Mosquitoes, Get Ready for Your Close-Up

An interview with the CDC’s scientific photographer

A female Anopheles gambiae mosquito, one of the species that spreads malaria.  (James Gathany )

How does one art direct a mosquito photoshoot?

James Gathany has some tricks (warm blood, etc). As a photographer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he has spent 30 years shooting microbes, disease-carrying insects, and the occasional celebrity that passes through the CDC. Prince Andrew and Barack Obama are the most memorable humans he’s photographed, he says.

But it is as a scientific photographer that Gathany has made his mark. His photographs—often a close-up of an insect against a red, blue, or green background—have accompanied countless newspaper articles and media reports. (Mine included.) When I mentioned it in our Slack room, my colleague Julie Beck, who's been covering the mosquito-borne Zika virus, typed, “HE is the guy behind the famous green mosquito photo????? / omg I’m starstruck.”

The CDC has now put Gathany’s photographs on exhibit through May at its museum in Atlanta, Georgia. “I must admit being a bit uncomfortable about the attention,” he wrote when I first asked for an interview. But he agreed to talk by phone from his office about his life and 30-year career at the CDC.

An edited transcript of our conversation is below.

Zhang: So my colleagues and I recognized your photographs right away. Especially when Zika first started, no one had really heard of the disease but the CDC had these clear photos of the exact mosquito species involved. I remember seeing the Aedes aegypti photos just everywhere.

Gathany: I see the images occasionally. I have a friend who works at Notre Dame, Frank Collins, that I still shoot for. He mentions that the images I shoot for him end up being used pretty widely.

Zhang: Those are the ones with a mosquito on a green background, right?

One of the famous green Aedes aegypti mosquito photos (Courtesy of James Gathany)

Gathany: Oh, I end up using a green background in a lot of ones I shoot. Actually, it’s funny because that green background generally is a particular type of leaf found on plant called aucuba. It is plant that has strong variegated leaf color, and the mottled look sort gives impression of a forest background with the light coming through. That’s what I use very often. The leaves are thick, almost like succulents, so they don’t wither quickly. I can keep one in the studio and use it for couple of days without it turning brown

Zhang: How did you first starting using an aucuba plant?

Gathany: I very often just go into the backyard, pick a bunch of leaves, and make a background based on that. But then we had an aucuba plant in the backyard so I picked a couple of these leaves. That’s been my standard ever since.

Zhang: A lot of your mosquito photographs capture them while biting someone. What—or I guess, who—is it feeding on when you’re taking those pictures?

Gathany: Actually that’s my finger usually.

Zhang: Your finger?

Gathany: I’ve actually found that it’s easier for me to shoot if it’s on my own skin. I have sometimes used a friend or a colleague—to have it feed and then try to focus. The focusing is much, much easier if it’s on my own skin.

What I do is set up a camera either on a tripod or a stand of some sort and prefocus. And once the mosquitos is feeding on my finger, then I put my finger in the plane of focus. It’s a very, very shallow plane of focus. I’ll move my finger back and forth to get this focus where I want it—usually on the eyes. That’s just actually an easier way to do it. If I’m shooting on someone else’s finger I’m holding the camera and trying to move the camera and trying to move the camera into their space. It’s much much easier for me to control basically my finger, and then I fire the shutter with my other hand.

The feeding of the mosquito is a good opportunity to shoot it without scaring it away. Once she has found a blood source, and is feeding, then if you’re careful, and make no sudden movements, you can move her or a camera, and she will stay where she is. Plus the feeding process is the mode of transmission, and that’s the interesting part for the entomologist.

An Anopheles emerging from its pupal exoskeleton (James Gathany)

Zhang: I’ve had mosquito researchers have tell me that they  get bitten so much, their bites no longer itch. Are you one of those people?

Gathany: I’ve shot umpteen types of mosquitoes and don’t have a reaction to any of them, except occasionally the African mosquitoes will just leave a little red dot, almost like a pinprick. But I don’t have any reaction, no swelling and no itch. So I guess I’m well designed for mosquito research.

As a child I remember having insect or mosquito bites that I reacted to. I don’t think it really has to do with the fact that I shoot so many and let so many feed on me. I don’t know if something changed as I aged, so I just don’t react to them. I have friends who will come sit on my porch with me, and they have to go inside because they’re itching so badly. They just don’t do that to me.

Zhang: Okay, so you let mosquitoes bite you. What about when you’re photographing, say, a black widow?

Gathany: I’m just real careful with a spider. I always worry about a spider bite, but I just keep my distance.  That spider is actually from my home.

A black widow in the middle of spinning her web (James Gathany)

Zhang: The black widow was in your house?

Gathany: Not in my home, but under my home, and I brought it in to work and photographed it. But I kept it contained.

They live under a rock. I knew where they were so I just took one and got the photos that I thought would be useful. That has been used a fair amount, actually.

We do photographs for stock for the Public Health Image Library [the CDC’s repository of public domain images]. We photograph venomous and poisonous animals, including spiders. Even with Zika, I may not have had an assignment per se. But I would think, “Well, we probably should get images of this mosquito and that.” I would go looking for them and put them in the Public Health Image Library so other people would access to them.

Zhang: That reminds me, when SpaceX started launching rockets, they didn’t release their photos to the public domain, which made people realize what they had taken for granted. Because NASA was a government agency, all of our images of spaceflight had been in the public domain and available for anyone to use.

The CDC has also produced this incredible photographic resource of an inaccessible world—not of space but of tiny things.

Gathany: I think about that a lot. I know that’s one reason the images are so widely used. Once people know they’re there, they know they can go there anytime. It’s a fairly simple process. There’s no fee and no permission issues. Really I feel like we’re providing a service for the media and for the public. It’s an educational process to teach about communicable disease, including mosquitos that carry disease or kissing bugs or spiders.

A flamboyantly colored Sabethes cyaneus mosquito native to Panama (James Gathany)

Zhang: How did you get the job with the CDC?

Gathany: I graduated from journalism school, and I was interested in photojournalism and worked in newspapers—a couple of local papers in Atlanta.

I had been working there and a friend told me about this job at CDC. It just really seemed like a good fit. I’d always been interested in public health. I came in, applied, and got the job.  And while I was here, my job transitioned from general photography to scientific photography. I was a bit reluctant at first because I liked getting out and moving around a lot. I had the impression I would be more stuck in the lab. But I never regretted that either. I love so much working with the scientists here.

By the way, I had malaria as a child, so I have personal interest.

Zhang: You grew up the Belgian Congo, right? Is that when you got malaria?

Gathany: I was born there. I left there just before starting school, and that was just by chance really. There was a revolution in the Congo in ’61. We had come home on furlough and the climate was not right to go back, so we ended up staying here and never went back. We never made it back to the Congo.

Everything was left there. And there was really no way to retrieve it. We were never able to retrieve most of our things.

One of the reasons I had such an interest in photography is because I saw it preserved those memories of early childhood. I don’t think a five-year-old would have remembered as much as I do about Africa, except those pictures were shown over and over and the stories were told over and over. My parents were missionaries. When they came back to the States, they traveled and spoke about the experiences in Africa. Those were reinforced with photos. They did a slideshow. It sort of kept that impressed in my mind.

A female Ixodes scapularis tick lays a clutch of eggs. This species transmits diseases like Lyme.

Zhang: Have you been back as part of your work with the CDC?

Gathany: No.  I was scheduled to go to Sierra Leone during the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak. I was finally scheduled—the irony is I have really been a proponent of traveling photographers to document what CDC does in the field. For 30 years I had been trying to get someone else to agree and send us. Finally, I did get a request to travel.When I went to take my shots and clear up my paperwork, my medical conditions were enough that I wasn’t allowed to travel.

Zhang: Oh, I’m sorry.

Gathany: I was really disappointed. I was scheduled to leave on my birthday which would have taken me back to the continent of my birth on my birthday. I thought, ‘This is meant to be.’ As it turns out, I didn’t get to go.

A self-portrait James Gathany shot of himself looking at fungal specimens in 2004. (Courtesy of James Gathany)

Zhang: I’ve noticed your  lab photographs tend to a blue tint to them. How did you settle on that look and how do you create it?

Gathany: Well, I had been asked on occasions to sort of brighten up a drab lab. Most of the labs are pretty drab and monotone. Especially for annual reports and that sort of thing, the requesters would want something a little more colorful, something to catch your eye.

I had worked with gels before. It’s very rudimentary system, just taping a gel over a speed light or camera flash to add color. So when people would see that, they would say, ‘That’s what I want you to do if you could.’ It just became fairly common for me to offer that. Sometimes I shoot it both ways and let them choose, and they almost always choose the image with colorization.

Zhang: Yeah, I think that blue light codes universally as futuristic. You see it in a lot of stock photos of labs, even if it’s not how labs look.

A CDC microbiologist “candles” an egg. By shining a bright light through it, she can tell if will viable for growing flu viruses. (Courtesy of James Gathany)

Gathany: Sometimes I get sort of snide remarks about yeah, that’s really how our labs look. The scientists know that’s maybe not reality.

Sometimes it is though. I remember one shot I did of candling of an egg. A researcher was looking into an egg with a very, very bright source. And those colors are realistic because it was a very dark lab. I used one light and that was a white light on her face because she would have disappeared into the background. The intense light of the candling source created the red because of the insides of the egg.

Zhang: What are you working on now?

Gathany: I have some ticks from a scientist that I work with fairly frequently, Chris Paddock.  He’s working on another publication, and I’ve been shooting some ticks for the project.

Other than that I’ve been shooting portraits. I have a good bit of editing to do. I recently shot in one of the labs that is using the new advanced molecular detection technology [to identify pathogens by their DNA].

It’s a very interesting transition from culturing going directly to molecular information. I’m afraid it may end up displacing some of the type of knowledge you get from working first hand and seeing the images.

A culture of the fungus Schizophyllum commune (Courtesy of James Gathany)

I worked with a doctor here, Arvind Padhye, who almost could identify any mycotic organism by sight. I’ve seen this happen more than once. A biopsy would be sent from India. He would culture, and he would see the growth and know exactly what it was—at least know close enough to do further refinements and testing. The molecular detection is much quicker, but it’s going to be sort of sad the scientist may not even recognize the culture. I shoot for that purpose of archiving images of so people can go and see what they look like.

Zhang: The molecular techniques also seem a lot less interesting to shoot— because there’s nothing to see.

Gathany: Right. Whereas the cultures that are in the exhibit and a lot of others that I see, it’s like a palette that nature’s painted. It’s just an incredible beauty that grows there on your plate. Some of them look like flowers. Some of them look like art to me.