Anand Varma did not have a conventional upbringing in photography. He never owned a film camera, he never had the desire or a plan to become a professional. He actually came to photography from a background in biology. But after a chance job as a photography assistant turned out to be a lot more fun than research, Varma was hooked. As he soon discovered, photography was just as good a way to explore the world as science—and perhaps an even better way to communicate those discoveries with the general public.
The idea for “Mindsuckers” first came when Varma encountered some fascinating parasitic creatures as a biology student. But Varma’s feeling of connection with these creatures was not widely shared. As Varma realized, “No one wants to know about parasites. Unless you study them, you probably think they’re gross and you don’t want to hear about them, let alone look at them.” Thus, Varma’s challenge became how to capture his subject in such a way that would engage people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested.
In developing the visual approach for his series, Varma was faced with another difficulty: parasites operate in life cycles, while photography is best at capturing a single moment. Varma realized that the purpose of his photographs was not to illustrate the parasite’s whole existence but to find the one frame where the parasite’s relationship with its host was at its most dramatic.
For example, in trying to capture the horsehair worm coming out of the cricket [image 2, above]—there is only one instant when the action is most clear. A moment before and the worm is still inside the cricket, invisible. A moment after and it’s impossible to believe that a worm that long actually came out of a simple cricket. Of course, to capture that image was not simple—in fact, it was the hardest to capture of any in the series. For three or four weeks, Varma had to deal with dying crickets, slow-developing worms, moments that were just not right. Eventually, Varma had to leave the lab and return home. The researcher was kind enough to ship Varma the crickets, so that he could get the shot he needed, at his own pace.
But to produce each of the shots in “Mindsuckers,” Varma did not only have to capture the decisive moment, he had to convey his subjects in a compelling way. In order to best emphasize what he was shooting, Varma looked towards some unexpected sources of inspiration: film noir, comic books, Japanese anime. All of these styles had figured out creative ways of using light to separate subjects from their background and to draw the eye to certain parts of the frame—perfect for Varma’s purposes.
Varma also had the advantage of shooting in laboratories, in controlled settings. Combining his artistic inspirations with a rigorous, scientific approach, Varma methodically got closer and closer to the results he wanted. In Varma’s words, “Each photograph on my digital camera is like a visual experiment. I take a shot, I look at the results, analyze them, and then design a new iteration of that experiment.”
Given his unusual subject material and his highly controlled approach, Varma was initially a bit surprised to have his work recognized by World Press Photo, an organization more associated with photojournalism or conflict photography. Yet upon further reflection, Varma began to see his work was not really so different. Like a photojournalist, Varma’s job is to capture people’s attention and show them something they might otherwise avoid taking the time to think about (war, parasites). And Varma, like everyone at World Press Photo, is simply trying to tell stories about the world.
Editors’ Note: You can find more of the work from the winners of last year’s World Press Photo in our selection of 8 Great Series from World Press Photo Awards Winners.
Or you can see the work of all the 2015 winners in our World Press Photo Awards 2015 overview.