I am surrounded by piranhas, they are circling around me like vultures over a carcass. I’m in the middle of nowhere. I stick my head out of the water and see a flat plain, a vastness with nothing in it except clouds and Trachypogon grass. The savanna extends as far as your eyes can see. If something happens to me here, it will take a long time until somebody finds me. I am a river explorer, and this is my “studio.” I do not refer to what I do as work, because it is my passion.
The Link Between Science and Art
By Ivan Mikolji / 2015
I have been in this savanna clear water natural drainage canal for six days now. I have inspected the spot thoroughly and collected voucher specimens of freshwater aquatic plants and fish for scientific research. The water parameters, and field notes are all taken. Now, it is time for the artistic part of my passion, which is fusing nature with science and art. I am a rare breed, I carry the scientific part in my brain and art in the heart. I sort of divide things in two ways. The giving part of me that does a lot of “environmental-scientific” things in benefit of humanity and our planet, and then a more egoistic part of me in which I take the time to do what fulfills me as a person, art. I love water, and I include it in most if not all of my projects. Any of my images that do not feature water, were for sure taken next to a body of water or during the search for water.
Creating environmental artwork is not as easy as it seems. Preparations start way before the actual expeditions take place. I usually start by asking some of the worlds best botanists, ichthyologists, and entomologists, who have teamed up with me in my ventures, which specimens they have no images of. It may seem illogical, but a large amount of animals and plants that have been already discovered and scientifically described are still unknown by them. You see, every animal or plant that is scientifically described normally has a voucher specimen to back it up, either dried, stuffed or floating in formaldehyde more or less like Hirst’s shark. Sometimes these specimens get lost and only the scientific writings are left. Specimens like plants and flowers lose their color as they dry up. The same discoloration happens to samples that spend some time floating in alcohol. So scientists always appreciate my help in looking for live images of animals and plants. The lists I get from them are super long. A good example are the 600+ missing live images out of the 1100+ species of freshwater fish found in Venezuela. Another of my titles could be biological treasure hunter, as well. Once I decide what species sounds interesting or tempting to look for I start collecting scientific data on the biome, ecosystem, habitats, plants, and animals that I am more than likely to encounter in the area as well. This research is done in museums, online, in books and most important of all, with the same or other collaborators worldwide. Once I feel that I have enough information the actual expedition planning begins. Preparing a new expedition is like preparing blank canvases. To create art, I use the same steps as for scientific research, the difference is the amount of time I dedicate to capture an image and how I view it, before taking the shot. Art continues where the science ends.
Back at the savanna drainage canal; my starting point is from the outside of the water. I dedicate time to see where each fish species spends their time, where the red, blue, green aquatic plants are, I see where the water is flowing the way I need it for my art. I memorize this information and have something that approximates to a photographic memory in this sense. I cannot remember where I left my hat, but I can remember 20 different spots in a stream which would all look alike for the untrained eye. It is incredible to see how years of training give you something similar to an acquired 6th sense in which I can break down an ecosystem and see what I would like to photograph.
Once I have my mental river art map, I start from the lowest point in the river, if you start from the top, you are stirring the silt and all other flotsam constantly as you make your way downstream. This creates unwanted backscatter which I do not need in these images. With every step I take, I make sure that I do not step on one of the many freshwater stingrays that burry themselves in the sand bottom and under the aquatic plants. These fish are so well camouflaged or buried in the river bottom that it makes them almost impossible to spot. The easiest way to avoid them is to drag your feet instead of taking steps. If one of these stings me, my trip would change from a nature expedition to a hospital expedition. The nearest hospital is about seven to eight hours away.
As I submerge myself in the tropical 80 ° Fahrenheit water, again, I see the piranhas circling around me. In this spot there are about 8 different species of them. I look for my first selected spot, and find my current artistic passion, the underwater reflections.
Underwater reflections are what you see when you are below water and look up at the water surface above you. The underwater surface of water reflects the colors of whatever is below water and mixes it with the colors that are above water. The degree of mix is determined by the angle at which it is seen, the amount of light that is entering from the top or reflected from below, the flow or movement of the water tension, the percentage of surfactants in the water, camera lens, and many more variables.
These underwater reflections have become my subject of study. I spend a considerable amount of time in the wild investigating and trying to understand how all these variables interact. Nowadays, after years of revealing secrets, answering questions and knowing how to find what I’m looking for, I can at last shoot these ephemeral ever changing reflections in an artistic way. I feel so grateful to have found what makes my imagination, curiosity and inspiration tick. It is incredible to think that the essence of my favorite photographic theme is not even touchable, it does not materially exist. If I turn my camera flash on, the reflections disappear. As I hold my breath underwater and look at this incredible phenomenon, I smile. This is natural art, and it is all being created in front of me. Nature is showing me the best it has to offer. Even though I have discovered many new species of fish and plants, I catalogue underwater reflections as one of my personal greatest discoveries as a river explorer. The concept of an underwater reflection is hard to understand. If I place my camera in the wrong angle, they disappear. If I turn my flash on, they disappear. If I place my camera too close to the flow, my underwater case changes the current and I get a created reflection, not a natural one. As I change the position of the camera, the reflections change in pattern, change in color. Some of the reflections are hard to believe they are real. When red, blue and green aquatic plants fuse in an underwater reflection with a blue sky above, you get a natural masterpiece. Nature is creating and I am capturing. I record it at its best. I’m in love with nature.
I finish photographing the underwater reflections in my first spot. I look around and photograph fish and plants at a “different” point of view. These are images that will probably wind up in scientific literature but as “front covers” or used by more “modern” scientists. One of the things that I think makes my work different than other’s is the absence of flash in most of my work. I have learned to live without using flash, photographing everything as is, as I find it in the wild, like what you are seeing in the wild. When there is not enough light, I simply do not take the image and come back at another time of the day to take it when it can be photographed. I am not against flash or artificial lights, I just choose to use them for other purposes. I find flash extremely useful to create special effects. One of my favorites is when I use “biological” color filters to “paint” a subject. I do this by placing a translucent object, like a leaf or flower, between the subject and the flash. This brings environmental photography to whole new level and gives you a never ending supply of creative lighting options and variables.
When the sun starts to set and there is not enough natural light underwater, I get out and start taking macro photography of “interesting stuff” I find in the area near the water. I take the time to photograph every wild flower even if it looks insignificant. I actually love photographing wild flowers, they bring happiness and harmony to my soul. Most of these flowers are very humble in color and even the indigenous people do not have a common name for them. But, you know what? These are the flowers that attract the prettiest butterflies and insects. I do not know why, but I find them as attractive as the bugs do! It is so gratifying to watch scientists go through your images after an expedition saying, “oh wow, this is a new undescribed orchid species” or “these are the first live images of Cleistes abdita. May I have some of these images for the scientific catalogue?”
As the day comes to an end I change my macro lens to a wide angle, preparing to photograph the sunset. I also take the time to apply large amounts of insect aerosol repellent on myself and on a piece of cloth. This time of the day is when you get the largest concentrations of small black flies usually referred to as no-see-ums. They come by the thousands and leave a painful itchy sores wherever they land to feed off you. Sometimes there are so many of them circling around your head, again, like vultures over a carcass, that you occasionally breathe one in. I place the cloth around my camera lens, hoping to deter some of the bugs from flying or walking on the lens glass. They are more of a problem when shooting video, but do affect images as well when there are many walking on the glass. I will probably have to buy a small battery operated fan, place it next to the lens, to get rid of them for good.
I have done over 100 scientific research expeditions with no sponsors. The gear, money and time come out of my pocket. I am actually always looking for people or organizations who can sponsor my expeditions and because I have not found any, I use the money I get from writing articles, selling my artwork, stock video footage and self-produced documentaries to fund them myself. Most of the images I take are given out for free for non-profit scientific educational material which includes books, scientific reprints, etc. I also give out free images or video footage to organizations that are working in benefit of a species, environment, or habitat.
All my scientific research and art is not restricted to the wild. I also work in man-made “environments” like labs, museums and aquariums with controlled lighting but they usually come around with an ecological notion, a wellbeing message for the environment. The artistic photographs I took of a lionfish, for example, were taken to the first lionfish captured live in Venezuelan waters. Lionfish are an invasive species originally from the Indo-Pacific. A few years ago they were introduced into the Atlantic Ocean and since then have been spreading nonstop by lack of natural predators. These fish are threatening the local fish species. So I took the time to go and photograph this specimen to orientate people on how destructive it can be to introduce non-native species into the wild. Another image that I love a lot is “Altum Angelfish Pterophyllum altum DSC08862” this particular species of fish is partially extinct in its natural habitat due to tropical fish collectors, pollution, and habitat loss. I have seen these fish captured until they are depleted in certain streams in the Amazon. So, there is a story behind that image as well, it is not just another picture of a fish. There is always an ecological awareness to my work. I am always trying to educate and leave a message about a better world for everyone and future generations. This all sounds like an overused washed out cliché but it is not. I really believe that a positive and optimistic intake of natural knowledge is the key to instill conservation awareness.
Once I am back from my expeditions and I go through the images I wonder, “Does art imitate life, or life imitate art?”
This article has been published at:
• Artblend Magazine – Vol. 3, Winter 2015