Shoot What You Know: an Interview with Alex Wild
There is some truth to the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. And, if done well, photographs can make science communication efforts more appealing and effective to a wide variety of audiences.
Few science communicators use photography as well as Alex Wild. Wild has gone from academic entomologist to professional photographer, using his images to give viewers insight into the world of the insects that live all around us. His work has appeared in National Geographic, Popular Science, Scientific American and the New York Times, among other outlets, and is featured prominently in the free e-book Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants. He also writes about insects and photography on his blogs Myrmecos and Compound Eye, and you can view his work at alexanderwild.com.
I wanted to know what drew him to photography, why he made the switch from professional scientist to professional photographer, and what he views as the biggest challenge for professional science artists. His answer may surprise you.
Communication Breakdown: You are a professional photographer, but you got your Ph.D. in entomology and spent years doing research on ants. When did you become interested in insects, and what drew you to ants in particular?
Alex Wild: I don’t have a good answer for why I like insects, which is disappointing considering how often I am asked about it.
I’ve been an insect nerd, and especially an ant nerd, since before I can remember. As a young child I collected ants in little cups and made crude drawings that, while obviously the work of a six-year old, still managed to capture the budding ant taxonomist’s attempts at the right number of body segments. I was also big on fossils, snakes, tadpoles, caterpillars, bats, and bees. Not spiders, though.
Ants are social insects, constructing tiny societies, and the discovery that any patch of habitat contains dozens of different arthropod civilizations was revelatory. Imagine learning that aliens have been living among us all along. A fascination with ants is like that.
CB: Your Twitter handle is @Myrmecos. I’m guessing that’s ant related?
Wild: Myrmecos is an English bastardization of an ancient greek word for ants. The –myrmex-root is ubiquitous in science communication. Myrmecology is the scientific study of ants, for example, and some of our common ant species are Myrmica, Myrmecina, Trachymyrmex, and so on. So I co-opted the term for online use, since I spent an inordinate amount of time on these little animals.
CB: You are well known for your photographs of ants and other small arthropods, such as spiders. When did you begin taking photographs, and when did you decide to focus your lens on insects and arachnids?
Wild: Photography was always just a tool for me. I liked insects first. I bought my first digital camera for the sole purpose of photographing them. I’ve never taken photography on for its own sake, and only trained myself on it so that I could do a better job with the bugs.
CB: A lot of people take photographs as a hobby. When did you “get serious” about your photography?
Wild: If, by “serious” you mean, taking the extra time to make a better photograph, I’ve been doing that since my first digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix 995.
I made the biggest leap in technical ability when I had the experience to look at a photo and reverse-engineer how it was made. Mimicry is a valuable skill for any starting photographer. And now that I’m more established, I’m tickled to see other photographers mimicking my own techniques. Of course, I’m not shy about sharing recipes.
CB: In 2005, you decided to begin taking photographs professionally. Why?
Wild: The professional photography was a complete accident. I created a website, myrmecos.net, in 2003 as a place to hold my photographs. This was in the years before Flickr and Facebook, when woolly mammoths still roamed the plains. If I wanted to share my work in the pre-social media days, I had to build my own venue. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but setting up a website was a de facto establishment of a business. I was just an entomology graduate student with some bug photos, with no aspirations beyond wanting people to see my bug photos.
A key part of the story is that I am trained as a taxonomist. So I spent time making sure the photo captions had the correct Latin names and descriptions of the behaviors. Labeling photographs with detailed technical information turns out to make it easy for photo editors & textbook publishers to find my images online. Before long I was getting emails and phone calls from various publishers looking for specific photographs of particular insects. They weren’t necessarily after my pretty photos. Rather, they were after the ones that had accompanying information about behaviors, classification, underlying research. My clients were mostly textbook and field guide publishers, but also nature magazines and natural history museums. I learned quickly that the value in a science photograph comes more from the subject matter and the curation of associated information than from the aesthetics of the photograph itself.
With people unexpectedly trying to license my work, I had to scramble to figure out how to price photo licenses, how to write invoices, how to file taxes on business income. I’d not intended to operate commercially, but the photo business became an increasingly steady sideline. In the first couple of years my equipment paid for itself. Then it started to pay for travel to places where I could take more photographs.
CB: After six years of balancing academic research and your career as a photographer, you left academia to focus on photography full-time. Why make that move? And why then?
Wild: My photography business has been growing steadily. By 2010 or so I was interacting with enough clients that I was starting to have troubles juggling my postdoctoral research position with the needs of my business. I cut my postdoc appointment down to 50 percent time, and then, when my contract ended, I just let it drop. I was making enough money to replicate my university paycheck at that point, and since I enjoy being my own boss I was happy to make the leap.
CB: Do you still do any research?
Wild: I’ve always got a couple small collaborations going, but I haven’t initiated new projects since going full-time into photography. I’m working on the phylogeny of some rare neotropical army ants, and on finding the origin of a relatively new invasive ant spreading along in the U.S. Gulf Coast. Nothing big.
CB: Forgive me if this is a crass question, but I know nothing about professional photography and I’m curious: how do you make a living as a photographer? I mean, do you sell work to magazines? Do you go on assignment? How does that work, when you specialize in microfauna?
Wild: Very few photographers can make a living just selling stock images to magazines. That was common a generation ago. I am no exception. My business is about equal parts running photography workshops and teaching private lessons, and equal parts taking commissioned projects and licensing from my library. I do sell prints and other merchandise, but that’s a relatively small component of my business.
CB: Somewhere along the line you started blogging. You currently write your own Myrmecos blog, as well as Compound Eye for Scientific American Blogs. Which one came first?
Wild: Myrmecos started in 2003 as a static photo site and became a blog in 2007. I guess this makes me one of the older science bloggers. Myrmecos has had various homes, including the original Scienceblogs network, but as the more personal of the two blogs I prefer to keep it independent.
CB: Compound Eye focuses on science photography (pun intended), while Myrmecos covers photography, science and insects. It seems like there’s a lot of overlap. How do you decide which posts go to Compound Eye versus Myrmecos?
Wild: This is pretty simple. Ant nerdery and personal navel-gazing goes to Myrmecos, while photography technique, industry commentary, and copyright topics end up in Compound Eye.
CB: You’ve been a vocal champion for science artists, calling for greater awareness of artists’ legal rights, the need for users to give artists attribution for their work, etc. What are some of the biggest problems facing the science art community?
Wild: The biggest problem? In the United States, the lack of a decent healthcare system. I hardly ever write about this, but a great many artists and photographers are less productive than they ought to be because they remain in day jobs they don’t like just for the affordable benefits. Either that or they are out on their own, uninsured, or paying huge monthly premiums just for catastrophic coverage, or they depend on a working spouse. The United States is a terrible business environment for very small companies and freelancers like me. The sooner we adopt a sensible single-payer system like the rest of the civilized world, the more secure and more productive our artists and other creative small entrepreneurs will be.
The internet is a big challenge, it changed the playing field, of course, but for all the complaining I do about internet copyright violations on balance the internet has been phenomenal for science artists. There are so many more uses and markets for science imagery, and it’s never been easier for starting artists to find an audience.
CB: Obviously anyone that uses an image should get the artist’s permission and provide attribution. What else can non-artists do to help the science art community address those problems?
Wild: I’m going to disagree with your premise! Copyright law details a number of fair uses where people can copy art without permission – including for editorial commentary on the image, for example. You may be able to legally present a copy of anyone’s work on your blog, so long as the image itself is news, or the point of the post is a critique of the work. You can also copy someone’s art as a parody of the artist without permission.
The trouble comes when the use of the image is as an illustration for a post not explicitly about that same piece of work, or if the image is being coopted in a commercial context to sell something. In these cases, an infringed artists can legally have the web host remove the image, or in more extreme cases even retrieve cash damages through the courts.
Non-artists would do well to remember that an image found online took a real live human being time and money to create. The artist may or may not have uploaded their work for the world to share. They may have licensed it to a client who put it online, for example, or someone else may have scanned it in from a book and posted it. Either way, it should be common manners to ask an artist if they mind your use of their work, and whether they expect payment in exchange for use.
And whatever you do, don’t tell an artist they’ll get “exposure”. They were already exposed enough for you to find them.
CB: Are there online resources that you’d recommend for artists who are concerned that their work is being stolen?
Wild: Google’s reverse image search is invaluable for locating copies of a given image. Google is much more powerful than the other image-finding tools I use, and has the advantage of drawing from the same database where most copyright infringers take their illicit copies.
CB: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to pursue science photography, as a career or as a hobby?
Wild: Shoot what you know. Just like writing. You’ll tell better stories that way.