Interview of Neuroscientist Photographer Joshua Sariñana

Joshua Sariñana, PhD is the Program Administrator & Science Writer at Picower Institute for Learning & Memory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA. That’s quite an introduction for a neuroscientist photographer! On PhotoArtMag, we have featured the works of many photographers who are artists, architects, designers and journalists in their walks of life but it’s a rare chance to come across brilliant photography of a neuroscientist.

I was well aware of Joshua’s writings on intersections of neuroscience and photography posted prominently on PetaPixel. In his to-the-point articles written in a comprehensible style, Joshua discusses in great detail the functions and working of our brain, the mind, image-making, memory, imagination, and emotions. The interview below gave me an opportunity to frame some questions only he could be expected to answer – and he does have a way with words, evident from his long replies. Here’s Joshua with a fine selection of his images:

SarinanaJoshua-2Please tell us about yourself. How does it feel like being a neuroscientist-come-photographer and how do you view your evolution as a photographer?

My name is Joshua Sariñana and I’m a MIT trained neuroscientist, self-taught photographer, and I reside in Cambridge, MA. There have been many influences on my scientific and artistic endeavors, but probably none more than my early life experiences in Northern California. I moved often while growing up and have lived in several cites across the Bay Area, which was great with regard to seeing the natural beauty of the geography. However, moving often as I did was stressful and the constant shifting of contexts led me, in part, to develop a type of hypervigilance where I would spend a lot of energy monitoring my environment. The transitory nature of my childhood also led me to develop a superficial understanding of my surroundings and of the children around me at the different schools I attended. I have always felt like an outsider because I never had the opportunity to develop deep roots in places I’ve lived. Although never being in one place long was tough it certainly has helped with my neuroscience research and photography because both require being a sensitive and astute observer to behavior and environmental conditions.

My neuroscience research and photography are ultimately about the relationship between emotion and space. Generally, my PhD thesis focused on understanding the role of dopamine in associating negative experiences to surrounding environmental cues. Dopamine is a brain chemical, or neuromodulator, that plays a role in attention, motivation, and addiction. I showed that dopamine enhances our brain’s ability (specifically the hippocampus) to develop a detailed representation of our environment, which associates to stressful events that occur in that environment. Imagine having had a tumultuous argument at a restaurant with your boyfriend or girlfriend. The context of the restaurant would associate to how you felt during the fight. During the argument your dopamine levels would increase and boost how the brain processes the spatial details of the restaurant, making it more vivid. The next time you walk by the same restaurant the visual cues would ignite similar emotions you had during that fight resulting in rapid breathing, increased heart rate, and perspiration. My photography reflects this type of memory formation, that is, expressing emotion through spatial elements of an environment.

SarinanaJoshua-3It isn’t a coincidence that I spent nearly 10 years investigating how stress alters the brain’s ability to develop memories of specific places. As I’ve progressed as a photographer I see that I use photography to peer into my own struggles with feeling stable. My images are of environments that are saturated with emotion. Similarly, some of my photography work also emphasizes capturing people from afar highlighting difficulties with relationships and people.

How did you get into photography? People in your field complain mostly about not having enough time to pursue their interests. How do you manage to follow photography and have a work-hobby balance?

I happened to come across a poster promoting a study abroad program in Paris at the community college I attended, De Anza. While in Paris I fell completely in love with photography, which was unexpected because I never had any inclination to photograph before my trip. My time in Paris made an incredible impact on how I viewed art, appreciated food, understood culture, and it ultimately influenced my decision to finish my degree in neuroscience at UCLA.

When I first moved to Los Angeles I found it very difficult to get through the thick veneer of superficial pop culture. Once I began to integrate into the city the more I found myself in the company of very talented and creative people in and outside the sciences. I was able to conduct incredible neuroscience research at UCLA while being surrounded by incredible artists, which motivated me to go out and shoot whenever I could. It also helped that my roommate was an avid photographer. I’m unsure if my interest in photography would have been maintained if I hadn’t moved to Los Angeles.

SarinanaJoshua-4After finishing my degree at UCLA I moved to Cambridge to complete my PhD at MIT. Going to a competitive school meant allocating much more time to science research than to photography. However, I always managed to take photos when I travelled and at social events where I preferred being behind the camera than having to maintain conversation. After nearly five years of graduate school I finished my PhD but I was completely burnt out, I gained over 40 pounds, I had a herniated disc in my lower back, and for the first time in my life I was no longer motivated by science. However, I still very much enjoyed photography and I started to spend more and more time shooting, studying the theoretical aspects of photography, and writing about the interactions between neuroscience, photography, and culture at PetaPixel.

Today, I spend as much time dealing with neuroscience as I do with photography. Because managing a PhD project requires a great deal of organization, foresight, and data management, I can draw upon these skills to manage my time for both work and photography. I’m also married with a one-year-old son and having the time to work on photography requires having an incredibly supportive partner. My wife has contributed significantly to my photography by providing critical input on my writings, she has a keen eye for interesting photographs, and because she’s a psychologist we can discuss how photography relates to the mind. Without my amazing wife I wouldn’t be writing this.

SarinanaJoshua-5In your PetaPixel articles you explore and discuss the role our brain and mind play with relation to photography, vision, and memory in a great deal. What more can we expect from technological advancements? Can excessive life-logging and visual dependence have adverse effects on our three domains of learning?

I do not see anything inherently problematic with new technologies that allow us to take more and more pictures. However, I do have two concerns about technological advancements, the effects of information overload on cognitive function and invasion of privacy, which relate to one another. Having vast amounts of images makes navigating those images difficult, which may inhibit rather than support the access of necessary photos and by analogy, memory. Think of those several thousands iPhone photos you’ve accumulated over the years. The good news is that companies like Google and Facebook are trying their hardest to use artificial intelligence programs to analyze images more effectively to abstract information and to make finding information easier. Unfortunately, their artificial intelligence technologies will encroach our privacy. Excessive life logging will teach artificial intelligence programs to recognize you with accuracy better than any human and they’ll be able to reconstruct your face from a partial image. Moreover, it will be virtually impossible to prevent facial recognition software from detecting who you are. That being said, humanity has been logging life experiences since the rise of homo sapien-sapiens (i.e., humans). Storing information as cave drawing, text in clay, bound in books, transferred across cables, programmed into punch cards, digitized into zeros and ones, networked across social platforms, and all other manifestations exist as extensions of our memory.

SarinanaJoshua-6What are your methods or critical approaches of taking pictures? How much of it is  well-thought-of or spontaneous?

I photograph in a similar fashion to how I approach research. I read a lot to orient to a project, I then use several different techniques/cameras (often in parallel) to acquire data/pictures. After several weeks/months/years I look back at what I have to see if a narrative is starting to form. I re-adjust or drop certain techniques/cameras and trouble shoot to acquire the data/images I need. I become more and more focused as a clearer view of the project emerges and once I can see a full story I’ll decrease the time I spend collecting data/images. I’ll then work on polishing what I have to make it presentable, working on fine edits, putting data/images back in or taking some out to see how it lends itself to the story. Once I feel content enough I’ll publish what I have.

Your photography has a distinctive fine-art style with images being contrastive, somewhat grim and focusing on shapes and structures. How (and why) did you develop this style?

In this series presented here I use the iPhone to create homogeneous retro-style images that purposefully attend to nostalgia, academically and emotionally, to decontextualize place and time. My series speaks to the automation of contemporary social connection. That is, becoming more dependent on mobile devices to cope with our ever-increasing detachment from those physically near us all with the hope of feeling more connected. I seek to depict a quiet anxiety that fuels our avoidance of being alone together.

SarinanaJoshua-7Although the smartphone is a technological wonder of 21st century photography, the mobile camera is often used to represent an analogue aesthetic of 1970s film. Today’s ubiquitous use of retro filter-based apps pays homage to the aesthetics of stylistically influential ‘70s photography, such as work from Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Joel Meyerowitz, but repeating to excess the social sharing and instability of images a la Polaroid instability.

My photographs are a collection of data that help me construct a narrative about how I interact with my surroundings so that I may better understand how I feel. Because I can edit within the camera, I can translate the emotions of the moment into post-processing with minimal distraction. As I curate my images, patterns emerge, pictures are categorized, and I process how I feel with the ability to share instantly.

Tell us about the equipment (camera and lenses and phone) you mostly use. What is your workflow like and what are your views on editing and digital manipulation?

I’m always changing up the cameras I use. I just received a compact full-frame camera from a Kickstarter project I backed about two-and-a-half years ago. I’ve never shot on 4”x 5” film and I jumped into it without realizing how different it is from all other cameras and film I’ve used. Generally, I don’t think about going into a new project or technique because I wouldn’t start otherwise. Once in the thick of it I figure stuff out as I go, which is also similar to how I conduct research.

SarinanaJoshua-8Throughout the years I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to shoot with a number of different types of cameras, here’s a list:

Disposable Kodak cameras, Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-V1, Canon Rebel XT, Canon 7D, Fujifilm Instax Mini 8, Fujifilm X100, Fujifilm X-Pro1, Canon 5D Mark III, Leica M3, Leica D-Lux 4, Leica X1, Polaroid One, Polaroid 440, Polaroid SX-70, Impossible Universal Lab, Hasselblad 500CM, Voigtlander Bessa-R3A, and I’m probably missing a few others.

I mostly shoot with my iPhone.

Tell us about your achievements, awards, clients, publications or any book that you’ve authored, etc.:

Most recently I was a finalist for the EyeEm photography awards. I also receive the 2nd place spot for the architecture and seasons category for this years iPhone photography awards along with over a dozen more honorable mentions. Several of my photos were also recognized by the Mobile Photography Awards and the TZ International Photography Black & White Awards. I’ve been fortunate to have my photos exhibited at galleries in New York City, Paris, Florence, Portugal, and London. I’ve also had my work recognized by LensCulture’s editorial staff.

SarinanaJoshua-9A few months ago I had one of my images licensed for an iPhone commercial. There are also images that have been licensed through Getty in collaboration with the mobile app EyeEm. With regard to publications most of my writing can be found online at PetaPixel. In early September I published an article in the photography publication Don’t Take Pictures, my piece is called Nostalgia and the Collapse of Imagination. I also made a photo-book called Image of Structure. In the near future I hope to publish academic work on the intersection of photography and neuroscience. All of my photography work and writing has been with the aim of creating content for a book on neuroscience, photography, and culture.

SarinanaJoshua-10Please share your favorite stuff: photographers, quotes, films, books, music etc.

Painter: Edward Hopper

Photographer: Richard Avedon

Movie: Children of Men

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” – Albert Einstein (but questionable)

Book: Ender’s Game

Music: The XX

Something to say to our readers or aspiring photographers:

There are some long lasting myths about the brain such as we only use 10% of it, that creativity is in the left hemisphere and logic in the right, and that there are only five senses. These are all wrong.

SarinanaJoshua-11 SarinanaJoshua-12 SarinanaJoshua-13 SarinanaJoshua-14 SarinanaJoshua-15 SarinanaJoshua-16 SarinanaJoshua-17 SarinanaJoshua-18 SarinanaJoshua-19 SarinanaJoshua-20 SarinanaJoshua-21All photos © Joshua Sariñana : Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Google+ | Tumblr

About Nishant Mishra

Nishant studied art history and literature at the university during 1990s. He works as a translator in New Delhi, India and likes to read about arts, photography, films, life-lessons and Zen.

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