Picturing Concepts; The Photography Of Cary Wolinsky

How do you translate an idea into an image? Or convert words into a photograph? How can a picture create a sense of fear and is this fear something we are born with? Perfect pitch... How might you define this phenomenon with your camera? Or hypergraphia, the compulsive need to write?

These were among the puzzles that confronted Cary Wolinsky for his story on the human mind in the March 2005 issue of National Geographic.

Waterfall Meditation

Kamiichicho, Toyama, Japan at the Oiwasan Nissekiji Temple. Here, Souei Sakamoto, a local Shingon-mikkyo (esoteric Buddhism) leader from Hokubu, Ishikawa Prefecture, guides a small group of followers in takigyou (waterfall training), a way to focus the mind and increase awareness of self. The waterfall is channeled through six dragons' heads. Each flow represents one of six senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, hearing, spirit (mind and body). While standing under the ice cold water (also done in winter), they chant the rokkonshoujo (prayer of the six senses). Using fMRI brain scan technology scientists are now studying what happens in the brain during meditation and what are the potential health effects of that activity.
All Photos © 2006, Cary Wolinsky, All Rights Reserved

Wolinsky, a veteran of 35 years at National Geographic, was accustomed to being given a story and trusted to come back with his own idea of what it should look like. He knew that this assignment required a unique kind of vision and that he was moving further into the field of illustration. Making sure his editors were at peace with ideas that were different and more abstract, Wolinsky was all the while learning how to have fun with this kind of concept.

A year of research went into the project and while making a guest appearance at The Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University in Waltham, Massachusetts, Wolinsky shared his journey of discovery with the New England chapter of the ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers). The group of pros formed a rapt audience, asking many questions during and after the lecture.

Monk With Head Sensors

University of Wisconsin-Madison. Portrait of Dru-gu Choegyal Rinpoche, a Buddhist teacher, wearing an array of sensors used for making electroencephalographs. Rinpoche is a subject in a study of the health effects of meditation which is being carried out by Antoine Lutz at the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison under the direction of Richard J. Davidson Ph.D. and with the support of the Dalai Lama.

One of the most intriguing stories dealt with meditation and the neuropsychology of the spiritual experience. "The cover shot should have been a simple studio picture with a black background," Wolinsky says, "but we had wanted this image of one of the Dalai Lama's disciples. It seems that the Dalai Lama had heard of the research being conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison dealing with the question of what really goes on in the brain with deep meditation. He called the researchers in Madison and said, `Hello, this is the Dalai Lama. I have some `Olympic' meditators here who have more than 10,000 hours of meditation under their caps and I will loan them to you for the study.'"

The question was what is going on in their brain when they were in a state of deep meditation. The answer was, not much. In fact, their brains were so quiet they were off the existing scale that showed brain activity.

Wolinsky was granted one hour to photograph and hurriedly booked a flight to Madison. With one flight canceled and time delays he arrived in Madison at 6am and set up a black background and lights. "Since we had to be out of the designated space in such short time I had the presence of mind to shoot my subject every which way--front, back, and sideways. There was not much going on. I had only a light, a meditating lama, hands folded and dressed in a red Tibetan costume with electrodes covering his head. That was the shot and National Geographic used it on the cover."

Perfect Pitch And Suzuki Method

Tokyo, Japan. Reigji Inda teaches a group of young children (4-8 years old) to play the violin using the Suzuki Method. By studying MRI brain scans, Japanese researcher Takashi Onishi, at the National Center Hospital for Mental, Nervous, and Muscular Disorders, has shown that perfect pitch is not a genetic gift but is a function of early training in music. His research shows that perfect pitch is located in the language areas of the brain and most easily learned when the brain is young and most receptive to language learning.

Wolinsky started getting involved in illustration some years ago when National Geographic asked him to do a story on writing. A photographer doing a story on writing? It turned out to be a challenging assignment and he became interested in writing forms, in particular Egyptian hieroglyphics that were decoded. A little bird, a little foot--they were picture stories. But Wolinsky sensed that those symbols were also phonetic. "When you go into an Egyptian tomb and see all the little forms on the wall, you are looking at a combination of writing and artistic expression," he says, "so there is also a visual symbolic meaning as well as a phonetic one.