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This podcast is brought to you in part by Geico, proud sponsor of National Geographic Geico Fifteen minutes could save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance. The one that I learned about in college was this thing called a horsehair worm is 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.
That's uninvolvement talking about a type of zombie parasite that he photographed for a National Geographic cover story. Now, that may sound kind of out there, but zombie parasites are just the sort of thing we've come to expect from unin want a picture of a hummingbird tongue or slow motion video of a vampire bat catching a mouse? We've got onon 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 introduced this as a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here.
And 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 Onin to talk about some of his exploits, photographing the bizarre world of insects, including Raef, 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.
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 that, Google Maps took at MapQuest U turn on the satellite imagery function and you just basically find the biggest patch of green you could drive to.
Yeah. And say, all right, what's in the middle of that?
And we just drive there and wander off or we just head out behind the school or behind the house and hit the creek and just see how long we could follow.
Yeah. And so much of this was floodplain that you couldn't really build on. So you'd pop out behind the mall or behind some freeway and there'd be beavers and cottonmouths and all these crazy wildlife, you know, behind the mall.
And it just meant that there was an endless landscape to explore. So what's the next step?
So how did you how did you go from from that childhood to to to college? I mean, did.
Sure, sure. I mean, college. You know, 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 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 at my house from freshwater or saltwater plants, all kinds of stuff.
I was writing to biology departments in Hawaii to see if I could volunteer in labs, but it was 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 going to do. I was going to 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 going to get a PhD and then move to South Pacific and live in a tiny island that I could go scuba diving every day, while that was from the time I was 13 or 14 that was set. Wow.
And so pretty clear. Oh, yeah. Yeah. And the camera was just a 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 and Point raised and the camera was just there with me, the same Nikon cool pics that I was barred for my dad.
And I would just take pictures of the ants and flowers and whatever things on my way to finding the elk. Yeah. And I remember my. My housemate at the time, Sehring, he was like, it was a day where I decided to just order a bunch of prints and those Apple had this print service and 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 St. Martin and some just some other flowers and had them laid out on a table because I was a sophomore at Berkeley.
And 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, made himself a sandwich or something. And I just sat there was like. Wow, nobody's ever told me that before, and that was not that was not the moment that something changed, but I did open up and they want to know, but I look back on that with a sense of like I remember how good it felt to be.
Acknowledged 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, right?
I thought, huh? I don't know anything about this. I didn't recognize a 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 Lechuga. He didn't tell me much over the phone. He just said I was 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.
I didn't care that I was interested in photography.
I mean, he he he did. He said, look, it's useful that you're interested in photography because it means you're going to pay closer attention.
Geico and National Geographic are working together to make your life a lot easier. Get a quote with Geico mentioned your Nat Geo affiliation and you could get a special discount on Geico is already low rates, does it? Geico dotcom slash Nat Geo to see how much you could save. That's Geico Dotcom. Binaggio Great rates, great service and a whole lot more. Geico dotcom slash Nat Geo. 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 into the entrance of the cave.
Then David handed me this like World War two 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, eight and a half by 11 sheet of paper with, like thumbnails of these creatures and a little description 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.
So you would bring them out of the cave? Yeah. And he would photograph them against some background or something, 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 done this as a Boy Scout like once. Yeah. And all of a sudden we're in these places that are closed to the public and you're in these underground little tunnels and there's streams.
And, you know, were you scared?
I mean. Oh, yeah. Well, a couple of days into it, you know, I'm following the biologists. We squeeze into this little space and it's beautiful.
And it's like you really you're kind of upside down and you kind of have to worm your way into this little cavern.
I mean, it's a black. I mean, are you. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think you're required to have three flights with you so two of them can fail and you still have a white. And I'd say the space is. Hmmm, maybe six or 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.
And there's just kind of white goo of wet, sandy, silty material, a couple of tree roots coming down.
And he said, OK, well, isopod, this is this little kind of Roly-Poly like thing, clear ish, whitish creature, maybe half a centimeter long. It's like it's in here with this white goopy stuff.
So so look for anything that's moving. The feeling was so intense. That I just wanted more, you know. Oh, interesting. Yeah, I was going to say this sounds boring.
Like, no, no, I'm like all of a sudden 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, in terms of like this is opening new worlds to me that I didn't know existed. I didn't know photography could be.
I could give you this kind of access. To hidden, mysterious, awesome places, yeah, and it just got better from there, I mean, before that trip ended, David's like, you seem kind of useful, like, can you take some time off in September and come with me to Hawaii?
Well, I'm still you know, at this point, I'm like going into my junior year and I'm figuring out how to take off time from school. Yeah, 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 so I think I've heard you talk about this, you're the first photo that you actually took for the magazine.
Is this a Susan Welchman? Yes, yes, so I worked with Susan and she scared the hell out of me and I'm not even a photographer.
She was a formidable foe, 20 years older here. And she was the first person that you. Yeah, so. So how did that work?
So, OK, so I had gotten this grant. The grant meant I could meet editors, but that wasn't that wasn't entirely enough.
Right. It wasn't just, OK, I'm a grantee, let's give him an assignment. Right.
And and I get a phone call and I answer it. And this is Susan Welchman. I'm an editor at National Geographic. I hear you're going to be in Atlanta next week. And would you like a job? And I just I my eyes kind of went wide, 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 in the ants on the bottom kind of cycle up onto the top so they can breathe in this hole. The colony can survive flooding through this like a Noah's Ark for totally but total ants.
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. 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 and said, I want to go for a second day just to kind of make sure I I call her as I'm walking through the parking lot at Georgia Tech. And she said, I thought you said you were going to take better pictures than the scientists.
Oh, these are not better pictures like.
Oh, I just feel like it's a 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. Like, well. I think I'm gonna have to wait for Susan to retire, to have another shot, like, that's fine. I can I can work another 10 years and just, you know, because I knew all these stories from from Joel, from David, from Christian, who who, like, met an editor.
And it took them five years of working on their own projects, sending and 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 and I'll try again in 10 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, not a little bit where it was not like you're fired. It's just like this is not good enough, but. You're not done yet, like the door is not closed yet, you have more opportunities. I remember I was 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.
Yeah. How do you need more rent more. Yes.
So I'm working with the lab and there's the technician at the lab who's who's like teaching me all these techniques about how to coat the glass with the special. So how do you do this?
Don't even take a picture of a shirt.
No, we have this tiny little aquarium, a little glass box, and you have a 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 scooped them up and stick them in this puddle of water and they all clump together.
And then you have just naturally they know. Oh, yes, the drill. Let's do oh, we're wet. Like, let's 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, half the ants above water. The water forms this little lip, the meniscus against the glass, and it creates this 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. So I was like, I'm going to fix this by photographing from above it, just like I didn't realize. You can't that doesn't look like anything from above. Right.
So here I am like, oh, I actually don't know how to fix this, 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 Floraville. 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 a stick and it makes the glass hydrophobic instead of hydrophilic.
And what that means is that meniscus of water that normally would get sucked up.
Yeah, 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, right?
To solve this problem, and so, you know, I solve that problem. She's a good but you need more answers. And so I dump more ants in there and they take a picture like this clump of ants to round and poke one end of it. And there would be a little bit a morphic.
Seems like that's pretty good. But, you know, it 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 the end of the second day is 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 could get a better picture of that. And so I got this picture of an ant like reaching out out across the water, you know, out into the unknown, Leonardo DiCaprio and from Titanic.
And the amazing that you wrote back. And she's like. This is what makes a photograph, a National Geographic photograph. Well, I got to tell you, I think and feel free to argue with me on this, but like I got to say that, like your story on parasites, the zombie parasites is got to be sort of the Mount Everest of that sort of conceptual cool story.
Like, I mean, it grabs right off the bat, you know, the way that parasites sort of take over other other other insects and other other things and control them.
But on the other hand, how in the world are you going to show this these tiny little things?
So how did you come up with that idea in like.
Convince yourself you could actually do this. I feel like the parasite story was I talked about these kind 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 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 with Whitmont, which 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 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 is my friend, Sarah was my classmate at Berkeley who had gone on to do a Ph.D. and 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 host and we 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. What does this mean?
The mind host they control. What is it like? Can you give me an example?
So, yeah, the one that I learned about in college was this thing called a horsehair worm is 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 ants 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 behaviour of its host to do its own bidding.
I've seen the video. You've got some video online that you can you know, that our listeners could 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 crazy long war times longer than the than the cricket it lives in.
Yes. Yes. Like like an uncoiled rope or something. Yeah. 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 cat. Yeah. I mean that's is that a real thing?
Is that it's totally a real thing. It's not one I photographed because it was just said how do you. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And try to be really selective about where in that story. Is there good visual potential?
Like, 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, Tommy, 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. Yeah, OK, so I would be completely remiss if I didn't ask about your menagerie at your house. Sure.
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? I currently have a shed full of jellyfish.
So she said, well, I said it's like it sounds like a Bay Area band full of jellyfish.
It's I guess it's more a more precise term would be a detached garage. But it's a it's a storage space that I keep all my kind of photography equipment. And I first got this idea with the B 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 remembered like, wait a minute, I used to have aquariums at home. I used to work in a pet shop where we sold jellyfish. Like, this is a thing I could probably do at least the brunt of the technical development at home. Yeah.
And so Steve SpiNET, a New England aquarium, said, well, if you want to do that, let me know and I can help you understand kind of what what's required to do that. And, you know, we can ship jellyfish.
And how many jellyfish do you have right now?
I think it's about 50 or 60, 50 or 60 jellyfish.
Yeah, most of them are like half an inch long. OK, all right. There's seven or eight big ones that are like six inches across moon jellies and it's been phenomenal. Just go back there and and stare at jellyfish swirling in the tank and think about. How to capture. The story of these amazing creatures, well, I can't wait to see it in an environment. Thank you so much. Thank you. To see more of UNendorsed work, including the video of the zombie parasites, as well as his photographs of hummingbird's bees and bats, check out the links in our notes there, right there on your podcast app.
You can also find his work on our Instagram feed at Nat Geo. So this is our last episode of Season three, man. It went by fast. But Fearnot, our intrepid producers, together with Amy Briggs and I are already working on a bunch of fascinating new episodes, will be watching Season four this fall.
So stay tuned for this episode of National Geographic. Over Heard is produced by Davar Ardalan with help from Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pentru our editors or Robert Milewski and Ibby Caputo. Our fact checker is Michelle Harris. Hohns Dale Soo 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 Glynn. Thanks for listening.
And so you'll see.
Geico and National Geographic are working together to make your life a lot easier. Get a quote with Geico mentioned your Nat Geo affiliation and you could get a special discount on Geico is already low rates, does it? Geico dotcom slash Nat Geo to see how much you could save. That's Geico Dotcom. Binaggio Great rates, great service and a whole lot more. Geico dotcom slash Nat Geo.