’s little point in defending photographs as scientific. If anatomical documentation is your goal, pinned specimens shot from multiple angles serve the purpose.

    Humans ARE anthropomorphic. Even the most logical thinker gets mad when a machine doesn’t work. Why? Does the machine know you’re mad at it? We’re incapable of true detachment.

    Photos make people care about bugs. They make them see the beauty of things they’d considered horrific. What people care about gets funded, and that makes our world a better place. Well-done, anthropomorphic photos with the potential to interest the public are at least as noble a pursuit as the scientific documentation of ant anatomy or B&W SEM acarology.

  13. #13 megadosya
    May 8, 2010

    On the other hand, Art must have a message, which is more easily communicated through (human) emotions, and Science can also have a message to transmit. Ponder this: If studies into the effects of deforestation on the local fauna in the Amazon reveal that a whole ecosystem is on the brink of disappearing, this could be communicated via a 50 page scientific paper…or with a photo showing fish carcases floating on the surface of a polluted river…or a pair of scrawny, malnourished predators crossing a man-made clearing in the forest…or… You get the idea. Maybe we need to consider who the message is intended for.

    thanks…for sharing

    Tricky subject indeed!

  14. #14 Wolfteam Hileleri
    November 18, 2011

    Thanks. :D

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