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National Geographic Emerging Explorer Anand Varma: Communicating Science With Visual Media

This post is part of a series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.

Science photographer Anand Varma is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest challenges facing our planet. The 2017 class of Emerging Explorers will be honored at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. in June.

Varma works to tell the story behind the science of everything from primate behavior and hummingbird biomechanics to amphibian disease and forest ecology. His groundbreaking photography enables him to communicate complex science in compelling ways.

We caught up with Varma on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, where he was coaching researchers, conservationists and tourist guides how to tell the stories of their work through photography. For Varma (31), this was his first visit to Galapagos, a place made famous by Charles Darwin, whose observations of the species on the islands were to eventually help form Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin, it turns out, is a major inspiration for Anand Varma, so visiting the Galapagos was something that stirred him quite deeply.

While walking under the glittering Milky Way in the near total darkness cloaking the Charles Darwin Research Station, where we were staying, Anand recalled his childhood and the people and experiences that inspired him to pursue a career in biology, then photography, leading him to becoming a National Geographic photographer.

What did you want to be when you were growing up, and what inspired you to want to do that?

I’m not entirely sure what made me want to be a biologist. My parents were always in to camping and the outdoors. My older siblings were as well, so it was natural to slip out the back door with my brother and sister and explore the creek in our backyard in Atlanta, Georgia. That initial exposure is what got me interested in nature. My curiosity was encouraged by all sides: my parents, teachers and friends. My father said, OK, if this is something you want to do for the rest of your life, you should be a scientist and study nature.

I had a particular fascination with fish. I don’t quite know where that came from, but one of my earliest memories is going to the farmers’ market with my mother, where I would see catfish. There was one catfish in particular that I remember, 2-3 feet long. I was barely tall enough to look over the side of the tank, but when I peeked over the side, this catfish came out of the water towards me. I basically came face-to-face with this fish, which so startled me that I fell over backward, landing on the floor.

That is a memory that I keep coming back to, and I don’t remember any association or interest in fish before that. But I had a real obsession with fish that lasted until college; I worked at an aquarium store, I kept fish at home, and I wanted to study fish for my career. I think my father was the one who taught me the meaning of the word icthyologist when I was in the Sixth Grade, so I thought that was obviously what I was going to be. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Was there anyone, other than your parents, who inspired you when you were growing up?

The person I idolized as a child was a man named Mark Warren, who started a wilderness school called Medicine Bow in north Georgia. The Montessori school I attended had a partnership with Medicine Bow, and starting in Fourth Grade, we would take a class trip to his school and learn about ecology, botany, and Native American history.  I just loved that place so much and I wanted to be like him.

Warren wasn’t really a scientist, but he found a way to inspire us to be more connected with the natural world. I was in awe of how much he knew about his patch of land.  He could identify every plant, every bird song, every animal track.  That knowledge meant he could see stories in the woods that we couldn’t.

“It was like a secret code … to know about the lives of animals and plants”

It made me want to learn the name of everything that existed in the world, because it seemed like that when you knew the names of these things, and you knew the signs of their behavior, the world became a more interesting place. You could start to see, oh, a woodpecker was here, looking for bugs, and it was this species of woodpecker associated with this species of tree. It was like a secret code almost, to know about the lives of animals and plants. It made it more exciting to go outside, to be in nature and know these things. So I wanted to know everything I could know.

Credit: John McDonald

How did you decide what you wanted to study at college?

I chose to study biology because I was interested in the natural world.  Back in Middle School, I decided that I would specifically study the biology of coral reef fishes somewhere in the tropics. On the day I turned 14 and could get a work permit, I got a job in a fish store. In Atlanta there is no ocean, so the closest substitute I could find was an aquarium.

Was there any interest in photography at that stage?

Not at that point. Photography came in at the end of high school. By then, I was hoping to go to California for college. California just seemed like an exotic place to explore, where everybody mountain-biked and surfed and snow-boarded all the time.

That seemed to be a fun place to go to college, but to apply to the University of California system you needed a semester of art in high school. I had to scramble around to figure out how I was going to take a semester of art. I sort of despised art at that point. I would be dragged to the art museum by my sister, who was really into it, but my childhood memory of it was being really bored and not understanding what I was supposed to be looking at, and thinking I must be dumb, because I don’t get it.

As opposed to going to the Air & Space Museum, where they’ve got cool rockets, or the Natural History Museum, where they have all these cool animals, the Art Museum was a horrible place that seemed stuck-up and unrelatable. So being forced to take a semester of art was like, ugh, I can’t believe I have to do this to get into the University of California. And the least offensive art course I could take was photography, so I signed up for that class.

I don’t think that the class necessarily inspired me to take up photography, but it occurred at the same time that I was fiddling around with my Dad’s camera and I would take it along on my adventures with my friends. Our adventures involved going to some park nearby, hiking around, and looking for bugs and animals.  Having a camera meant I could record what I saw and share the experience with my friends who weren’t there. It was a way to enhance my exploration.

What was the eureka! moment, when you realized that you had a passion for photography?

The first picture that I’m proud of was taken at the end of high school. It was a garter snake that I snuck up on, and for whatever reason it didn’t get scared, so I was able to get within a few inches of it. I took a picture of it in a sunny spot, on leaves. It was a nice picture, but the memorable part of it was how much of an impression it made on my friend, Gene, who was there with me. I’m pretty sure he was more excited about that photo than I was.

That was the first realization that photography could be a way to connect with people. It’s so rewarding to take a picture that excites somebody else. That feeling stuck with me. It certainly left an impression.

So in college I basically continued photography, just as a hobby. On field trips, for example, I would just photograph whatever frogs, bugs, or flowers we came across.

That’s basically how I treated it, until I got an email from one of my instructors who said that a photographer named David Liittschwager was asking around the biology department for an assistant. That instructor thought I’d be a good match for the job because he had seen me with a camera on all these field trips.

I thought, well, I’ve been taking pictures for a while, I don’t know any professional photographers, I don’t know what that life is like, so that would be a kind of a cool experience for a couple of weeks.

I called this guy up and I went to his apartment in San Francisco, and basically the first thing he said was that this is an assignment for National Geographic Magazine. I thought, Wow! I’ve jumped way in here.

How did Liittschwager inspire you about photography?

That first trip together was just so much fun. We got access to rappel into restricted caves in Sequoia National Park to look for tiny little bugs that had just been discovered by scientists. It was like, whoa, wait a minute, this is all the stuff that I wanted to do as a biologist!

I wanted to go and find new things and learn about them and share them with other people. It had never occurred to me that you could do that as a photographer, and here I was getting paid to do it, and I hadn’t even graduated college yet. And so all of a sudden, I realized, I want to keep doing this and I’ve got to do whatever it takes to convince David to keep hiring me.

That was my sophomore year in college. I wanted to keep the gig going for as long as David was willing to hire me, but it still took probably four years from that point to come around to the idea that maybe I wanted to do photography fulltime. I started off wanting to include photography in my academic career, because I did not see how I could make a living as a photographer.  I didn’t want to have to beg for money every few months for the rest of my life, as opposed to getting a tenure track and a salary and a regular job. The stress of a freelance photography career was just super-unappealing. I didn’t want to be like David, in that respect. I wanted to do the work that he was hiring me to do, but I didn’t like the lifestyle he had of being stressed out all the time.

Is there any art form that influences your photography?

I think Japanese animation is the strongest influence of my visual aesthetic. I was a fan of that starting in Middle School and throughout High School. I did a project in Middle School about the influence of Japanese animation on American media. I did that mostly so I could watch TV when I got home and tell my Mom it was homework.

What I learned in the course of that project was that Anime was a derivative of graphic novels, which were a derivative of ancient Japanese woodcarving techniques, where the artists were very selective in what details they emphasized and what details they left out. That’s part of how they told their stories in a limited medium. You have a piece of wood, you can’t include details of everything, so you decide what’s important to emphasize. You select the details that emphasize emotion and action, and that’s what gets translated into Anime. You see it in the characters’ eyes, which are incredibly complex, while their noses and ears and the rest of their face is reduced to very simple lines. It’s a really effective way to show drama and action and emotion, just by selectively emphasizing certain details.

That’s essentially the core of my photography, figuring out what are the parts of this subject that I really want to show, that I think are interesting and new and exciting — and then figuring out how to obscure all the details that I think are distracting and irrelevant.

What was the thinking about your approach to the National Geographic feature on parasites?

When I got this assignment, my editor, Todd James, told me: you are going to have to find a new way to do this because the Magazine has already given up on trying to photograph this subject. People don’t like parasties. Figure out a way to make this look cool.

Anand Varma’s photograph on the cover of the November 2014 issue of National Geographic. Click on the image to view a gallery of Anand’s images of parasites published by the Magazine.

That was not necessarily news to me. I knew my job was to find a way to make this unattractive subject material appealing.

I was encouraged to think about film noir, maybe shoot in black and white. The Magazine knew they were going to do graphic novel panels to illustrate the lifecycles of the parasites, so I thought about how to make photographs that would fit with that aesthetic.

It was up to me to figure out how to do this.  I didn’t like the idea of black-and-white nature photography, but I watched film noir and read graphic novels as a kid because my older brother was into those things and I wanted to be like him.  In the end I borrowed elements from those two art forms as well as anime to create the parasite images for the story.

Have you continued to evolve into a new aesthetic for your photography?

I try to re-invent my photography for every story. I don’t really know exactly what I am going to do until I get the assignment, but there are some recurring themes. For example, I use a lot of high-contrast lighting and a generally dark palette.  Overall, I want to recreate the experience that I have when I see really compelling visual media.  The best way to describe this is that your eyeballs dry out because you forget to blink because there is too much to look at and you don’t want to miss anything.

“I kind of want to hit you over the head and poke your eyeballs with crazy, crazy stuff.”

I think this is a departure from David Liittschwager’s style, which is quieter and more subtle. His images are about sitting with this thing and absorbing how elegant and beautiful it is. I kind of want to hit you over the head and poke your eyeballs with crazy, crazy stuff. And how I actually accomplish that changes with each story. I don’t want to get bored. I want to learn new things.

Anand Varma filming bees flying using a high speed camera at the Harry Laidlaw Bee Research Facility of the University of California, Davis. Photo courtesy of Anand Varma.

Do you still see yourself as having a career in science?

My ultimate goal is to make science cool. I want to raise the profile of science in society.

Why is that important to you? 

That’s a good question. It’s a little bit arrogant to think just because it’s important to me it should be important to everybody else.

I derive so much pleasure from science. The way I define science is just a careful observation of your surroundings. That process is incredibly valuable to understanding the problems facing the world and to be better connected with the world. If people value that systematic process of careful observation, I think it could solve a lot of the problems and I think it would help people enjoy their lives and enjoy their planet in the way that I have.

Does your photography help validate science?

I don’t know if my photography validates science necessarily, but I do think it can get people to think about subjects in a new way. That’s the core of what I want to do and that’s the core of why I want to try new visual approaches for every story.  I want to get people to revisit their assumptions about parasites, bees, bugs, hummingbirds, and natural history overall. I don’t think natural history is more important than chemistry or physics or astronomy, but it just happens to be the realm that I’m most familiar with and that I’m most excited about exploring.

How do you regard being appointed a National Geographic Emerging Explorer as a step in the continuum of your career, and where do you hope it may take you?

I have hopes and plans for my career, but I don’t think in terms of concrete goalposts anymore, like “working for National Geographic Magazine”. It’s more about exploring questions like, why do people have certain attitudes towards science? And what power do I have to change that?

My goals are to build more collaborations with people to explore new ways of communicating science with visual media. The reason I am excited about becoming an Emerging Explorer is the opportunity to meet fellow Emerging Explorers who are doing really cool things in storytelling and in science, and thinking about how to do what I have done in the past in new ways.

That’s what exciting about the next five or ten years: figuring out how to amplify science storytelling by collaborating with people who have different strengths than I have.

The last ten years of my life has been a very personal and in some ways selfish journey. I’ve been obsessed with trying to take my photography to the highest level and testing my own limits as a photographer.

I’ve reached the point where I can certainly continue to grow as a photographer. But I also recognize I can do a lot more by partnering with people who have focused on other strengths and who have thought about how to make science engaging in different ways. It’s could be scientists, musicians, illustrators, data scientists, or really anybody who has thought about how to present data in compelling ways.

That’s a really interesting next step to think about. To go further, from how to make an interesting photograph or video to figuring out how to share ideas with people in more effective ways to serve the ultimate goal of raising the profile of science in society.  I don’t necessarily know what the steps are going to be along the way, but that’s my goal, and certainly what I want to spend my time doing.

Anand Varma researching and photographing biodiversity in Patagonia. Photo credit: John Wieczorek

We’re sitting here in the Galapagos, and you told me you finished the autobiography of Charles Darwin on the flight over here. How did Darwin inspire you and how do you feel now, when you are here, at the Charles Darwin Research Station, in a place that ultimately inspired such a big idea in his thinking?

Charles Darwin has been my idol for some time. He was someone who went out and carefully looked at details and came up with this overarching theory of how the world works just by wandering around the woods and looking at tiny little things and thinking about them very carefully.  That is just so cool.

I recognize in myself the enjoyment of looking at little things, and I think that all these observations of little things, the bees and the hummingbirds and the bats, maybe someday they will add up to something as cool as what Darwin gave the world. I think that’s the level of achievement that is the highest mark I can think of.

In that sense, I have similar respect for E.O. Wilson as somebody who drew broad, powerful conclusions by observing tiny little details. Those are two people I measure myself against when I think about whether I am doing something useful for the world.  I constantly think about how I could be more like them as I continue in my work — although I have a good ways to go to make a contribution as significant as theirs.

So I think about Darwin and his work as I travel around the Galapagos. I respect how much care he put into publishing his work.  He was comfortable sharing his ideas only after he had spent decades of carefully considering his arguments and his evidence.  He could have just rushed out and said, “I bet I can sell a bunch of books if I make this grand new claim about how the world works.”

I have to accept the fact that I am outside of the scientific realm to a degree. I’m not working as a scientist now. There is something that feels a little disappointing about that, in terms of what my dreams were as a kid. But maybe there is a contribution I can make that’s not necessarily purely about a biological observation, or a law or a theory. It might have more to do with how to effectively communicate science. Maybe it will be designing a toolset that other people can use to propagate a love of science. And that is just as important and good, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just different than what my heroes did. I accept that.

More about Anand Varma

Zombie Parastites/Nat Geo Live: What if, unbeknownst to you, someone—or something—was controlling your behavior for its own nefarious ends? Join photographer Anand Varma as he reveals this nightmare scenario being acted out over and over across the natural world, as unsuspecting hosts are compelled to nurture and protect mind-sucking parasites. (Video above)

Anand Varma Photography (website, photography, blog)

Want to become a National Geographic Explorer? Learn how you can apply for a grant from the National Geographic Society.

Comments

  1. Mark Warren
    Dahlonega, GA, USA
    June 13, 9:26 am

    I am honored to be mentioned by Anand. It is the greatest occupational and social gratification to know that I have played a part in his formative years. Anand was a stellar student and human being … and, I am sure, still is. He has already led an adventurous life, but we will have to wait to see where that leads him. It is, I know, a path he will walk mindfully.