Scientists and scientific institutions have developed the notorious reputation of being cut off from the beauty of ordinary life, of being confined to ivory towers. But as science photography is proving, the binary between science and aesthetics or pure beauty might be an artificial one.
Science photography, or the “visual representation of scientific discovery”, uses the tools, techniques and organisms of scientific research to provide a wealth of interesting subjects for a photographer. The creative process of photography can shed new light on the science too – highlighting an aspect of the research that the scientist never considered, and in rare cases, offering new avenues for discovery.
For example, modern techniques and innovations in lighting, exposure and time-lapse can reveal new sides to a scientific subject which scientists might not have seen. For estimating animal populations in a particular area to understanding the aerodynamics of a honey-bee, photography is an integral part of collecting data with use of camera-traps or slow-motion filming techniques.
Shannon Olson, a chemical ecologist and faculty at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, said that unlike regular photography, science photography is not only aesthetically pleasing, “it needs to provide a visual story that describes the research itself, understand science from the point of view of the scientists.” A photograph depicting science is able to translate the process and beauty of science for a layperson unfamiliar with the subject.
As a field, science photography has thus far been virtually non-existent in India.
Prasenjeet Yadav, a molecular biologist who gave up his career in science for photography, may have coined the term and developed the practice to the extent to which it has a presence in the country today. Along with his colleague Anand Varma (a National Geographic photographer), Yadav conducted a unique science photography workshop to equip scientists with the tools of photography – not with the intent of converting them into photographers, but to enable them to communicate their research better.
“Communicating science is as important as practicing it,” he said.
Ebi George, a PhD candidate at the National Centre for Biological Sciences and a budding photographer, agrees that science photography could be a great opportunity for “science-enthusiasts”: people interested in scientific enquiry without the rigorous training process involved.
George’s research focuses on honey bees, and how they find their food source, crucial at a time when honey bee populations around the world are declining with a direct impact on agricultural productivity. George believes if he is able to capture photos of his scientific work, he might be able to initiate a broader discussion on its importance.
Often, it is easier for a photographer to work with scientists who know their subject best. Yadav said, “It is my job to add the aesthetics to the science, so that a picture stimulates both scientists and people who know close to nothing about the subject.”
Olsson agreed. “The intricacy of a cell, the beauty of a flower, and the power of a robot can be understood by all of us with a photograph,” she said. Like science, photography is a trade without borders. If India is to continue on its path of a literate, just and sustainable future, photography may be the answer.