Interview: Anand Varma, Science Photographer for National Geographic

A successful photographer explores his way of helping scientists drive their questions forward instead of just documenting their work

Anand Verma at work. Source: Author provided

Anand Verma at work. Source: Author provided

When Anand Varma got a chance to photograph for National Geographic’s November 2014 story on mind-manipulating parasites – popularly called zombie parasites – the odds were against him. It was his first feature story and his subject was parasites, hardly a crowd-favourite.

“Most images of parasites were either abstract or revolting, or both abstract and revolting, and I knew I wouldn’t reach people who weren’t already interested in parasites with these kind of photographs. I had to speak to a non-scientific audience – that was the challenge.” So daunting was the idea of making these creatures look likeable that, at one point, Anand was told by the editor that he could do the story without photographs and focus on illustrations instead.

He wasn’t ready to give up. “Maybe not everything needs to be cute and cuddly,” he realised. He looked at some graphic novels and began to experiment with similar themes, light and shadows, to depict some of these parasitic interactions. “It was up to me to prove that photographs have a place in this story,” Anand said. He managed to do it. One of his shots even made it to the cover of the magazine.

In Bengaluru to lead an eight-day workshop hosted by the National Centre for Biological Sciences, along with fellow science photographer Prasenjeet Yadav, Anand’s was the first of two public lectures that will take place this week. His talk, titled ‘Communicating Science Through Photography’, attracted a packed auditorium. “Beauty can be a weapon against apathy and ignorance,” he said about his craft. The next one hour was a treat to lab-worn eyes. Oohs, aahs and awe-struck swearing were aplenty.

After, Nandita Jayaraj caught up with him for The Wire about the thrills and risks of the profession, his process and how much science is part of his art.

You were pursuing an undergraduate degree in biology when you got a part-time gig as a photographer’s assistant. How unconventional was your eventual move from academia to full-time photography?

There were a lot of anxieties. The first decision was just to take this two-week job. Then it was a question of – I really like this, I’m getting to learn a lot, I want to continue working with this photographer but I do not want to be a photographer. That was because academia felt like it was a little bit too constrained. There is a clear path to a career but it means seven years in a lab studying one thing and teaching. I didn’t know if I wanted to teach, I didn’t know what I wanted to dedicate seven years of graduate school to. I felt like there are many aspects of lab work and research that just weren’t as appealing. I really wanted to just explore, learn things about the world and I thought academia was limited in what you could do in pursuit of those activities.

At the same time photography seemed really scary because there was no guarantee, no clear path to a career. It seemed very unstable and insecure. I saw the lifestyle of my employer, the photographer I worked for, he was well established, he worked for National Geographic. He’d been doing it for 25-30 years and he was still stressed about the next job, the next assignment. There was no peace or stability and I thought, hey, I don’t wanna deal with that. I want to have it sorted, not worry about money or jobs every few weeks or months.

So what changed your mind?

It was a slow process of getting more and more opportunities and also becoming more exposed to that stress, long enough that it’s not scary anymore. It’s as uncomfortable as ever but it’s becoming a familiar stress, a familiar anxiety. It became less about money. In the early years, there was a little bit of instability, I hadn’t become established. There was a bit of uncertainty about the money but the bigger stress was how– do I make good enough work? And that generated a lot more anxiety than “how do I get paid for this?”.

Is it a smooth run from hereon?

What helped this transition was that I was getting more and more opportunities – to work for other photographers, working with my own assignments. Now, I have to turn things down. And that’s a very privileged position to be in. I’m getting to pick the stuff that is the best and I’m most interested in. There is still a little anxiety that maybe this is only a phase. I’m popular in NG right now so for the next six months or a year it’s not going to be hard for me to propose a story. But I try very hard to not take that for granted. To remind myself that a year from now I may need to struggle to get people to take my ideas seriously. I may not be as in-demand.

Did or do you plan to go back to the sciences?

I kept getting opportunities that I couldn’t turn down. I thought – OK, I can go to Ecuador now and work on this for the next two months. Am I really going to say no to that to apply to graduate school? I didn’t know where to apply, what I wanted to do, who I wanted to work with. So there is this abstract, unappealing but more defined career track or a more immediate, exciting and appealing career track. I went to the more exciting one – with the idea that if I ever fail, I have the safer option. But it kept getting farther and farther way. “How can I give up on this crazy creative independence and stimulation and venture to go back to academia?”

Queen honeybee (Apis mellifera) surrounded by her attendant worker bees. These bees are part of a US government experimental breeding program to produce parasite-resistant honeybees. Credit: Anand Varma for National Geographic Magazine

Queen honeybee (Apis mellifera) surrounded by her attendant worker bees. These bees are part of a US government experimental breeding program to produce parasite-resistant honeybees. Credit: Anand Varma for National Geographic Magazine

Now, what I feel like is, I don’t actually have to give this up to bring back the elements of academia that appealed to me all along, which is “how do I generate new knowledge about the world?”. I thought maybe I can do that as a photographer. I don’t know but this way of partnering with scientists to not just document their work but also help them drive their questions forward and their data forward – collect data with the camera – that’ll satisfy this little itch in me that you’re not really contributing to new knowledge and not answering questions.

So in a way, you’re still doing science…

Yeah.… I can’t really call myself a scientist now. I actually correct people when they label me as that but I can sort of see that my path is pointing more in that direction and there’s a possibility I could publish papers. But no, I’m not really a scientist now but science is still a major part of what I do.

National Geographic was already communicating science through photography when you joined. What do you think you brought to the table?

Yes, they have been documenting science for a long time, communicating scientific discoveries, scientific approaches. I brought a new sort of aesthetic approach to that. Part of that is an illustrative approach where it’s not necessarily documentary journalism – where I’m there looking over somebody’s shoulder as the experiment’s happening, but I’m trying to think about how this experiment is set up and how do I capture the core elements of that, in an accurate way so I’m not misleading anybody – but figuring out how to communicate the set-up and the elements of this experiment in as simple and compelling way as possible. I don’t think quite that approach has been done.

Your work – especially the use of music in your multimedia videos – is very emotionally charged and dramatic. Is that a style you’ve consciously adopted?

Looking back at some of my work – the bee story, the parasite story – I do see a [consistent use] of high energy. It’s something that, now, having seen this pattern, I intentionally think about moving forward. But back then it was more of a default approach, [towards] what captured my attention. You kinda have to crank the level up, get the thing to flash into your eyeballs – this is what captured my attention. That was a split from my mentor whose approach is much more subtle, elegant, beautiful, but not this sort of eyeball-grabbing.

Out of all the shots you take, do you know when you see ‘the one’ – something that gives you complete satisfaction?

Umm… [he’s thinking hard] Depends on when you measure it. I often know when it’s good enough. And for many of those images I couldn’t necessarily tell you how I’d do it better – but I don’t think there was ever a moment when I took a picture, looked at it and thought this is a 100% what I want.

Often when I load the pictures on the computer, I can’t look away. I’m just sitting there and – I just want to look at this picture. Or I close it and I go brush my teeth and then think, “No, I want to go back to this picture.” And sometimes I find myself doing that automatically and then realise I think this means that this worked. But occasionally, I do that for a while and then realise, “No, this is almost there, but no.” Many times it takes two or three days. The ladybug picture that ended up on the cover of NatGeo, I remember leaving pretty disappointed. I actually took a couple of ladybugs back with me. Maybe I’ll keep working on this at home. They published the very last frame that I took. That was as far as I could take it that day.

Is there any sort of manipulation you do with your images?

Post-processing, yeah. But no, no, you can’t move around anything like even a small [piece of] hair on the specimen. You can change contrast, exposure and sometimes some things like removing dust, dirt. I can’t do that for NatGeo but once it’s published, to put on my website, I can get rid of an ugly smudge. Moving around fundamental components or even tiny details like pixels, you can’t do that. I’m very careful about that. You’re dealing with people’s trust. You lose credibility in that sense. Part of the power of this is that it’s real. If this was an illustration generated by some 3D program, it would not have nearly the same power to capture people’s imagination. Here, this is a thing that existed in front of my camera. If you move around stuff, you’ll lose that. At some point, people won’t accept it as real.

Have you any interest in documenting the physical sciences?

Well… I plan on doing that. I don’t know how much I can tell you about a future story but I want to do that. Biology is where my expertise and education has been, so I’m naturally inclined to think about those stories, but I certainly have nothing against geology, chemistry, physics. I haven’t necessarily found the right lab, the right access. You pursue the stories that you can do something with. Then you realise – oh, look, I have really amazing access to these cool things.

Have you found something that fits?

Mmmm. I might have found something though. I’m going to pitch a story about it, my next project.

Some of Anand Varma’s work is available to view on his Instagram.