Since 1986 photographer Jim Gathany has documented the inner workings of the Centers for Disease Control, snapping images of visiting presidents, lab scientists at work, even mosquitoes as they feast on his own blood. Through May 26 the David J. Sencer CDC Museum pays tribute to Gathany’s career with a retrospective exhibition, A Lens on the CDC. “We have been trying for years to get Jim to agree to it, and we finally wore him down,” jokes museum director Judy M. Gantt. “He’s so humble about his work, but he has a way of approaching scientific photography that is iconic and beautiful.” We recently chatted with Gathany about his three decades with the CDC and the exhibition.
Before you came to the CDC, you worked as a newspaper photojournalist. What drew you to scientific photography?
I certainly didn’t concentrate on science in college. I applied for this job when my then employer, the Gwinnett Daily News, was shut down. At that time the center employed two scientific photographers and three general assignment photographers, which is what I was doing. I shot portraits, meetings with visiting dignitaries, basically a record of what’s happening at the CDC. At first I was reluctant to try scientific work. But I think the heart of CDC is the research, and it just felt like the right place to be.
The exhibition includes many images of lab cultures or insects shot in extreme close-up. How do you approach those kinds of photos?
One thing I love about this job is that I have to learn a little bit about each thing I shoot. Photographing mosquitoes and malaria vectors in particular has become sort of a pet project over the years. It’s challenging because usually the bugs are alive and it’s difficult to capture the images sharply. I let them feed on me to help keep them still, and so I can see the process as they become engorged.
Do you have a favorite photo in the exhibition?
To me each of these images represents my effort to assist a scientist or an educator. When I see the exhibit, I think of those people, and they’re as responsible for this as I am. I pulled the shutter, but often the scientist has put in a lot of work culturing an organism, or growing a colony, or mounting a sample. The best thing about the exhibition is that it’s made me realize how many wonderful people I’ve worked with here. I can still walk across campus and see a scientist that I worked with 20 years ago, and it’s like seeing an old long-lost family member.
This article originally appeared in our May 2017 issue.