Taking a shot at photographing science and nature

Go to Google Images and search for “science.” What are the results? More than likely, the search will come up with beakers, protons, lab coats, double helixes, pulsars, microscopes and perhaps a smattering of trees and images of the globe. Photographs of researchers boot-high in streams collecting samples, for instance, or of a Cayman Island blue iguana in its natural habitat, would probably be few and far between. But images such as these—which show an aspect of the biological sciences, environmental processes or a subject of ecological research—rarely show up, even though they are of course also science.

In this digital age, imagery is becoming increasingly popular as a means of sharing information and presenting scientific findings in a more engaging way. For example, graphic artists on visualizing.org and similar projects use visual representations to put data in context. If presented with striking, clear illustrations, viewers do not need a background in statistics to interpret worldwide carbon dioxide emissions from 1820 to 2006.

Some projects implement photography as a means for exploring societal and environmental issues. One such project is gigapan.org, which allows users to share and discuss panoramic photographs (one of the most famous gigapans is of the 2009 Inauguration of President Barack Obama). Ecologist and photographer Molly Mehling uses gigapan to capture research and encourage conversation and collaboration about science, nature and sustainability.

In a recent interview for EcoTone, Mehling discussed opportunities for incorporating photography into research and the ways in which images can convey messages about science and nature. Photography can put viewers at the foot of a receding glacier (see below) or face-to-face with a humpback whale.

But it can also show the ecological science infused in everyday processes and can make complex data more tangible to nonscientific audiences. In addition, photography can show the work that ecologists perform and spark interest in the process. As Mehling explained in an email,

I would describe photography as a ‘more universal’ communication tool because the associated meaning of visual symbolism differs greatly among cultures. However, humans connect and relate on a fundamental level to other humans independent of [the] diversity that stratifies us. Scientists often forget to take pictures of people, but people want to see other people.

While it is beneficial to use images to illustrate the natural history of our study subjects, our field locations, the results of ecological restoration or the negative ecological consequences of human activities, conveying our work with stories of the scientists and with stories of the work’s relevance to people’s daily lives is more important now than ever. Equally as important is our responsibility to listen to the diverse viewpoints of nonscientists on ecological science and environmental challenges, and there are several ways to use photography in this capacity as well.

In this way photography can also be used to heighten a viewer’s appreciation for a certain type of research or the dynamic behaviors and habitat of a particular species. For example, ARKive collects images of threatened and endangered species to promote their conservation and the protection of their habitats.

“Most people have never been lucky enough to see a whale, and yet whales are iconic figureheads in the conservation movement because people know what they look like and why they are special thanks to films and photographs,” said Liana Vitali, ARKive Science, Education and Outreach Officer, in an email.

As with ARKive, images can also be used to teach students about ecological science and conservation. This is also the case with the Ecological Society of America’s resource EcoEd Digital Library which provides educators with photos and corresponding information on species and ecological processes.

And maybe when people seek out information on a particular species, they will be more interested in pursuing details if they can picture exactly what it is they are learning about. As Mehling said in the interview, she can tell people that her work is on “aquatic benthic macroinvertebrates,” or she can show them photos of mayfly nymphs and leeches, before explaining the details of her research. “When you say [aquatic benthic macroinvertebrates], most people’s eyes just glaze over; they don’t know what that is,” she said in the interview. “When you show them that it’s just a bug that lives in water, it instantly makes sense. And then you can continue the conversation [because] they know what you’re talking about.”

With an increase in technological advancements like these, and through innovative ways of sharing research with specific groups, perhaps a search for “science” will have a completely different result in just a few short years.

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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