Photograph by Lynn Johnson
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Twins Felix and Viva Torres, seven-and-a-half months old, take in the sights and sounds of Greenwich Village in New York City. They hear two languages spoken at home.
Photograph by Lynn Johnson

Pictures We Love: Seeing Science

As the year began to come to a close, we asked National Geographic staff who work closely with photography—through the magazine, Your Shot, News, Travel, and Proof—to choose a photo from 2015 that they just can’t stop thinking about. There’s no formula for what makes an image resonate—it can be a piercing gaze, the perfect light, or a tender moment that strikes a chord with our editors. Over the coming days, we’ll reveal the 2015 photographs they found most memorable and why.

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A test that stains the tongue blue, as shown here at a lab at the University of Florida at Gainesville, helps determine if a subject is a supertaster, or someone most sensitive to various tastes. “Beyond Taste Buds: The Science of Delicious,” December 2015 Photograph by Brian Finke

It was a very tough this year to choose just one image, as we had so much strong work to choose from, like the powerful images by Peter Muller for our Ebola story, Robert Clark’s challenging yet quirky photos about taxidermy, and the amazing, surprising photographs of Lagos, Nigeria, by Robin Hammond.

But one image jumps out for me because it was so fresh and unexpected: the image of the blue tongue by Brian Finke that leads our story “The Science of Delicious.”

When we began this story I had heard about the blue-stained tongue test that’s used to determine who is a supertaster by counting the number of papillae, small bumps that contain our taste buds, that a person has. Supertasters have many more papillae than non-tasters, and about 25 percent of people are supertasters.

Illustrating science stories is not an easy task. It requires going into mundane spaces and trying to bring out something that’s as wonderful and intriguing as if you’d been sent to some exotic locale. So when we heard about the blue tongue test we knew we had the opportunity to create something unique. And we knew just the photographer to assign to do it.

Brooklyn-based Finke has now done three stories for us, and they’ve all been about food, one of his particular passions. Finke has the ability to go into very normal and sometimes bland situations and—with his particular point of view, sense of light, and cheeky attitude—bring back images that are surprising and grab your attention. The blue tongue is one such image for me.

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A syringe places a minute droplet of phenothrin on a honeybee—sedated in a paper cup—to test the effects of the potent insecticide in this experiment by Louisiana State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because honeybees return to hives at dusk, they seldom come in contact with such chemicals, which are usually sprayed at night. But researchers have discovered that even tiny doses can have negative consequences for honeybees. “Quest for a Superbee,” May 2015 Photograph by Anand Varma

There are photographs I love from every story I edit for National Geographic magazine, but this bee, shot by Anand Varma, was one of this year’s best surprises.

This is science, but it looks like opera, full of drama, beauty, intimacy, and a lingering question. Something appears terribly wrong, but we’re not quite sure what.

“If in scene one, act one, you do not pose a question to which the answer in act two is a surprise, you do not have a play.” I forget who said that, but Varma’s photograph sets the stage perfectly for the scientific mystery that follows.

It shows a sedated bee held in a paper cup with holes poked in the bottom to allow the CO2 in. A syringe applies a small droplet of mosquito pesticide to the bee’s abdomen to test how it affects honeybees.

We set out to see and understand and share how scientists were investigating colony collapse disorder.

Varma gave us a front-row seat and showed us cutting edge bee research. But he also compelled us to view bees as individuals, not as an anonymous pinned-and-labeled specimen in a museum. His scaled-down theatrical lighting seduces us with equal parts art and science. Then he tricks us with his use of perspective and scale. Suddenly, without fully realizing it, we are no longer staring down at a bug. We’re seeing eye-to-eye with an individual bee and feeling empathy.

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Twins Felix and Viva Torres, seven-and-a-half months old, take in the sights and sounds of Greenwich Village in New York City. They hear two languages spoken at home. “Baby Brains,” January 2015 Photograph by Lynn Johnson

Kathy Moran, Senior Photo Editor for Natural History, National Geographic Magazine

During the course of a story there are always a handful of images that you immediately know will make the final presentation—and hopefully the pages of the magazine. Photographer Lynn Johnson’s image of fraternal twins Viva and Felix was one of those “Oh, yes” moments for me. This was shot as part of a story that we did on baby brains and all that’s been discovered in the last decade about how babies learn.

Rather than document babies in laboratories, Lynn chose to focus on children in real situations. Babies operate on their own schedules, not a photographer’s, so she got to know some of these children and their families intimately. Over the course of the story, she spent hours with Viva and Felix, essentially watching them grow from infants to toddlers. Their parents let her in and trusted her with these babies.

The time that she invested made this image possible. The horizontal stripes on their pajamas, the vertical lines on the background fence, the way they’re framed by the swing set poles and confined to the bucket seat, their adorable expressions—this photograph works on every level, graphically and emotionally. The framing draws you in, but the moment makes you smile.