"Present digital technologies
introduced the possibility to produce images unforeseen under analog processes. In entomology, a scientific study of insects, this can lead to investigating the smallest aspects of the Insect bodies with images that, in their textures and colors, can move our imagination to boundaries other than the strictly scientific aspect. I am an entomologist and as such I see the reproduction of the actual animals in these photos. But if I go beyond this, my mind sees other horizons."
– Stefano Zoia, Entomologist
Could you transport us into the world of entomologists?
In reality, entomology is a kaleidoscopic world in which insects are the main object of interest. So there is no one set way to be an "entomologist". It is neither a solitary man with a net in his hand, nor a scientist looking inside a microscope. In fact, it is a field populated with eclectic people: academics, professionals who work in museums and laboratories, amateurs and collectors, people with high education degrees and those who stopped early in their studies. If you can imagine the eccentricity and obsession (or shall we say "personality disorder"?) in the mere act of seeking out and buying insects collected from all over the world, you'd see why it is a fertile ground for sociologists or psychologists to study.
Also, entomology includes several research fields such as taxonomy, biology, developmental biology, ecology, genetics, biogeography, agriculture, agrochemicals, defense from crop pests and medicine, as well as pure curiosity for knowledge around nature. Hence, no one man can master the study of all known and yet-to-be-discovered insects, in addition to understanding all aspects of their lives and their relationship to the environment and human activities. Each of us chooses a specific field of studies. I work at the so-called "alpha level" of entomology. Taxonomy is the science of giving a name to each species and studying its phylogenetic, or evolutionary, relationships and its distribution on Earth. It looks like a simple task to consider a single or a few species of insects, but you must multiply this research by thousands of animals, even if you limit your interest to a single family within an Order of Class Insecta.
How is entomology one of the most difficult and fascinating fields of study?
When we talk about insects, we are speaking about the most comprehensive group of living animals. Its true dimension, when you consider its biomass and the number of living species, is mind-blowing. It is said that there are one million classified species. Yet every time I dig deeper into the taxonomic study of even my small group of beetles, I discover that there are far many unknown and unclassified species beyond what is presented in museums and private collections. We estimate there to be three to ten times more than what we presently know.
As you see, there is a large range of variability, just like the number of stars in the universe! I found this analogy exciting. Yet this also gives you an idea of the monumental work still left for us to do.
There are also other aspects to consider: environmental and climatic changes. We are destroying natural environments in many parts of the world, and the rapid decrease in those that remain endangers their original biodiversity. Also, climate change due to human activities increase desertification of large areas, which in turn escalates the extinction of many species of insects—tens of thousands each year. And for the majority, this happens before we even have the possibility of discovering their presence or existence.
Under these aspects, my research activity is an impossible challenge. I often have the impression that I work with species that are already extinct. Curiosity moves step-by-step with new discoveries, and entomological studies seem like a never-ending story.
Insects, people, entomology, and ecology: how are they interconnected?
Only a few characteristics really distinguish man from other animals: the ability for abstraction and the ability to understand the possible consequences of one's actions. Both directly derive from the evolution of our language; they are also the basis of our technology. Unfortunately, we often prefer to consider immediate interests over consequences. All other human characteristics, including communication between individuals, are not exclusive to man; we have that in common with other living beings. Our specific abilities give us tremendous power over the worlds that surround us. So understanding the impact and consequences of our actions is of primary importance.
Also, entomology, like other life sciences, satisfies our need for knowledge and curiosity about nature while providing us with important information about environmental conditions. Environmental changes, an increase in human-inhabited areas, and any modification of a territory, determines the disappearance of many insects and other animals. Simultaneously, it increases the population of a few species that are usually bad for our domestic animals, our crops, and us. There is a simple rule: when we produce spaces like these, we increase the nutrimental resources (from cultivations, animal husbandry, rubbish, our bodies with their components and waste) that are suitable for species adapted to these kinds of environments. Vis-à-vis these changes, entomologists can only report on them to explain the situation, highlight any issues and provide suggestions. Action requires political and economic decisions.
Depending on one's perspective, insects interact either negatively or positively with human life. In reality, man and all other living beings are the outcome of a coevolution; we would not be able to imagine our existence if evolution had taken a different road. For example, plants and flowers evolved together with insects, and their existence is strictly interdependent. This principle applies to a large part to other living beings. In this sense, we are interconnected.
Why and how did you embark on "microsculture", with a specific focus on beetles? What is your process and what are you searching for?
The "Surfaces" photography series started in 2014. I was searching for a different way to show macrophotography in order to stimulate curiosity and to avoid the repulsion that people often have for insects. My desire to do this series also had something to do with wanting to overcome what we know as pure scientific documentation and to show the beauty in something.
My intent in hyper enlarging small areas of beetles' bodies was to make the subject unrecognizable so enable the observer's imagination to roam free. They are far leaps from how the naked eye normally captures the actual physical beetle.
These photos were originally used to illustrate the scientific publications I published, as well as those published by some friends and colleagues. They try to report the tough outer protective layer of insects that we can observe through a microscope. In the exhibition SURFACES: Entomological Peregrinations, each photo was placed next to its corresponding "model", the actual beetle. I was able to create intrigue by juxtaposing the three-dimensional, small-scale beetle to its aseptic two-dimensional and hyper-enlarged photo reproduction.
The majority of the beetles in this series belong to the species of the phytophagous family Chrysomelidae. Their hard protective outer layer usually does not change after their death if properly preserved. The vivid colors, hairiness, and overall sculptural quality of these outer layers lend themselves well to this project.
The idea to interpret these surfaces as imaginary representations was born initially as a game. It explores the gap that exists between reality and its representation. The technical steps needed to produce such images further heighten this gap, resulting in quite a departure from what we can see through a microscope. Each image is actually made by combining several photos (up to 250) and their different levels of focus. The fantasy titles leave room for observers to form their own interpretations.
Hence, using scientific observation as a point of departure, what emerge are patterns, colors and shapes that suggest something really faraway from the truth, something otherworldly. With this work, I'm encouraging people to see beetles in a different light and discover the unexpected aspects of these animals.
Stefano Zoia works as a technician at the University of Milan, Italy. His interest in photography dates from the beginning of the 70s and has developed through the years with the reportages he created while traveling in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. His photos have been featured in many scientific and popular publications. The exhibition SURFACES: Entomological Peregrinations was presented for the first time in 2015 at the Civic Museum of Natural History in Genoa. His other solo photo exhibitions include Mostre in mostra or Exhibitions in Exhibition (2014,Pavia and Milan) and Genoa 2001 - A Street View (2014, Milan).