The invisible visible

by World Press Photo

Through the lens of a microscope or telescope, a world beyond human vision unfolds.

To record these invisible phenomena, scientists and photographers have worked together since the invention of photography. Fortunately, the results of their collaborations did not stay inside a laboratory. Photography proved to be both a valuable research tool and a highly effective medium in the popularization and promotion of science. The interplay of the world of science and the world of photography led to beautiful pictures of complicated beauty. Several of these were awarded in World Press Photo’s science & technology category (1985-2003), and in the nature category.

Hidden aspects

Among the winners is Lennart Nilsson, the grand old man of scientific photography, whose groundbreaking pictures of the unborn child were published by Life magazine in 1965. At World Press Photo he received an honorable mention in 1991 for his equally innovative image of a sperm entering an egg cell, followed by a first prize in 1997 for his photo story of human and animal embryos. Journalist and photographer Alexander Tsiaras, also specialized in visualizing hidden aspects of the human anatomy, was awarded several times, first in 1984 for his photo of a 10-week-old fetus in the mother’s womb. To photograph the fetus from outside the amniotic sack, he used an endoscope with a lens he developed himself. His inventiveness in adapting photographic tools and the latest imaging techniques made him highly successful in this field.

Fleeting phenomena

The scanning electron microscope is especially suited to turn nature’s microcosm into a parallel world. In the prize-winning photos made by photographer Oliver Meckes and biologist Nicole Ottawa, who joined forces in their photo studio Eye of Science, tiny lice became giant monsters and a human artery turned into an ocean, seemingly explored by a lonely submarine. But it is not only the hidden or the invisible that photographers set out to lay bare, by capturing fleeting phenomena they enable scientists to study their properties in detail. Electrons and protons for example, whose traces in liquid hydrogen are recorded by the particle accelerator in the particle research institute CERN, photographed in 1990 by Patrick Landmann. In 1996, his fellow countryman Philippe Gontier made a spectacular photo of the flows around an airplane model in a water tunnel at the aerospace research center ONERA in Toulouse.


In 2003, science & technology stopped to exist as a separate category within the World Press Photo contest. Over the years, the number of entries had never risen, as photographers working in the field probably didn’t see the competition as applicable to them. Nevertheless, the nature category offered an alternative. In 2008, David Littschwager, contributing photographer to National Geographic, received first prize for his story on marine microfauna.

Lennart Nilsson

Lennart Nilsson

Alexander Tsiaras

Alexander Tsiaras

Oliver Meckes & Nicole Ottawa

Patrick Landmann

Philippe Gontier

David Liittschwager