For every PhD a portrait
Molecular genetics’ official shutterbug
Anne de Jong bends over and pushed his camera’s shutter release button. The flash goes off, casting a shadow from the window frame on the white wall. Today’s model, PhD candidate Amanda van Tilburg, tries to look comfortable, which is easier said than done: the block under her feet is quite high and she’s threatening to slide off the stool she’s sitting on. ‘Uncross your legs, please. It looks like you only have one leg right now’, says De Jong. Van Tilburg obediently moves her right leg forward and stares off into the nothing behind the photographer’s shoulder. Click. Click.
The result is so professional-looking that you’d almost forgot the pictures were shot in a makeshift studio in a storage room in the attic at the Linnaeusborg, with a large black cloth draped over a set of shelves and a sliver of white wall serving as easily Photoshopped backgrounds.
I had figured out how the camera worked, so I started looking at what I could with editing
This is just a quick portrait session. When he needs to shoot portraits of PhD candidates with their thesis, or take pictures of the department’s annual calendar, De Jong pulls out all the stops, like a smoke machine, various props, even a glass of milk that he pours out over his model.
He transforms the black cloth and his models suddenly features in Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, or he shrinks them down to Ant-Man size and has them pose with giant Petri dishes, bacteria, and tweezers.
Figuring out the technology
De Jong has created his own special macro studio for this at home. ‘It’s got LED lights and stuff.’ He talks about it in a casual manner, as though it’s no big deal that he’s gained these skills in addition to his day job as bioinformatician.
He writes programs that allows researchers to filter the data they need out of large data sets, like Bagel, an online program that analyses bacterial DNA in a few minutes, showing the bits it uses to attack competing bacteria. ‘Those bits can be used to make antibiotics’, he explains. It means he’s a much-quoted source, since researchers love to use his programs.
People in paintings hardly ever smile either, it’s so fake
He doesn’t have any formal training to be a photographer. ‘I prefer to just figure out how stuff works. I had a digital camera and figured out the technology behind it. After a while, I got bored of that and looked into what else I could do, like with editing.’
He turned to Photoshop. A photograph of a PhD candidate being doused in milk, actually consists of three different pictures that have been seamlessly edited together. The milk wasn’t just a random gimmick, by the way; it relates to the subject in the photograph. ‘Her research was on lactic acid bacteria’, says De Jong.
This is how De Jong photographs every PhD from the molecular genetics department; with their thesis and something that either came up during the ceremony, or something that relates to their research. Like the milk, for example.
In the hallway on the sixth floor of the Linnaeusborg are various pictures of PhDs: one is surrounded by stacks of books (‘She reads three hundred thrillers a year’), one is being showered in sugar (‘Their research was about sugar molecules’), and one wanderlusty PhD is carrying a backpack, ready for the next adventure.
Interestingly enough, only one of his models is seen smiling in their picture. Smiles can look so fake, says De Jong. ‘At the museum, the only people who are smiling in paintings are people who are eating; the fancy people. No one else is smiling.’ He wants to portray the people as they are.
On top of the PhD portraits, De Jong also puts together a calendar with pictures of his molecular genetics colleagues. They are small works of art. Previous department calendars consisted of holiday pictures or other photos taken by the staff itself. Six years ago, De Jong started getting involved. First, he started shooting portraits to accompany to photos in the calendar. The next year, when fewer people were willing to provide their own photos, he took over the process entirely.
The theme of his first calendar was sports. De Jong had his department colleagues do action poses. His favourite in the series is the cricket photo. ‘We took it outside, in the dark. I put a light behind them and also used flash. It was a foggy night, so the effect was great.’
Photographing people is a nice challenge
The next year, he shrunk down people and put them in everyday environments. He points to a picture of two people walking across a computer keyboard. ‘They’re the secretaries.’ In another picture, someone is almost drowning in a tub of water, while her colleague is taking the water’s temperature with a giant thermometer. He followed up the miniature people with zodiac signs, had people re-enact paintings, and this year, the calendar’s theme is proverbs.
Everyone in the picture looks relaxed. They’re clearly having fun. De Jong nods. ‘Creating something together is a great team-building exercise.’ There are people of ten different nationalities in the department, but everyone gets along swimmingly, he says. ‘The atmosphere is great.’ Van Tilburg agrees. ‘We celebrate Sinterklaas together, where we play a gift exchange game. We also organise dinners where everyone brings a different dish.’
He prefers to photograph people. ‘They’re a nice challenge.’ He also enjoys shooting the birds in his garden in the village of Valthe. He prefers to catch them mid-flight, ‘but that’s really difficult. I don’t have the time for it’, he says. Certainly not this year, since one of the courses he teaches became compulsory this year, and he suddenly has 170 students when he previously only had thirty.
De Jong proudly shows the flashes in his attic photo studio: one for soft light, one for hard light – in a box with a window cut out – and a third one with a honeycomb cover. ‘It smooths out people’s wrinkles.’ These are the things that make photography so much fun, he says. ‘I’m just a sucker for technical things.’
The calendar pictures show he’s also got a funny bone; his potato eaters are dining on fruit instead of tubers. The humour is also evident in the interplay between the models in the photographs. Especially, as De Jong confirms, in the expressions on their faces. You can’t always tell people to keep a straight face, and that’s what makes it so much fun, he says. More fun than a still life. ‘I could use things like line patterns to show that, but then it’s all just technology.’
Translation by Sarah van Steenderen