Oct 8, 2014

Neuroscience and iPhoneography - A Discussion with Joshua Sariñana

It's not every day that I get to have a chat with a neuroscientist about iPhone photography! When I submitted the interview questions to Joshua Sariñana, I couldn't wait to read his answers. I knew I would be getting a completely different perspective on this passion of mine. Now you get to read his thoughts on the subject as well as enjoy his beautiful imagery too!

Tomorrow the feature with Joshua continues with a step-by-step tutorial - you won't want to miss that! To make sure you never miss a post, you can subscribe to get Art of Mob by email here.

Image of Structure © Joshua Sariñana
Image of Structure

What is your name and where do you live? 

JS:  My name is Joshua Sariñana, and I currently live in Cambridge, MA, by way of Los Angles, CA, by way of San Jose, CA.

How did you get started in mobile photography? What device do you use? 

JS:  I started with mobile photography in 2004, when I bought the Palm Treo 650, which had a whopping 0.31 megapixels camera sensor. Although I’ve taken images with my camera phone for the past 10 years, it wasn’t until 2010 that I started to take mobile photography much more seriously. I found myself snapping images with my Canon 7D and then following with the iPhone. With Apple’s app store, I could immediately post-process my images rather than having to wait until I got back to my computer. It was this immediate access to post-processing that reinforced my use of the iPhone. Today, most of my images come from the iPhone 5s, which I’m a little troubled by because I have some rather costly equipment that gets used less often.

Late © Joshua Sariñana
© Joshua Sariñana
Do you have a traditional photography or art background? 

JS:  I’ve never been formally trained in photography or in the visual arts. A lot of my interest in art came from family and friends. I was always around talented people (drawers, videographers, painters, designers, scientists, martial artists), and I was motivated to emulate them. The majority of what I know about photography and aesthetics is through practice, books, academic literature, web forums like Cambridge in Colour, Photo.net, and Art of Mob, as well as online videos.

I became interested in photography in 2001, when I spent a semester in Paris. I brought a few Kodak Advantix single use cameras, which I thought would be enough for the entire trip. Within a couple of days, I had blown threw the cameras and ended buying a Kodak C700 Advantix system and shooting another ~40 rolls of film. When I returned to California, I bought my first digital camera, the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-V1. I’ve only gone further down the rabbit hole since then.

Radiate © Joshua Sariñana
Radiate © Joshua Sariñana
Branching Shadows © Joshua Sariñana
Branching Shadows
Besides being an award-winning mobile photographer, you are first a neuroscientist. How does your experience as a neuroscientist affect your photography?

JS:  Much like photography, neuroscience is highly intertwined with technological progress. To understand the brain, it’s important to understand the basics of technology, such as the properties of a circuit, the propagation of waves, and how to use complex tools. Through neuroscience, I have a better understanding of how lenses and sensors work and how to optimize my data collection (i.e., how to increase the quality of my images while reducing the total number of images I take). I think having a thorough understanding of the visual systems, autobiographical memory formation, and decision making also helps me better create color contrast, luminance distribution, proper framing, and predicting what I can pull out of the image during post processing. Both neuroscience and photography require dexterity, originality, conceptual flexibility, lots and lots of failure, and a type of deep-seated masochism. More recently, photography has started to change how I understand the brain, which I plan to write about.

Neon Late © Joshua Sariñana
Neon Late
South Station © Joshua Sariñana
South Station
Who or what inspires you?

JS:  I find inspiration to be such a fickle and incredibly frustrating thing. For the most part, creative pursuits rely on diligence. Creativity applies to sciences and the arts so I’ll first give an example with my research. I started a neuroscience project in 2006 that I did not finish until this past spring. For the first three years, I was incredibly motivated to read literature about the relationship between autobiographical memory and spatial navigation, practice research techniques, collect data, and work very long hours. However, the crucial experiments that led to solving this intractable problem that I set out to solve took more than three years to figure out. It took another 4 years to gather, interpret, and publish the data. I can’t say that I was all that inspired during this time. Most of science is actually pretty boring and consists of failure on a daily basis. What inspires me the most is forming the narrative that threads all the data points into coherent story. Similarly, I’m often motivated after I go reflect and look at my photo library. I like figuring out how to thread my images together into a coherent narrative, though this something I’m still figuring out.

Sometimes inspiration comes out of nowhere. Once, I was sitting on my couch and the sun broke through the clouds rather suddenly and created some hard dramatic shadows on the building across the street. Without even thinking, I got up, grabbed my camera, and went out for a few hours.

With regard to photographers, I find inspiration in the works of many people: Bill Brandt, Sebastiao Salgado, Richard Avedon, Cindy Sherman, William Eggleston, David Hockney, and Francesca Woodman to name a few.

In terms of mobile photographers, I very much enjoy the work of Cedric Blanchon, Nettie Edwards, Nadine Bénichou’s (her architectural work I find particularly amazing), Robin Robertis, and of course many more.

Am I the Only One Left? © Joshua Sariñana
Am I the Only One Left?
© Joshua Sariñana
I read your three-part essay "Instagram and Anxiety of the Photographer". I can certainly relate to the anxiety caused by the onslaught of technology and the speed at which it is developing. In general, do you think social sharing is beneficial or detrimental?

JS:  As it stands, social media is more detrimental than beneficial. Social platforms don’t generate content; they organize it. Users are the content generators, but the vast majority of all profit goes to the aggregators. Whether the user provides photos, search history, or IP address, all the data is used to extract information to sell directed ads back to the generators of the content. Mined data is also a treasure trove for governments. It’s rather frightening what type of information can be gathered about any one individual. With just a few data points information regarding gender, address, sexual preferences, Social Security number, and general health can be figured out. Basically, companies make large amounts of profit and the Government can track individuals without their consent with data offered to social media sites. Moreover, social media reduces trust between people, it polarizes political views, and user comments are mostly irrelevant to the topic they’re responding to. However, I don’t think these phenomena are necessarily specific to the architecture of social media. Social media may have been popularized in 2003 by Myspace, but the hyper-growth of media platforms didn’t take off until after the great recession and with the advent of the iPhone (i.e., mobile photography). The reconstruction of communication by social media has occurred during great economic and political turbulence across the globe and I hope that the negative aspects of social media (outlined above) are more of a condition of our times than some sort of inherent structural flaw. I have some hope that things will improve and it is my goal to contribute to the betterment of social sharing.

© Joshua Sariñana
© Joshua Sariñana
For the most part, your gallery includes architectural images with no humans in sight. Is this done intentionally?

JS:  Yes, it is done intentionally and for two reasons. The first is simple; I don’t want to disrupt the building’s form.

The second is a little more convoluted. There are few generally accepted axioms in biology. One is that structure represents function and another is that living organisms are greater than the sum of its parts. For example, the structure of a protein represents the function of that protein. Also, parts of a cell alone are not the cell, it’s the activity between proteins (and the like) that creates a system greater than the some of its parts. In this regard, I find similarity between natural structures and structures created by humans. The structure and activity of the city represents the structure and activity of architecture, which represents the structure and activity of our brain, which represents the structure and activity of our cells, which represents the structure and activity of our DNA. It’s easy to see that there’s a multidimensional threat thread that connects the very small (DNA) to the very large (society).

Getting back to your question, through my photographs I want to show how architectural structures represent emotional activity of the brain. Like the cell, architecture alone is not alive, human interaction within architecture makes it alive. All emotions occur in a context and all architectural structures offer a context to associate emotions to, which is autobiographical memory. Humans create architecture in their own image and my goal is to distil architecture and memory away from direct human imagery. I want to see the shadows of human activity and emotion. I seek to highlight sadness, isolation, depression, death, beauty, and hope in the absence of direct humans imagery. 

La Fin du Monde © Joshua Sariñana
La Fin du Monde
Please describe how you edit your images and favorite apps that you use. 

JS:  Like many mobile photographers, I start my post-processing with Snapseed and VSCO Cam. Depending on my needs, I’ll use SKRWT for correcting image perspective, TouchRetouch to delete any distracting parts of the image, Noiseware to reduce noise, and Photogene4, if I need heavier editing. Other apps that I like, but use less often, are  Cross Process, True HDR, AutoStitch, Mextures, Facetune, and Photoshop Express.

Postmodern Condition © Joshua Sariñana
Postmodern Condition
Have you exhibited your work? If not, any plans for the future?

JS:  I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of several group exhibits over the past year. My first group exhibit was in 2013 at the Cyclorama in Boston, which was put together by Photo Nights Boston. This past spring the Mobile Photography Awards and Crated.com each held exhibits at the SoHo Arthouse in NYC, where I had a couple of images shown. A few of my photos were also accepted for the MobileMagic Exhibit at the LightBox gallery in Astoria Oregon. Each month, LightBox chooses 25 images submitted by mobile photographers all over the world, which is great to see because mobile photography is unduly criticized. I’ll also be part of two exhibits this month. The first is the Pocket Vista Exhibit at the BMFA gallery, which was organized by the Mobile Photography Awards. The other is the Selfie Exhibit at the Museum of New Art in Detroit.

The Three Shades © Joshua Sariñana
The Three Shades
Do you sell your work? If so, where?

JS:  I have images that can be licensed through Getty Images in collaboration with EyeEm. Prints are also on sale (with several printing and framing options) at Crated.com. I also put together a hardback and eBook called Image of Structure, which is a collection of architectural and nature images, all of which were produced and edited within the iPhone.

What advice would you give mobile photographers just starting out?

JS:  Try to take photos everyday, even if it’s just one. If you see something that you feel like you should take a picture of, stop, compose, shoot, and move on. Look at images from the winners of mobile photo competitions to see the possibilities of mobile photography. Spend time learning apps. Cary an extra power cord to charge your phone as post processing apps can drain your battery. Follow other mobile photographers and see who they follow and like.

After developing a strong foundation, try entering into mobile photography contests. I highly recommend entering into the Mobile Photography Awards and the iPhone Photography Awards (there’s a list of mobile competitions posted on my website). Continuously look for your own style, but also be flexible to change. After some time, go back to older images and post-process the original. The changes in photo editing technique and general abilities can really change the final product of older image. Learn the basics of photography, such as aperture, reciprocity, focal length, etc. Shoot with other types of cameras, INCLUDING FILM! Film requires one to slow down and to think more thoroughly about the shot.

Brutal  © Joshua Sariñana
Is there anything else you'd like to add?

JS:  Thank you very much for Art of Mob! It is fantastic to learn about mobile photography especially from the photographers. I love seeing all the amazing images and talent that’s bubbling up in mobile photography.

Find Josh:  InstagramTwitterFacebook, WebsiteTumblrPetaPixel

Apps Mentioned:
Cross Process
True HDR
AutoStitch Panorama
Adobe Photoshop Express


  1. I learned a lot from this one too!

  2. Deep and provocative thoughts regarding the connections among photography, brain activity, social media and creativity. Makes us wonder and dwell into new ways of photography as narrative art. Great interview.

  3. Thank you Enrique - it opened my eyes to a whole new side of this subject.

  4. very individual and very interesting point of view - superb article!

  5. Thanks for reading! It's definitely a different and interesting point of view. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Joshua on this.

  6. Enrique, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thank you very much.


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