Merging Science & Photography: Interview with Anand Varma, Photographer
“You have to find a way to distinguish yourself”
You have beautifully merged Science and Photography. This is something we do not see often. What do you have to say about that?
Science was my first passion. I wanted to explore the world and try to understand it better. I thought the only way to do that was as a professional scientist. I discovered that I could actually do this as a photographer so that is why I pursued that career. My goal is to use images to communicate science and to help people appreciate the world around them.
We would love to hear about your work with National Geographic.
National Geographic has been an amazing institution to work for. They provide more support for photography than anyone else. As a result I am able to spend months researching a subject and weeks figuring out how to make the most compelling image to tell the story of that subject.
Which has been your most memorable project and why?
My most memorable project was my first story for National Geographic called “Mindsuckers”. The story was about parasites that take control over the minds and bodies of their hosts. This was an exciting project since it was my first big story for the magazine, but it was also terrifying because I didn’t really know what I was doing and I had to make it up as I went along.
What are the challenges that you face on projects like the Amazon or Northern Patagonia?
I face a series of challenges. First is coming up with an interesting idea to pursue. Second is working out all of the logistical challenges of getting to a remote location. Third is figuring out how to take a new, engaging picture of the subject when I have finally tracked it down.
What goes into your camera kit?
I have a standard kit of Canon 5DsR and a set of lenses and lights, but the most important elements of my kit are my lighting modifiers. I have a whole collection of fiber optic attachments, focusing lenses, and diffusers I have built myself. In addition, I carry a lot of tools and raw materials such as tape, glue, plastic, and glass so that I can improvise additional lighting modifiers in the field as necessary.
Can you briefly describe your photography workflow for any assignment?
I start with a broad idea that I pitch to my editor. From there, I figure out all the images I want to take that can tell a story relating to idea or topic that I pitched. Then I learn as much as I can about the topic and I reach out to experts all over the world who study that topic. I plan trips to work with those experts either in their research labs, or the field sites where they do their research. I typically spend about one week in the field for every image that gets published. Most of this time is spent building and testing my lighting setups. In total, maybe 3–5% of the time is actually spent taking pictures. When I am done with my fieldwork, I deliver all of my images to my editor and work with them to select the best for the story.
Are you open to taking someone talented as an intern with you to learn the nuances of this art?
I just hired an assistant and I plan on training them over the course of the next few months and years. Working with an assistant or an intern is a huge investment of my time and is not always helpful if that person is not prepared to deal with the boredom and repetition that is involved with this job. It may sound strange since I do get to travel to many exotic locations, but I think many people would feel frustrated to go all the way to the Amazon and then spend two weeks sitting inside of a research lab helping me tape together pieces of plastic and making sure batteries are charged. It can be really tedious and isolating work and that is not always obvious from the outside.
What advice would want to give to the aspiring photographers?
You have to find a way to distinguish yourself. Find a subject and study it or practice photographing it until you can make images that no one else can. You have to be able to contribute something to if you want to get noticed as a photographer.
You can visit Anand’s website here.