2018 Summit - Anand Varma: The Beauty and the Bizarre

Anand Varma blew us away with stories that were both bizarre and beautiful. He began with his story — his very own relatable story — as a undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying biology. His professor recommended him to help a National Geographic photographer at the end of his sophomore year, and after helping Nat Geo with about 10 stories, he realized that he got to do all of the things he wanted to do as a biologist through photography.

He applied for National Geographic’s Early Career Grant, and went to Patagonia to photograph the biodiversity of these ecosystems. Upon arriving back to D.C., he presented his work to National Geographic, and proposed another story about parasites. He realized an immense challenge in this story, for he would have to get people to get over “their visceral aversion to parasites” and pay attention long enough to learn the fascinating science behind these interactions.

Ultimately, his result was something uncannily beautiful. His inspirations were film noir, graphic novels, and Japanese animation. In other words, hard lighting, dramatic backgrounds, and selective attention to detail. From Japanese animation he learned that “not all details are equal”: for a human character, anime emphasizes the eyes in order to make characters more expressive, more emotionally appealing. Varma had to figure out exactly what details were important in telling the beautiful, fascinating story about parasites he had in mind. In his photo of a crab infected with a parasitic barnacle, the important details were the millions of specks coming out of the crab: parasitic barnacle larvae. He didn’t care about the texture of the crab, or its color, but rather draws the viewers attention to the millions of parasitic offspring coming out of it.

Similarly, when he was photographing bees for a different story, he realized that he had to find a new, fresh perspective that was interesting and engaging. He needed to find a different story about bees that had not been done before. After much experimentation, he zeroed in on the figures of bees emerging from their cells. He did a time lapse of bees developing, the first 21 days of a bees life condensed into 60 seconds, and the results were astonishing. Varma has an ability to turn such essential natural processes that are normally hidden, hard to see, and hard to grasp into recognizable and beautiful processes.

The last piece that he showed us shocked me with a sense of wonder. He translated a hummingbird. The photo shoot was set up so that the hummingbird would fly through an artificial wind chamber, with a fog machine blowing visible fog so that you could see the air stream around the hummingbird. Then the video footage was slowed down 100x so that the rapid pace of hummingbird life was suddenly translated into human time. The result was absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. I will remember the blinking of a hummingbird’s eye for the rest of my life.

Up next: Town Hall: Do We Have the Energy to Lead? >

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