Joshua Sariñana is from San José, California and received his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he studied the genetic basis of contextual memory formation. He is now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School studying the role of dopamine in spatial navigation. Joshua is also an award-wining photographer working to bridge the seemingly disparate fields of photography, neuroscience, and critical theory. Joshua has written for PetaPixel and Don’t Take Pictures, his photo work has been exhibited in NYC, Paris, and Florence, and you can find additional interviews regarding other aspects of his work at The Art of Mob blog and Vice Magazine (Colombia). Joshua currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Follow him on instagram and visit his official website at www.joshuasarinana.com.
DOMINIQUE JAMES: How did you get started in photography?
JOSHUA SARIÑANA: Initially, my interest in photography was minimal. I purchased a few disposable Kodak cameras before I left for Paris to study abroad for a semester in 2001. My trip to Paris was the first time I purchased anything related to photography and the first time I had been outside of California. I had the distinct notion that I should document the trip. Although Paris is large, it’s a very walkable city. I would walk 10-14 hours in a single day just wondering around and taking photos. My disposable cameras were exhausted rather quickly; I purchased a simple 35mm camera, and ended up with about 40 rolls of film by the end of my trip. The recession in 2001 hit the Bay Area, where I grew up, quite hard by the time I came back and it was difficult to find a job and as a result it took over a year to have my photos developed and printed. I was surprised to find that there were a lot of photos with thumbs in the frame and a good deal of selfies, but I realized most of my images focused on architecture, which I still love as a subject. Given the expensive costs for development and prints I convinced myself that going digital was the right way to go. In 2003 I purchased my first digital camera the 5.0 MP Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-V1.
DJ: What kind of pictures do you like to take?
JS: My photography has primarily focused on architecture. However, after the iPhone 4 was released I started to experiment with street photography, landscape, and continued with architecture. More recently a switch has started to occur, maybe over the past year. It’s difficult to define exactly how my photography is changing, but I can see that my images are more abstract, saturated, and conceptual.
DJ: Who or what would you consider as influential to your photography?
JS: With regard to photographers it’s difficult to pinpoint who would have directly impacted my own images. There are many photographers that I love: Richard Avedon, Eugene Atget, Laurie Simmons, Julie Blackmon, Andreas Gursky, Loretta Lux, Edward Steichen, Martha Rosler, Alfred Stieglitz, Eugene Smith, Sally Mann, Irving Penn, Francesca Woodman, Guy Bourdin, John Pfahl, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, and Sebastiao Salgado. If any set of photographers has had a strong effect on my own work it would most likely be Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Joel Meyerowitz.
My background in neuroscience surely affects my photography, but again, it’s difficult for me to know exactly how. I write about photography and the brain, which will affect what my photography looks like at that time, my image subject matter might switch, a series may pop up based on the concepts in my writing, and other various influences will creep in. Perhaps it’s my emotions that influence my photography the most, that and time.
DJ: What’s your favorite camera and lens?
JS: I don’t have a favorite camera or lens. I go through various periods of very intense use of specific cameras. I always have my iPhone so this is my baseline. However, at the beginning of this summer I was enthralled with a Sony A-1 camera that was gifted to me by a former colleague. It turned out that father-in-law had original FD mount primes from the late 70’s and early 80’s: 20mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 135mm that he gifted to me. I was shocked and overwhelmingly happy. During the middle of this summer, I spent 6 weeks using only film by the Impossible Project, which is film made specifically for Polaroid cameras. I must have used a few hundred Impossible images with my SX-70, the One camera, and the Impossible instant lab. The summer before that I was almost exclusively shooting with my Hasselblad 500 C/M and 80mm Zeiss lens. In 2011/12 I was shooting with a Leica M3 and a 25mm Biogon Zeiss lens all day and all night. During 2010 it was all DSLR, specifically the Canon 7D with various lenses. I sold my Canon to go mirrorless, specifically for the Fujifilm X-Pro 1. The X series lenses are simply amazing. Most recently I was exclusively using an Olympus Trip 35 camera, which can only calculate up to a 400 ISO. I love the Trip’s discreteness and the ability to take images very quickly, which I primarily used for street work. I enjoy learning how to use different cameras because it helps me progress as a photographer.
DJ: Any other particular piece of photo gear that you feel is essential or like using?
JS: I find a scanner is a must. For a while, I was scanning my 35mm and 120mm films with a flatbed, which takes forever. I switched to using my 90mm prime equivalent X-Pro 1 lens to digitize my negatives using a backlit LED. The method is sound, but this form of scanning is also really time-consuming. More specifically, in post-processing the inversion of the negative and tweaking of various indices to match the natural film image takes a while to figure out. But, most people don’t shoot film, so how essential is this? I don’t know.
DJ: How you edit and enhance your pictures before showing them? What is your post-production process like?
JS: Nowadays, most of my post processing is done with my iPhone because most of my images come from my iPhone. I don’t have much time to sit and use Lightroom like I use to and my phone is on me whether I’m on the subway, waiting in line, taking a break from work; and as a result I end up post-processing on my phone. I’ll even use the phone to post-process scanned images or images I’ve transferred over from other digital cameras. Some of my favorite post processing apps are Mextures, Snapseed, VSCO, and Contrast. I’m sure post-processing in the iPhone appalls some of your readers. Historically, Lightroom has been my go-to program and with regard to overall time spent post processing, Lightroom is easily the winner. I go back and forth depending on the situation. I will usually make a profile in Lightroom that I find fits a certain mood depending on a series of images I have in mind. I will import and sort through the profiles I’ve created to see what does and does not work.
DJ: How do you share your pictures and to whom?
JS: I primarily use Instagram to share my images for anyone that wants to see them. I use my website www.joshuasarinana.com for more serious work that I curate and create statements for. In addition, I have a profile on LensCulture and their editors have picked up some of my work. My printed work has been also been shown at galleries across the US and internationally.
DJ: How do you store or archive your pictures?
JS: I use Lightroom for data access management and I back up to multiple drives for redundancy and to an offsite server. That being said, I can certainly be better about my data management. For example, I don’t regularly add key phrases or terms to my images, which makes searching for specific images I know I have very difficult. Generally, I order by year, month, day, and add a word that generally tells me some simple information about image content (e.g., 120413-Street Work Berkeley). I’m still nervous about losing data. Ideally I would setup a RAID server at home as another backup along with DVD copies. I have tried, but I didn’t realize that it would be as difficult as it was to set up a RAID and I put it off. I need to take the time to setup a RAID system. Having an iPhone only makes things worse because I don’t backup as frequently and because the data management of images on the iPhone is horrible. Apple really needs to figure out a better system especially since they have started to tout their camera with their ‘Shot on iPhone 6’ campaign.
DJ: What do you think of today’s state of photography?
JS: Photography as a whole is a behemoth and I’m certainly not equipped to answer with any certainty, unless I focus on specific aspects. My images are more or less categorized as fine arts and I write conceptually about mobile photography, neuroscience, and culture. Keeping in mind my focus, I’m surprised by how inflexible photographers are across social media sites. My guess is that those who complain most are least likely to make the time to photograph. Taken as a creative form, it is necessary to be flexible, to be adaptive, to learn new technologies, and to change with what is demanded in the field. As a neuroscientist, I must do this if I want to survive; and if I choose not to be flexible in this way then I will not succeed. Technology always changes the field of photography and to complain about this fact is to complain about the very essence of photography. Photography is always tied to memory, but you can’t keep looking back at the past because you might get stuck there.
Certainly, there are problems concerning the collapse of the photography market, photojournalism, and privacy. I am most empathetic to the collapse of the photography market that occurred with the financial crisis of 2007-9. The iPhone was released during the crisis and by the time some improvement in the market occurred there was a seismic shift in the photography world, brought in part by the iPhone and social media. It’s also unreasonable that entire departments of photojournalists are being laid off, there are no substitutes, and there are not enough Benjamin Lowy’s in the world to make up for this. In addition, privacy with regard to aggregating metadata is simply alarming. A vast amount of information on a single person can be gathered from metadata and not that much is needed. Artificial intelligence programs are becoming very sophisticated, making the lack of privacy something to truly worry about.
DJ: What is that one all-important lesson you’ve learned when it comes to photography?
JS: Have a camera with you at all times and never stop shooting.
DJ: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received and can share with others?
JS: I’m self-taught and never had anyone guide me through camera work in person. I’ve learned by trial and error, through the Internet, and from general feedback by friends, family, random Internet users, and by jurors of contests. Without the Internet I would not have been able to learn as much as I have and I still depend on it to learn new techniques, say when I have to alter an image in a way I never have before. For example, several years ago I was a photographer for a local band and I found that the lighting at venues would cause the musicians stray hairs to show. I didn’t have any experience with imaging people live or on stage. I was unsure how to get rid of these stray hairs because of the lighting issues, I had to search for and try out multiple techniques that other gifted photographers or program users figured out in Photoshop to get the job done. I suppose the best piece of advice that I’ve received indirectly would be to test your limits and when you pass a limit then you’re learning how to photograph.
Notes: All photographs on this page, used with permission, by Joshua Sariñana. Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. For the complete set of interviews and photographs of all the amazing photographers featured on this blog’s exclusive Q&A, please click here.