Photograph by Marcus DeSieno
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Ixodes scapularis | deer tick
Photograph by Marcus DeSieno

Musings: Marcus DeSieno Faces Tiny Monsters

What fascinated you when you were a kid? What ideas snuck into your mind, keeping you from sleep? For photographer Marcus DeSieno, that childhood infatuation revolved around what he couldn’t see.

“My brother was babysitting me and he brought home the movie Alien. There’s the premise that an alien is gestating in a human stomach and pops out and terrorizes people. That developed a fear of these invisible monsters, the idea that something could be living inside me. I carried that over into adulthood and then decided one day that it would be interesting to confront this fear,” DeSieno says.

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Baylisascaris procyonis Click or hover to view the parasite’s common name

He has moved on from aliens, and DeSieno now focuses on the very real organisms that can indeed host themselves on and in humans: Parasites. “I want to index these invisible things and figure out why they are grotesque,” he says. “As a child, I had rock collections and bug collections. I wanted to catalogue, and that’s carried over into my art practice.”

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Pulex irritans Click or hover to view the parasite’s common name

He began by photographing the basic contenders: ticks, hookworms, tapeworms. From there, DeSieno branched out.

“I started talking with parasitologists, and I’ve learned a little bit about the structure of some of these creatures. I’ve learned what might be visually interesting. I’ve been working with the National Institute of Health and with parasitologists and microbiologists at the University of South Florida. They’ve given me access to these specimens.”

These creatures aren’t all totally invisible, but some of them “might look like a strand of hair if you looked at them with the naked eye.” So putting them under a microscope magnifies their other-worldly details.

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Hirudo medicinalis Click or hover to view the parasite’s common name

DeSieno’s process has a lot of steps. First, he photographs the parasites (which are dead, dehydrated, and composed to his liking) using a device called a Scanning Electron Microscope, which produces very high resolution images of the magnified creatures. He then brings the resulting image file into the computer and uses it to print a digital negative. Next, he exposes that negative onto a dry-plate gelatin ferrotype, a photographic technique that was invented in the 1850s. It’s there in the darkroom that he uses chemicals to achieve the “puss yellows and puke greens” present in his final images. Lastly, he takes that ferrotype (also called a tintype) and scans it, printing a final piece that is about four feet in length, allowing us to face the tiny object of our fears on a scale where we can really see the physical characteristics of the thing we’re afraid of.

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Cimex lectularius Click or hover to view the parasite’s common name

Through this project, DeSieno has done what some people attempt for their entire lives: He has become comfortable with something that used to make his skin crawl.

“Now, I think they’re the most adorable animals in the world. I look at some of the pictures that I take, and I’m like, ‘Man this guy is adorable. He’s so cute.’ I’ve come a long way for sure.”

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Taenia solium Click or hover to view the parasite’s common name

But the moral of the story is not that parasites aren’t powerful or destructive. “Certain parasites, especially the malarial parasite, are so easy to spread. They have killed more people in the world than any war combined in the history of human civilization. Parasites can have a far-reaching effect on society. And a majority of people probably have them and don’t know it,” he says.

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Fasciola hepatica Click or hover to view the parasite’s common name

Ultimately DeSieno wants to empower himself and others to learn about the world, and he sees that as being part of both photography and science’s DNA.

“Photo and science have had an intrinsic relationship since its conception—the founding mothers and fathers of photo were all scientists themselves. My practice is really driven by curiosity, which is at the heart of scientific inquiry. I’d like to hope that my work can light an inquisitive spark in my viewer that allows them to explore their own wonders and fears.”

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Dermacentor andersoni Click or hover to view the parasite’s common name

So whether seeing a tick magnified 120 times elicits fear, disgust, or fascination, maybe DeSieno’s work will encourage you to look a little closer next time you have to pick a pest off of your dog.

To see more of Marcus DeSieno’s work, visit his website.

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