Photographer Anand Varma details his very first natural history adventures—not in Amazonian rainforests or on Polynesian coral reefs but in suburban Atlanta—and how a childhood fascination with catching frogs and turtles in his backyard led to a career documenting the fantastical worlds of “zombie” parasites, fire ant colonies, vampire bats, hummingbirds, and jellyfish.
ANAND VARMA (PHOTOGRAPHER): The one that I learned about in college was this thing called a horsehair worm. It’s a parasite that grows up inside the body of a cricket, and when it wants to come out, it's an aquatic worm. It has to emerge in water. And it's inside of an animal that lives on land. And so it takes over the mind of the cricket. It forces it to find a puddle of water so that the parasite can safely emerge in the water.
PETER GWIN (HOST): That’s Anand Varma talking about a type of zombie parasite that he photographed for a National Geographic cover story. That may sound kinda out-there, but zombie parasites are just the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from Anand. Want a picture of a hummingbird’s tongue? Or slow-motion video of a vampire bat catching a mouse? We’ve got Anand on speed dial.
I’m Peter Gwin, and you’re listening to Overheard at National Geographic.
And for more than a year, you’ve heard me introduce this as a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo. A lot of those conversations are about scientific expeditions or other interesting questions we’re chasing after. But some of the astonishing stories we hear are about our contributors and their personal journeys.
So today we’ve got something a little different. We’re going to meet one of the people we send out to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. I recently sat down with Anand to talk about some of his exploits photographing the bizarre world of insects, including raft-building ants and those mind-controlling parasites.
His Nat Geo assignments have taken him to all sorts of far-flung places—but he embarked on his first natural history adventures much closer to home, behind a shopping mall in suburban Atlanta.
VARMA: I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. And what that meant is that I had a lot of space to roam. And so it meant that I could go out in the backyard. And typically I was following my older brother and sister down to the creek behind the house and flipping over rocks and finding salamanders and snakes and crayfish and whatever else was out there. And so one of my close friends is Gene Henry. And one of our weekend activities—we would pull up MapQuest—at the time before Google Maps took over, you had MapQuest—you turn on the satellite imagery function and you just basically find the biggest patch of green you could drive to.
VARMA: And say, all right, what's in the middle of that? And we just drive there and wander off or we'd just head out behind the school or behind the house and hit the creek and just see how long we could follow it.
GWIN: Yeah. Right.
VARMA: And so much of this was floodplain that you couldn't really build on. You know, you'd pop out behind the mall or behind some freeway, and there'd be beavers and cottonmouths and all this crazy wildlife, you know, behind the mall. And it just meant that there was an endless landscape to explore.
GWIN: So what's the next step? So how did you go from that childhood to college?
VARMA: Sure, sure. I mean, college—at that point, I was still very focused on a path towards becoming a biologist. I would say not just a biologist, but like a coral reef ichthyologist. I was obsessed with fish. I guess I got to study coral reefs so that I can hang out with the coolest fish for the rest of my life. And then from the time I was in middle school, I was pretty actively working towards that goal. I went and got a job at an aquarium store. I had seven or eight aquariums in my house, from freshwater, saltwater, plants, all kinds of stuff. I was writing to biology departments in Hawaii to see if I could volunteer in labs.
VARMA: Nobody was taking me seriously as a high school kid. But I knew that's what I wanted to do, and so I had a very clear idea of what I was gonna do. I was gonna go to undergrad somewhere with a big biology program, but other history and philosophy and other things. And then I was going to go to graduate school that specialized in marine biology, and I was gonna get a Ph.D. and then move to the South Pacific and live on a tiny island that I could go scuba diving every day. That was—from the time I was 13 or 14—that was set.
GWIN: Wow. OK, that’s a pretty clear path.
VARMA: Totally. Yeah. The camera was just a slight side thing—like, oh well, in the meantime, this weekend we can go to Stone Mountain and look for frogs and I'll try to take a picture of them. So I went to college. I went to Berkeley, following this path, trying to become a biologist, bringing my camera along. You know, I got a summer job tracking elk in Point Reyes, and the camera was just there with me, that same Nikon COOLPIX, you know, that I borrowed from my dad. And I would just take pictures of the ants and flowers and whatever things on my way to finding the elk.
VARMA: And I remember my housemate at the time, Tsering, he was like— there was a day where I decided to just order a bunch of prints and those... Apple had this print service so you could just load up some photos and print out whatever you wanted. And I remember one of them was that garter snake from Stone Mountain and some were just some other flowers. I had them laid out on a table. I guess I was a sophomore at Berkeley. And Tsering walked in the door and he looked at all these pictures and he's like, Wow, you should be a professional photographer. And then he walked off into the kitchen and made himself a sandwich or something. I just sat there—was like, Wow, nobody's ever told me that before. And that was not the moment that something changed, but I look back on that...
GWIN: The heavens didn’t open up and there wasn’t a big—like a flash goes off.
VARMA: No, no but I look back on that with a sense of like—I remember how good it felt to be acknowledged or or complimented, I guess in that way. I hadn't really made those prints to try to impress anybody, and yet I felt good having impressed my friend. This is the end of sophomore year, and the really—. The big change—and this is really the reason I'm a photographer today—is I got an email from one of my instructors who had seen me that whole semester bring my camera out to these field trips and said, Hey, this photographer has contacted the biology department looking for an assistant, and I see you with your camera on the field trips every week, and this seems like this might be an interesting opportunity for you. So here's his phone number and just wanted to give you his contact information in case this is interesting.
VARMA: I thought, huh? I don't know...anything about this. I didn't recognize the photographer. I didn't know what this would be like. But I was looking for any opportunity to spend the summer outside and it seemed like field work. And so I called him up. His name is David Liittschwager. He didn't tell me much over the phone. He just said, I live in San Francisco, why don’t you come by my apartment and we can meet. I came there and he said, Well, this is a project for National Geographic magazine, and mainly I just wanted to see that you're able to walk up the hill with a backpack because that's what I need you to do. He didn't care that I was interested in photography—I mean, he did. He said, Look, it's useful that you're interested in photography because it means you're going to pay closer attention.
VARMA: This first assignment was to drive down to Sequoia National Park with David. And then rappel into these caves in the park that nobody was allowed into to find creatures that had just been discovered there. And so, yes, my job was to carry the bags, like, into the entrance of the cave. But then David handed me this like WWII tank uniform that he had in his basement. He's like, this is your caving suit. And go follow the cave biologist, and he gave me a little, you know, 8 1/2x11 sheet of printer paper with thumbnails of these creatures and little descriptions, and he said, go find these things. And I'm going to wait here at the entrance, set up my camera, and I'm going to photograph everything here.
GWIN: So you would bring them out of the cave?
GWIN: And then he would photograph them against some sort of background or something.
VARMA: Little black or white background. And so I was following the cave biologist. And just, yeah, the first couple of days into it, you know, you're squeezing into these tiny holes. I’d done this as a Boy Scout like once. And all of the sudden we're in these places that are closed to the public, and you’re in these underground little tunnels and their streams. And, you know.
GWIN: Were you scared? I mean...
VARMA: Oh, yeah. Well, a couple of days into it, you know, I'm following this biologist, squeeze into this little space, and it's beautiful. It's like you really—you're kind of upside down and you kind of have to worm your way into this little cavern. Maybe it’s...
GWIN: I mean, is it all black? I mean, are you going...
VARMA: Yeah, we had headlights. I think you're required to have three lights with you. So two of them can fail and you still have a light. And I'd say the space is... maybe six, seven feet wide. This kind of opening, and it's maybe two and a half feet, three feet, tall. And there's a stream that kind of runs along the edge of it, which you kind of have to straddle. And so you're kind of—your legs are on one side, you're sort of propped up on your arms. There's this kind of white goo of wet, sandy, silty material. A couple of tree roots coming down. And he said, OK, well, the isopod—this is this little roly-polylike thing, clearish, whitish creature, maybe half a centimeter long—it's like. It's in here with this white goopy stuff, so look for anything that's moving. The feeling was so intense… that I just wanted more, you know?
GWIN: Oh, interesting. I was going to say this sounds boring.
VARMA: No, no, no. I'm like, all this. So I'm getting paid to go look for bugs in a cave that nobody else is allowed in, you know? Whoa. This is—in terms of stimulation—like this is opening new worlds to me that I didn't know existed. I didn't know photography could be—could give you this kind of access to hidden, mysterious, awesome places. And it just got better from there. I mean, before that trip ended, David's like, you seem kind of useful—can you take some time off in September and come with me to Hawaii? I’m like, what? I'm still, you know, at this point, in my junior year. I'm like going into my junior year. And so I'm figuring out how to take off time from school. We get on a NOAA ship in Hawaii, and we're catching fish and creatures. And it's like—it was just this whole new world opened to me about what photography could... give you access to.
GWIN: So I think I've heard you talk about this. The first photo that you actually took for the magazine. Is this a Susan Welchman...?
VARMA: Yes. Yes.
GWIN: So I worked with Susan, and she scared the hell out of me, and I'm not even a photographer. She was a formidable—for many years—editor here. And she was the first person that you—
GWIN: So how did that work?
VARMA: So, OK, so I had gotten this grant. The grant meant I could meet editors, but that wasn't entirely enough. It wasn't just, OK, I'm a grantee, let's give him an assignment. And I get a phone call and I answer, and she says this is Susan Welchman, and I’m an editor at National Geographic, and I hear you’ll be in Atlanta next week, and would you like a job? And my eyes went wide and I was like, OK, yeah, sure. And she said, I need a photo of fire ants clumping together to form a raft in a puddle of water at Georgia Tech. When a fire ant colony gets flooded, they band together, they lock arms, and they—that creates this life raft that they can survive. And the ants on the bottom kind of cycle up on the top so they can breathe, and this whole colony can survive flooding through this...
GWIN: ...like a Noah's Ark for ants, but all ants. OK.
VARMA: Totally. So she wanted a photo of this, and she felt like the scientists’ photos weren't good enough. I said, no problem. I've seen David take a million pictures of ants. I bet I can, you know, copy whatever he would have done.
VARMA: And I know the gear I need. I'm going to be in Atlanta. So I said yes.
I went to the lab. I took a bunch of pictures. I sent them to Susan. I said I want to go for a second day, just to kind of make sure. I call her as I'm walking through the parking lot of Georgia Tech. And she said, I thought you said you were gonna take better pictures than the scientists—these are not better pictures. And I was like, ugh—just feeling the life drain out of me. And I just remember thinking—I'm on the phone—I'm just thinking, well—. I hadn't met Susan at this point—well, I think I might have to wait for Susan to retire to have another shot. Like, that's fine. I can work another 10 years and just, you know. Because I knew all these stories, from Joel [Sartore], from David [Liittschwager], from Christian [Ziegler], who'd met an editor and it took him five years of working on their own projects, sending in work. I didn't expect that this was just going to happen. All right, I screwed it up. I'm going to have to wait for her to retire and for everybody there to forget who I was and how badly I screwed up. And I'll try again in ten years. That's really what I thought. But she didn't hang up. She just said, Look, I thought this was going to be better. You didn't solve these problems. But keep sending me pictures. And that little bit, where it was not like you're fired, just like this is not good enough. But you're not done yet, like the door is not closed.
VARMA: We have more opportunities. And I remember I would send her pictures every couple of hours. You know, the main problem—I was trying to make this clump of ants, this raft of ants, out of like three ants.
GWIN: Yeah. How do you do this?
VARMA: You need more ants.
GWIN: Oh, more ants.
VARMA: So I'm working with the lab and there's this technician at the lab who's like teaching me all these techniques about how to coat the glass with the special fill.
GWIN: So how do you do this? How do you even take a picture of a clump of ants?
VARMA: Sure. We have this tiny little aquarium, a little glass box, and you have a bowl full of ants. I think they have like a Teflon-coated rim so that they couldn't crawl out of it. And you just kind of scoop some up and stick them in this puddle of water and they all clump together.
GWIN: Just naturally they know, Oh, it’s the drill. Let's do it.
VARMA: Yeah. Oh, we're wet. Let's all grab each other. And the biggest technical challenge here is that if you're shooting sideways and you want to show half the ants underwater and half the ants above water, the water forms this little lip, the meniscus, against the glass and it creates is really nasty out-of-focus band of water that splits the image. It makes it look really ugly. And that's the problem I had not yet fixed—that Susan had expected me to fix, that I said I could fix. I was like, I'm going to fix this by photographing from above. She’s like—. I didn't realize you can't—that doesn't look like anything from above.
VARMA: So here I am like, oh, I actually don't know how to fix this problem. But it turned out that the guy in the lab who is working with me did know how to fix the problem. He’s like, oh, yeah, yeah, we know about this. You use this thing called FluoroPel. It's a chemical that you can dip the glass into and you bake it and it makes the glass repel water instead of attach. It makes the glass hydrophobic instead of hydrophilic. And what that means is that meniscus of water that normally would get sucked up...
VARMA: ...doesn't happen. And so now you get a very crisp edge. And that's how I eventually got this photo. It's like I needed this little technical trick that only the scientists knew...
VARMA: ...to solve this problem and so, you know, I solved that problem. She said, Good, but you need more ants. And so I dumped more ants in there, and I take a picture, and she’s like, This clump of ants is too round. And so I’d poke one end of it and it would be a little bit amorphic. She’s like, That's pretty good. But, you know, what would be really good—if you had an ant that was like at the edge of the raft and it was like reaching out over the water. And so it was the end of the second day. I was like, OK, I'll come in on the third day. I know I only have two days. I'll just come in on my own time, I think I can get a better picture then. And so I got this picture of an ant, like reaching out across the water, you know, out into the unknown.
GWIN: The Leonardo DiCaprio ant from Titanic, the Titanic ant.
VARMA: Totally. And the amazing—she wrote back and she's like, This is what makes a photograph a National Geographic photograph.
GWIN: Well, I got to tell you, I think—and feel free to argue with me on this—but I got to say that, like, your story on parasites, the zombie parasites, has got to be sort of the Mt. Everest of that sort of conceptual, cool story. Like, I mean, it grabs you right off the bat. You know, the way that parasites sort of take over other insects and other things and control them. But on the other hand, how in the world are you gonna show this, these tiny little things. So how did you come up with that idea and, like, convince yourself you could actually do this?
VARMA: Sure, I feel like the parasite story was—I talked about these kinds of turning points that set me on a new path, that sort of guided my career. And that project was absolutely one of them. And I think it shaped how I think about approaching photography, and the sort of idea of using a technical approach to show a story in a new way. I didn't approach that story with that mindset at the beginning.
GWIN: With what mindset?
VARMA: I didn't approach the parasite story with the idea that I am going to try to find a new way of showing these creatures, and I'm going to use a sort of new technical toolset to do that. I didn't have any kind of plan about how I was going to do that. All I knew was my friend, who was—my friend Sarah was my classmate at Berkeley who had gone on to do her Ph.D. on parasites. And we had a conversation on the phone one day that was like, Hey, you should really pitch a story about parasites. And she’s like, you’ve got to do a story about host-manipulating parasites. Like these are parasites that can control the minds of their hosts, and we were like, we have some in our lab. I remember learning about some in my courses at Berkeley. I just thought, oh yeah. That is crazy. I should do that.
GWIN: What does this mean, though? Mind? Host? They control—like can you give me an example?
VARMA: Sure. So, yeah, the one that I learned about in college was this thing called a horsehair worm. It’s a parasite that grows up inside the body of a cricket. And when it wants to come out, it's an aquatic worm. It has to emerge in water. And it's inside of an animal that lives on land. And so it takes over the mind of the cricket. It forces it to find a puddle of water and drown itself so that the parasite can safely emerge in the water. And it turns out there's just hundreds of these different examples of a parasite that, like, hijacks the behavior of its host to do its own bidding.
GWIN: Well, I've seen the video. You've got some video online that you can—that our listeners could see—and we'll put those in the show notes— but where this thing comes out and it's like this long—I mean, it's a—this crazy long worm.
VARMA: Oh, 20 times longer than the cricket it lives in, yeah.
GWIN: Yeah. It's like uncoiled rope or something. But I got to tell you—and this still keeps me awake at night—is the parasite that gets—. It wants to live in a cat, but it gets into a mouse and then controls the mind of the mouse so that it will go hang around near cats. I mean, is that a real thing?
VARMA: It's totally a real thing. It's not one I photographed because it was just like...
GWIN: I was just going to say, how do you…?
VARMA: Yeah. Yeah. And try to be really selective about where in that story is there good visual potential. Where can I kind of come in with a camera and open the door to this broader question about how parasites are able to do this? And, that's kind of—that story taught me a lot of different things about like—wait a minute—the power of photography to shape somebody's perception about the natural world. The power of photography to capture somebody's attention, hold their attention long enough to appreciate a more complex story. And just thinking about how powerful it is to come up with a new way of seeing a subject.
GWIN: Yeah. OK, so I would be completely remiss if I didn't ask about your menagerie at your house. So I've heard that you—because you take these pictures of various creatures, that you often bring them into your own house, your living space. What—who are some of the creatures currently inhabiting...?
VARMA: I currently have a shed full of jellyfish. So like a shed.
GWIN: Sounds like a Bay Area band, Shed Full of jellyfish.
VARMA: It's a—I guess a more precise term would be a detached garage, but it's a storage space that I keep all my kind of photography equipment. And I first got this idea with the bee project, of keeping honeybees in the space and kind of drilling a hole in the wall and letting them come and go. And it meant I could do this project at home. And I was flying around the country visiting aquariums to work on this project, and I just remember like, wait a minute. I used to have aquariums at home. I used to work in a pet shop where we sold jellyfish. This is a thing I could probably do, at least the brunt of the technical development, at home. And so Steve Spina at New England Aquarium, said, Well, if you want to do that, let me know and I can help you understand kind of what's required to do that. And, you know, we can ship you jellyfish and so.
GWIN: How many jellyfish do you have ?
VARMA: Right now, I think it's about 50 or 60.
GWIN: 50 or 60 jellyfish.
VARMA: Most of them are like half an inch long.
GWIN: OK. All right.
VARMA: There's seven or eight big ones that are like six inches across. Moon jellies. And it's been phenomenal, just to go back there and stare at jellyfish swirling in the tank and think about how to capture the story of these amazing creatures.
GWIN: Well, I can't wait to see it, man. Anand Varma, thank you so much.
VARMA: Thank you.
GWIN: To see more of Anand’s work, including the video of zombie parasites, as well as his photographs of hummingbirds, bees and bats, check out the links in our show notes—they’re right there in your podcast app. You can also find his work on our Instagram feed @natgeo.
So this is our last episode of season three. And it went by fast. But, fear not. Our intrepid producers along with Amy Briggs and I are already working on a bunch of fascinating new episodes. We’ll be launching season four this fall, so stay tuned.
This episode of National Geographic’s Overheard is produced by Davar Ardalan, with help from Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter. Our editors are Robert Malesky and Ibby Caputo. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris. Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes. This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director. And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all soon.