Hmm, my post on colored-spotlight lab photos seems to have hit a couple of nerves. I note that a few photographers have defended their gel-shooting ways in the comments:
"Photos help create interest in your work. Adding a little Hollywood glitz is the price you pay if you want to continue getting paid."
"As a photographer, I would only note that my colleagues and I simply may have been trying to make the pictures interesting enough to bring *more* people in to read the stories. Which, of course, is where they would learn about what you were actually doing.
The profile of scientists is far too high as it is, I think. I doubt you can safely walk the streets in anonymity these days. The last thing you guys need is more visibility, what with all of the unsolicited, excess grant money rolling in. I mean, how can a scientist burn through that kind of green with just 24 hours in a day?
. . .Amazingly in the 21st century, some photographers are still trying to increase the interest and visibility levels of science.
What a waste."
Well, let's clear up a couple of things. First off, fortunately, I'm not dependent on grant money. I work in industry, for a very large company, and we raise and spend our own cash. And believe me, we have no problem burning money - it's trying to figure out how not to burn all of it that occupies our time. That means that what I'm really dependent on is people buying our drugs, and on my lab (and the others like it) coming up with new ones. Interestingly colored pictures of our work will do very little to advance either of those.
Second, although I didn't make a big point of it, this brochure was (as mentioned in the first paragraph) in-house. Its target audience was people who already work for the company, which made the colored gels even more laughable than they would be otherwise. This wasn't for the local newspaper's color front page. There was no public outreach involved.
But as for that, well, that's one reason I have this blog. I'd found over the years that almost no one I met had any idea of what it was like to do drug discovery research, so I jumped at the chance to talk about it. Much of what people think they know is incorrect, too - if my salary depended only on what a good opinion people have of drug companies, I'd be in trouble. No, I think it's great for people to find out what this job is like - I just think that glitzed-up photos are a poor way to do that.
Why? For one thing, they're a cliché. These shots have been a joke for many, many years among scientists, and if you tried to count up all the purple glows (or red-green-blue colored flasks) out there in print, you'd never finish the job. I think that for every person who (unaccountably) finds such a picture compelling enough to read the accompanying article, there must be two who flip past it in boredom. They've seen it a thousand times before; it's not an eye-catcher any more.
But that's a practical matter. A larger one is the problem of falsification. It's not just that our labs don't look like that, although they sure don't. It's that one group of viewers will take away the wrong message (that lab work is constantly exciting and dramatic, like on TV), and another more suspicious group,will take away another wrong message: that it's so boring that it has to be tarted up to be bearable at all.
The truth's in between. Exciting stuff happens, but it doesn't happen the way a screenwriter (or an art director) would lay it out. And while the exciting stuff isn't happening a lot of routine work is getting done, and a lot of dead ends are explored in what is (in retrospect) horrible detail. The job takes a particular personality type, and if you get frustrated easily or have a short attention span - in other words, if you're the type who needs the stimulus of bizarre colors to find something worth looking at - then it's not going to work out well for you as a career.
I'll close with one other photographer's comment:
"Science is about accurately representing data. Photography is about making an interesting image.
True enough, although photography - not promotional photography, admittedly - can also be about accurately representing reality. But what would a bunch of photographers think of some pictures allegedly showing them at work, but with no cases of equipment in sight, no encumbering battery packs or extra camera bodies. . .just dynamic-looking poses of them holding cameras which, for some reason, are glowing orange and green and purple? If you won't do that to each other, why will you consent to do it to us?