Secret Life: Joshua Feingold

Joshua Feingold’s area of focus is the biological and ecological properties of coral reefs, but when he steps out of the classroom, he picks up his camera and exercises his eye for nature.

Feingold, professor in the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences of the Halmos College of Natural Science and Oceanography, has used his passion for photography to get a closer look at his area of expertise and enrich his teaching experience.

Feingold detailed how he incorporates photography into his career.

How did your passion with photography start?

“I started taking pictures for artistic purposes in high school, and I actually did some art classes in college, one of which was a photography class that was very interesting because it was black and white photography, and we got to develop our own film. I learned a lot about tonality, contrast and how, graphically, you can put together an image. So I was always interested in that area.”

What type of photography are you most interested in?

“I’m passionate about nature photography in general, but I have developed the specialty of underwater photography as well because it’s basically my attempt to capture the animals and plants that I love in an attractive way that shows their behaviors and interactions in biology. For example, I have a picture of manatees sleeping and sharks cruising their environment. But, since I work with corals, I have a lot of pictures of corals in their natural habitat that show their interactions, which are somewhat more subtle. You know the ways that they digest each other’s tissues and there are organisms that eat corals, known as corallivores. So I have pictures of those interactions where snails or nudibranchs are eating the coral. Some of my graduate and undergraduate students [and I] are still working on that, [and] there’s a fish that’s pretty common where I work, and it’s also eating the corals, and we’re working on that as well.”

Unidentified Nubibranch

When you’re not taking pictures of the ecosystem or marine biology, do you take pictures of people?

“I tend not to take pictures of people. I prefer to take pictures of organisms and nature. An example of this is, last year, I challenged myself to take a picture in nature every day of the year. I did it, and it was a very rewarding activity because it forced me to really get out there and look at interactions around the natural world.”

What’s your favorite picture that you’ve ever taken?

“That a very difficult question to answer, but I guess, off the top of my head, I can think of several.  My favorite pictures have to do with light and shadow. Actually, thinking about it right now, there is this picture of two birds that I’m very partial to. They were in a very nice pattern, and, with a little bit of luck, I got a very nice shot of them. And I have a picture of a nudibranch, which is a sea slug, that is basically unknown to science, and I didn’t know that when I took the picture. But I found out when I started asking around, and I learned that no one has identified the species. So that was very interesting. ”

What type of camera do you use to take your pictures?

“Right now, I have a Nikon D5200 DSLR. It’s kind of an amateurish camera, but the equipment is only the tool. So don’t dismiss the fact that you can get really amazing shots with simple equipment because even I have taken strong images with camera phones.”

How have your endeavors in photography enriched your teaching experience?

“I like to have my students experience things in the field, whether it’s an interaction between organisms or some type of stratification in terms of their zonation. So I use my pictures very regularly in class because I find that it’s engaging, and it provides a visual context to the things we’re talking about.”

In what other ways do you use your photography?

“I use photography to collect data. One of the challenges with working underwater is the time limitation because you only have a certain amount of air. If you can take pictures that you can later analyze, it makes your data collecting more efficient. So what I’ve been doing over a long period time are photo quadrats. These are grids that are laid out, and they allow you to survey a benthic community with pretty good resolution. And then, when I have the time — and it takes a lot of time — you can see the amount of coral cover you have or the other types of organisms you have in the area. So you can quantify things that are going on in the environment in a very efficient way. And I have some long-term data sets now that are pretty good at documenting changes that we’ve seen over the decade. That becomes very important when we’re considering how humans are affecting the environment and the things we can do to ameliorate that so that we can help these organisms to survive and persist. This kind of documentation becomes important in that respect as well.”

Do you prefer to take personal pictures of nature, or are you partial to taking pictures that relate to your profession?

“Again, that’s a very difficult question to answer because I don’t really see them as distinct things. There are times when I’m working in the field when I see new interactions that are very exciting to me, and then there are times when I’m out taking pictures for pleasure, and I’ll see an organism with a particular behavior, and it will inspire me to learn more about it. So then, in the class, I can talk in greater detail about it, so there’s a lot of intermingling with personal and professional. “

Do you have any advice for students who have multiple passions like yourself?

“Pursue something that blends all the different aspects of who you are into one.”

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