Frankly, monkeys scare me. Especially the kind in the photo above. These monkeys are a common sight in many bursting cities & towns in India and can often be aggressive.
But this particular photograph made me look at them differently… I was transfixed by their close bond and almost human-like vivid expressions. Turns out that this species, the Bonnet Macaque, exhibits complex social behaviour and cultural learning patterns. While I find this research to be interesting in itself, I am amazed how this one image made me pause and care about something I fear.
That is the power of visual media. It can be a useful tool to effectively communicate scientific work. I recently learned how.
Last week, the seventh Student Conference on Conservation Science (SCCS) was held in Bangalore, India. This is the only conference where I have seen detailed workshops that cover every aspect of research – methods, skills, tools, ethics, and even advocacy. It offers a wide learning platform not just for scientists, but also for interested people from other backgrounds. SCCS has 5 more sister conferences in different parts of the world – from New York to Australia. If you are even remotely interested in ecology and wildlife, I would recommend that you attend the one closest to you!
One of many fascinating workshops held at this conference was “Conservation Storytelling through Images” by freelance wildlife photographer Kalyan Varma. Kalyan has years of experience working with National Geographic, BBC, Lonely Planet and many other stellar media outlets. For science enthusiasts, his workshop was an eye-opener on how much more we can communicate through photographs.
We learned the basic guidelines of photography such as rule of thirds, symmetry, balance, negative space and many more. But what struck me the most was the central message of this workshop – images are a way to convey our perspective to the viewers. It is a medium to share our inspiration for science. To evoke a feeling. To start a conversation.
“Facts are boring, perspectives are interesting.”
– Kalyan Varma
In that sense, photography is a wonderful complementary skill for scientists. Scientists are trained to think logically, experiment carefully and report impartially. This dispassionate mode of working generally extends to the way a scientist writes – focusing on facts and data. But pure numbers are rarely enough to get people to read about good science. People need to see the wonder, the impact, the story. They need to feel something. And a good image does just that.
For scientists who work in the field of conservation, this becomes an important and sticky issue. Their work often brings out the tug-of-war between a species/ecological system and human settlements. If they display their stand on the issue, they may influence the decision that picks one side over the other. One may wonder – does that go against scientific ethics? Which side deserves to lose/win? Am I willing to accept the consequences of my stand?
Sometimes, there are no easy answers. But when communicating your work, images can still provide a powerful spotlight for the science to be seen. No matter what the field (or personal stand), a scientist can always use an image to convey the inspiration behind his/her research. Ask yourself – what is the most amazing thing I have learnt from this work? If you can pack this inner drive into a dense pixel punch, its impact can lead to a growing awareness about the work itself. It can provide food for thought. Spark meaningful debates. Perhaps even inspire a young mind to work in science!
“When science is combined with emotion, it can lead to action.”
– Kalyan Varma
So how does one exactly take ‘powerful images’? Unfortunately, there are no set rules for that! On one hand, one may follow all the tricks of the trade, and yet be left with a not-so-impressive photo. On the other hand, one make break all rules and yet capture a moving image! Again, the key here is to let our emotion guide us. Kalyan shared a couple of ways for us to develop that skill.
Firstly, one may note that it is easy to get a wonderful image of the exotic. The mundane are harder to capture. For example, if you work on laser-generated plasma experiments or study a rare bird, chances of getting a ‘wow’ shot are much greater! But how do you get someone intrigued about electric circuits? Or the life of a crow? His advice – practice taking shots of commonplace objects or daily life vignettes. Something beautiful, ugly, sorrowful or even plain apathetic. If it moves you, you can try capturing it in a frame.
Secondly, great photographs are not always about being ‘at the right place, at the right time’. One has to often learn to make good images. This means that one has to think about the best way to express the key results before grabbing the camera. For example: Working on urban waste management? You don’t always need to photograph garbage dumps across the city. An image that highlights one of its effects can also be used – such as polluted lake water being used to grow vegetables. Think about the science you are communicating, how it moves you and then imagine the best possible images that can complement the data.
“If you have a smartphone, you are a photographer.”
– Kalyan Varma
Whether your interest lies in theoretical physics or ecology, mathematics or chemistry, electronics or biology, you can use images along with your data to communicate to a wider audience. Photography offers researchers a unique way to express their imagination, drive and enthusiasm for science. So arm yourself with the basic rules, grab a camera and start shooting!
About the cover photo & the photographer:
This photo is one of the many stirring shots taken by Kalyan Varma. He collaborates with scientists, activists and educators to make various media projects that affect public debate and policy. Outreach is an important part of his work and he also conducts workshops on photography. In fact, there is one coming up soon! You can find detailed information about him and his work here.
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