I’ve always felt that we can learn a lot from those whom we feel are more intelligent or more successful than ourselves. Though there will always be exceptions, I think for the most part that this is true. I’m the last person you’ll find calling themselves any kind of expert in any field, including photography. What I have is experience - quite a bit, in fact - but it’s my experience. I also have this insatiable curiosity and a willingness to embarrass myself with the topics that I lack any knowledge of.
When I started to write the questions for this interview, I suddenly felt like I was in over my head a bit…however, I decided to save myself with that whole “there are no stupid questions” line we always hear about. As someone on a path through both science and art, one of the reasons I wanted to pose some questions to Joshua was to try and understand the differences between creative process in the art world and those involved in scientific research. From what I’ve seen of his work and read from his statements, I felt I had the right person in mind. It turns out that my suspicions were right…I don’t know much, and from what I’m gleaning from Joshua, is that there are far more similarities than differences that we can all apply to our own process.
No one person has all the answers - we are always learning, and we are all evolving. We are one and the same, really. I suppose it’s just our perspective on how things operate that sets us apart. It’s the perspective of Joshua Sariñana that I find especially enlightening, and I think you will too.
Dr. Joshua Sariñana's passion for photography coincided with his interest in the brain and mind. After studying neuroscience at UCLA and MIT, Sariñana switched his focus to the practice and theoretical study of photography.
He has exhibited nationally and internationally, including a solo exhibition at the Griffin Museum of Photography, and has shown at the Month of Photography Los Angeles, Photoville, and will exhibit in upcoming shows at Aperture Gallery, and Panopticon Gallery.
Sariñana was named as a 2017 and 2018 Critical Mass Top 200 Finalist. His work has been recognized by the Sony World Photography Awards, American Photography, and LensCulture. Sariñana has published his photography in several periodicals, including Photo District News, Black & White Magazine, Silvershotz, and SHOTS Magazines and has been featured on Time, CNN, and an iPhone 6 commercial. He is also a two time recipient of the Council for the Arts Grant at MIT.
He has published several articles on the intersection of photography and neuroscience for PetaPixel, Don’t Take Pictures, and The Smart View. He has also given talks on neuroscience and photography at Trinity College, Dublin, Northeastern University, Flashpoint Boston, and the Griffin Museum of Photography. Sariñana currently resides in Cambridge, MA.
Michael Kirchoff: Many thanks for allowing me to explore a little of what interests you in what seems to be a bit of a dual career. As I understand it, you’re a neuroscientist with a genuine love of the photographic medium, which you use to propel your studies. How did photography creep into your life as a scientist, or was it always there? And while we are here, maybe you can give us an idea of what a neuroscientist does on a day to day basis.
Thank you very much for inviting me, Michael. Some of my earliest memories are of my Grandmother drawing sketches of models and fashion design. My uncle is rather exceptional at drawing, as is my cousin. It was quite natural for me to be engaged with the arts from a young age. Certainly, science came later and was not the norm in my family. However, it wasn’t until I was 19 years old when I started to take photos. In fact, I don’t remember ever having taken a photo prior to then. Anyhow, I spent a semester abroad and that’s when I fell in love with the medium as it coincided with attending a dozen or so art museums throughout Europe. I took dozens and dozens of photos. I spent another 10 years casually shooting and then I’ve spent the last 7 years really putting a lot of effort into it.
I’m no longer a practicing bench scientist, but I did spend about half my life in the lab. The research life is pretty routine. Read papers, design experiments, pair genetically altered mice with subregion specific deletion of dopamine receptors to breed pups, drink some coffee, talk to lab mates, run behavioral studies, and the like. Then, every few months you prepare your data and present your findings to your lab where you are barraged with critique, have the very essence of your soul questioned, ensure that you remember that nature is much bigger than you are, and that overtime your science will ultimately be wrong. This is all to prepare you for subsequent presentations at national conferences and submission of manuscripts to journals. Normal stuff.
These days I teach neuroscience at Northeastern University.
MK: What is it about your creative process that you feel is represented most significantly in your photographs?
It is easiest for me to compare the way I created scientific data and hypothesis to image production. Like both, there needs to be an a priori and a posteriori form of thoughtfulness. The former being the construction of theory that occur before sensory experience and later being the ideas that follow such observations. In some of my work I have a detailed plan of action, a strong conceptualization, and smooth execution. For example, with my series Representation of Hidden Communication – supported by the Council for the Arts Program at MIT – I was required to provide a thorough application, which included a budget, how many pieces of work I would generate, the approach taken, and the like. In comparison, my series Prosopagnosia was not at all planned, but evolved naturally after I was asked by The Impossible Project – now Polaroid Originals – to generate work for their online magazine, which was completely open ended. At first, I was taking relatively random images with all types of their film. I wasn’t happy with what I was generating, but I did like their black circular stock. Around this time the company’s Universal Lab came out and with this you could expose your iPhone photos to their film. I started to play around with images I had taken some time back and came up with the series. I suppose what is most represented is the processes of experimentation, which parallels scientific research.
MK: With your background, do you feel that perhaps you approach your projects from a different perspective than many who are from one that is purely arts related? What would be a different component of that, if you feel this to be true?
I’m unsure how trained artists approach their work. Certainly, a different background would give some unique experiences that affect behavior and cognition. However, it’s not like I’m thinking about how brain processes are going to come through my work, but see the answer to your last question. My focus is on composition, lighting, and finding uncommon ways of presenting reality. Much like research, I want to tell a cohesive story with the data I collected as do many photographers.
Although I have read a great detail about photographic technique, theory, and history it is often quite clear that I lack even more detailed knowledge than those that learned photography in say an MFA program. I imagine that this affects how one creates work, but I’m unsure if it would be a limitation or an advantage. Perhaps I am less confined to compare my work to others, but then perhaps I’m more likely to create trite work without having greater knowledge.
There is a quotation from Sebastiao Salgado that rings true to me and summarizes how I feel:
“If you’re young and have the time, go and study. Study anthropology, sociology, economy, geopolitics. Study so that you’re actually able to understand what you’re photographing. What you can photograph and what you should photograph.”
MK: It seems that advances in careers in the sciences are based solely on tried and true facts, while careers in the arts are quite often moved forward by opinions based upon emotion. Would you see it this way, and how do you come to terms with how these two different approaches are discerned?
Unfortunately, this is a common misconception and one that I also would have thought to be true when I was in college. This is due, in part, to the fact that professional research really doesn’t occur until graduate school and even then you’re not really any good at it until you get your PhD, and even then. Of course, I’m being general, but my point is that although scientists attempt to reach objectively, advancing in one’s career is always based on the opinions of other scientists and their emotional reaction to your work. We are all human after all. Some will go out of their way to crush you. There is likely little to no difference between science and art in this context. The mistaken belief that scientists are cold emotionless beings that focus on facts couldn’t be further from the truth. Facts are human made and thus subject to misinterpretation, politics, and may in fact be false. All of this being said, science has likely prepared me quite well for the art world.
MK: It’s interesting to find these parallels you are bringing up. As a scientist, do you believe that there may be some formula that would help one tap into their creativity? Are there those in the field of science that inspire the same way someone in the arts does?
I teach a course called How the Brain Encodes Visual Art and in the first few set of lectures we critique the myths related to the brain. One of these myths is that creativity is lateralized in the right brain and logic in the left. A rather absurd idea that has infected all aspects of culture and one I particularly have great contempt for, but I digress. In these lectures we discuss the current state of creativity as studied by psychologists and neuroscientists. In short, it’s pretty much all bullshit, in part, because there is no good definition of creativity and as such there can be no conceptualization to create hypothesis to test it. Thus, there is no real formula per se. It takes the same type of boring process, work, work, work and hopefully you get better at it.
Indeed, when I was in high school, I had scientific heroes such as Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking. Even in college there were researchers that I thought had such amazingly beautiful work and was deeply inspired by them. I actually went to go work for a few of them. The age-old adage of never meet your heroes applied in all of those situations. Now, I am not all that inspired by scientists. Having learned more about the scientific process some of the work created may be less truthful or very much hyped. Then again, I may not have had enough time away from the lab environment to give me some perspective.
MK: I love the blog you’ve included on your website under the heading “Writing”. The analysis and theories presented are a fascinating look at the state of our industry, and indeed help bring light to many conversations about photography. I’m wondering if you feel that the discussions outside of your writing are as thorough as you might hope them to be, or are the multitudes of photographers out there ignoring the past and present in the face of the future?
Thank you very much, Michael.
No, I don’t really ever have conversations that are in line with my writing. Artists and scientists do not know much about the world or language of the other, which I find quite frustrating as there is a good deal of overlap in the creative process. I’m unsure if any photographer’s I know have actually read my work. I’ve noticed in the sciences that most scientists actually do not want to talk about their work unless they’re inebriated. I think this is due, in part, to not wanting people to steal their ideas. Similarly, I don’t really have conversations with other artists about their work or ideas. I’m unsure why. I try to put myself out there, perhaps others feel their work is their word.
In the face of high uncertainty, individuals will take solitude in the past as it is felt to be more certain. Thing is, the past is an illusion much like our imagination of the future.
MK: So much of your work feeds the work you do as a neuroscientist. It has purpose and meaning beyond the visual representation of each image. There’s a seriousness to it that appears to want to answer questions, or at the very least, begin a discussion. I’m wondering if you ever find yourself spending time making photographs for the pure joy of the process? Do you find this important? This, of course, is not to say that you don’t enjoy making them otherwise.
The motivation to photograph as intently as I have came as a result of being completely burnt out. I spent 16 years conducting research and I became tired of it and the culture. At first, my images were a way to escape and allowed me to feel the joy of finding something in nature, akin to neuroscience. I was taking at least one picture everyday for about three years straight based on this motivation. As I grew as a photographer I started to take less and less, which I think is developmentally appropriate. There are only so many pictures one can take of banal scenes. Anyhow, I feel now that creating imagery is more work oriented, which I think is due, in part, to the need to promote my work, attempt to sell pieces, making connections, and the like. This hasn’t necessarily taken the joy out of it, but it is a necessary aspect for a job in general.
MK: What do you feel is the best way for you to grow as an artist? Are there any fears behind treading new waters?
To be creative is to step into the unknown and you may fall or you may catch yourself onto something new. If this does not cause an existential dilemma then you’re probably not doing it right. I’m always scared when starting a new project especially if it’s one I find to be very important to me. I mean, all of my work is important to me, but projects that I have worked hard to get off the ground versus ones that were more naturally evolved, much like my most recent work Image of Structure. I can argue that the series took about 10 years to produce, but in terms of taking the images, it seemed to happen by chance. I incidentally took the image in black and white with very high contrast and found that it worked very well, so much so that I immediately knew this was the image I was trying to make for so long.
All that being said, so much comes from practice. Screw 10,000 photos, I say it takes about 30,000 before a voice starts to develop, which is akin to the number of words known by an adult. The legwork has to be put in and one can never stop. Humans evolved to run. In addition, reading about photographic history, critical theory, and the like – which is like being bilingual – will bring about new ways of thinking and conceptualizations to form different imagery.
Be scared, just don’t let it stop you. That takes bravery.
MK: On the technical side of things, what are the tools you are using to make your images? Are you a film, digital, or both kind of photographer? Does it even really matter what you use?
All of the above. My favorite film camera is my Hasselblad 500 C/M, but I also love making images with my Leica M3. Polaroids are near and dear to me. Of course, I take most photos with my iPhone given that I always have it on me. I use a dSLR, but not as much recently, and I have a X-Pro 1, which has a beautiful sensor. Absolutely, the camera and the stock gives the image it’s very own persona. Depending on my mood I go with one of my dozen or so different cameras. I might have a problem.
MK: What steps do you pursue in order to find an audience for your photographs?
Finding an audience is very tough. I was a science communications manager at MIT and the number one rule is to first figure out who your audience is. One problem I have is that my work is a bit diverse and speaks to different groups of people, as does my writing and my lectures. So, in reality, I haven’t really figured it out. Still, there are some obvious platforms like Facebook and Instagram, but the problem is the sheer volume of other work that the audience can look at. Over the past few years my strategy has been to find calls for entry with juror’s that have put together shows that resonate with me and that are critical nodes in the industry. For example, I’ve had the pleasure to have a portfolio review with Elizabeth Avedon and Ann Jastrab recently, both of whom are very lovely people and have great and practical advice. Anyhow, both had juried shows that I wanted to be in. I also wanted them to be more familiar with my work before I came across an opportunity to have reviews with them. Thus, I made sure to submit to a few calls that they juried so they would be somewhat familiar with my work. Of course, I’m assuming that my work is memorable in some way. In having direct interactions with them I got a better idea of what type of audience my work could resonate with by leveraging their extensive backgrounds. In knowing the audience, I try to find ways to reach said audience. Though, this is all very difficult and never straightforward. Also, such interviews like this are very helpful and writing for photo publications.
MK: Notably, I’ve seen your work appear in the Critical Mass Top 200 for 2017 and 2018, as well as some high profile exhibitions, like one at The Griffin Museum of Photography. How have these achievements compared with those that you have made in your primary career as a neuroscientist - or perhaps they are one and the same?
I often find myself trying to translate such achievements to my science friends. The only comparison I can think of is against the journal one publishes scientific work in. The most impactful journals in neuroscience are Cell, Nature, and Science. Publishing in one of these journals is like exhibiting your work in MoMA. The next tier are Neuron and Nature Neuroscience, which is like exhibiting your work in the Foam Museum. I did not publish my work in those journals. I published in the 3rd tier, more specifically, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) which is an excellent journal and actually is just as influential as the top 3, but not considered as prestigious. Anyhow, I’m going too much into detail. In short, my achievements are seemingly comparable. Though, I think my work in photography is beginning to eclipse those of my neuroscientific life. I would like to think of them as one in the same, but no one else does. Meaning, I won’t get a job as a professor of neuroscience because of my photography and vice versa. There’s also that aforementioned language barrier. Scientists and artists think what I do is interesting, to some degree, but how would they know what value my achievements have in comparison to the other field?
MK: As someone who loves to see artists make photographs using instant film, I have a particular interest in a couple of collections you’ve created. Do the inherent qualities of instant film lend themselves to your theories and ideas of what drives this work, or is this more of a purely aesthetic choice of materials?
Absolutely, I cannot separate the film stock from the concept of the imagery. For Representation of Hidden Communication it was not clear that the film itself would tie in so well. At first, I had used the film solely for the large format negative and the ease of processing. However, I realized the positive was quite beautiful and that it fit well next to the inverted negative. It’s strange, as I brought the images closer together in space the more the concept appeared that the positive was a representation of the raw data produced by scientists and that the inverted negative was the cleaned up, aestheticized, publishable quality presentation of said raw data.
In Prosopagnosia, the circular frame is paramount to the imagery itself. The circle is a portal to another dimension, to the past, it is like a dream that we are viewing from the 3rd person perspective. Without the frame, the images would lack meaning.
MK: Much of your work, like Image of Structure, is an examination of architectural structure. However, you do not necessarily view them in such an obvious or apparent way. They are, in fact, something more, something that helps us define internal struggle and emotion. What brought you to this realization within your work? Do the representations in black and white signify anything as opposed to using color imagery?
Indeed, the imagery is of Frank Gehry’s architecture, but I view the images as their own art object in that I transmute his structure into my own. During my entire time at MIT I continuously came back to the building to make images of it. In a way it ended up becoming a sort of Rorschach and my interpretation of the building changed as my emotional state become more and more weary. It wasn’t until upon reflection, after my PhD, did I realize that the mood of my images was following my psychological health. Finishing original research and presenting it to your pears is a slog and most everyone I know does not come out of it the same, in part, because it is all consuming, the stress cuts to the bone and then beyond, and the amount of work that it takes to finish off the tale end is absurd. Personally, I have not fully recovered and it’s been over seven years.
Most of the images I created of this building were originally in color. It wasn’t until several years later that I finally started to take the images in black and white. It became so obvious with hindsight that the black and white was critical in fully executing my subconscious vision. I feel the strong contrast between the highlights and shadows paralleled the type of inflexibility my work required of me, in seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and nothing else, and the strong sense of isolation I felt in the months leading up to my defense.
MK: My guess is that there is much more coming from you in the near future. Care to take us down the road of what we might expect to see?
I do have a project that I started in 2015, but have had a difficult time completing. Said series is called, Surface and Consciousness. The images are quite straightforward in that they are reflections off of pools of water. However, what I aim to catch are fleeting moments of beauty in an otherwise cold, brutal, and industrialized city. Growing up in California, I had not noticed the natural beauty of the valley I lived in and it wasn’t until I moved to Cambridge that I realized the Bay Area was truly a special place. The lack of nature in this way has really grated my soul.
A longer-term project that I started about a year ago deal with representations of how the brain processes visual art. The project requires finding individuals with traumatic brain injury or congenital aberrations with regard to brain function. Historically, lesion studies were critical – in a way they still are – in identifying what brain regions did what. I seek to parallel this history and I have been working with J. Fredric May and Jane Szabo to this end. I realized that the conceptualizations were actually very difficult to tease out. In a bizarre twist, I ended up making a course on the ideas that underlie this project. Unfortunately, the project has stalled, in part, because I was laid off and had not found full time employment in nearly a year. Resultantly, I was quite depressed during this time and I’m finally coming out of it. I hope to resume this project fully force in the coming months.
You can find more of Joshua's work at his website here.