Engrossing Portraits of Parasites and the Creatures They Zombify
Perhaps the only thing more unsettling than close-up photographs of insects is close-up photographs of parasites zombifying insects. Anyone who gets squeamish about such things definitely will want to stop reading now.
Anand Varma has no such problems and spent more than two years photographing creepy-crawlies for Mindsuckers, sometimes capturing the exact moment when a parasite burst forth from its host. Backlighting gives his photos an imposing feel, making the sight of a six-legged frog or a ladybug with a gob of waxy wasp larvae clinging to it seem more than a little disturbing, even if it is all part of nature.
“I love photographing these creatures because they give us new insights into how complex and bizarre the natural world is,” he says.
Varma started taking photos when he was a teen and earned a bachelor’s degree in integrative biology from UC Berkeley. The two passions merged when he landed a gig as an assistant to National Geographic photographer David Liittschwager. Mindsuckers was his first pitch to the magazine.
Though there are countless parasite-host relationships, Varma focused on 12. He chose creatures infected with relatively large parasites because they’re easier to see. He found his subjects by getting in touch with parasitologists, and often found himself waiting several days for the parasite to become visible or emerge from its host. Some were easier to photograph than others. The ant infected with a parasitic nematode, for example. The parasite makes the ant’s abdomen turn a bright red, which Varma made shine with a the help of a fiber optic light.
Others required more work, and patience. Varma spent three weeks in a lab waiting for a parasitic worm to emerge from a house cricket. The worm eventually drives the cricket to dive into water so the parasite can emerge, but it often happens quickly. Varma finally got the shot after a little experimentation. “I cooled the infected cricket down in order to also slow down the worm, and mixed a specific formulation of salts into the water to mimic the internal chemistry of the cricket,” he says. “This tricked the worm into thinking it was still inside the cricket.”
He worked in a small mobile studio, placing the animals in aquariums, petri dishes, or on glass panes. He uses homemade soft boxes, fiber optic lights and optic lenses that allowed him to precisely illuminate each creature. He shot them against a black velvet background, making them look like something from a sci-fi movie or a graphic novel, their fate infinitely more monstrous and extreme under his lens. While many of the animals were infected by scientists in the lab, Varma also went into the field. To photograph the Leucauge argyra spider, Varma traveled to Costa Rica and had to hide a bucket of them from the hotel maids until their parasites reached their most photographic stage.
Varma hopes the project will make people curious, not sick. If equating parasites with zombies helps, so be it. “It helps when journalists are able to find creative ways to help the public relate to science,” he says. “In this case, I think the comparison of these parasites to ‘zombies’ has captured people’s imagination and helped these organisms gain popularity.”