Sara Seager and I first met in the fall of 2014 in New York City at a conference I was shooting for Bloomberg. She was on a panel discussing the future of technology as it relates to space. To say that Sara isn’t a typical scientist is an understatement in almost every way. She dresses like a mix between a super hero and someone who’s arrived from the semi-distant future. She’s soft-spoken, yet forcefully direct, and that makes for interesting panel discussions and interviews, because she seems to show no interest in the entertainment value of these exchanges. Sara’s interested in facts; in what is known, and what’s not known, and how get from the former to the latter.
I’d heard about (and had met people) that worked on the Kepler program and had been following the news regarding exoplanets for at least five years before the conference. The opportunity to meet someone whose work was directly focused on the development of technology to search for and verify the existence of the planets similar to Earth hadn’t presented itself though and these conferences aren’t always the best place to try to have a conversation with someone who’s clearly got more important things to do than sit on panels and talk about their work, let alone entertain fans. Especially when the fan is the photographer, who, in these situations, typically lives by the rule of speaking when spoken to and not initiating any conversations with anyone that isn’t giving orders. Bloomberg has been great to me in this way. Specifically, Holly Doran, who’s the Head of Corporate Events, has been a champion of mine since we started working together in 2013. As long as I get the work done to their standard, I’ve never felt like I can’t be myself, which often involves introducing myself to people I think are inspiring, regardless of the setting.
Sara and I ended up standing next to one another during the cocktail reception. It’s easier to remember the tone of that conversation and her body language than what exactly was said. Sara seemed out-of-place amidst a room full of people that were doing the cocktail thing and I was doing my best to communicate my genuine interest and thrill for what she does, but we both seemed to have a tension about us, as though we were casually talking about the weather while suspended by steel cables hundreds of feet above a canyon. I think we were both scanning the room and, maybe, wondering what we were doing there. We both had assumed roles to play but looking back on it now it’s a lot more clear to me that Sara isn’t driven by a desire to network or to promote her work.
Ironically, a byproduct of this, I think, has been a reputation that her mentors want her to promote. Sara’s been running with her head down for decades. That’s how you end up an astrophysicist and departmental chair at MIT, a MacArthur Fellow, and one of the people leading the program to design the next generation of deep space telescopes. It’s how you keep it together through the loss of a spouse to cancer. It’s how you succeed in finding another earth. She would add to this that having a father that never doubted her played a significant role in her becoming a scientist and it’s worth noting that in my limited time getting to know her she never gave me the impression that it was easy. Quite the opposite- it seems to have been a mountain that many would have thought of as being insurmountable. Sara stares at the mountain and sees the possibility of scaling it as a series of problems that have solutions.
That’s the thing about her. What makes Sara compelling isn’t just what she’s accomplished, it’s that she doesn’t seem to be impressed by herself in the slightest. Her only focus seems to be whatever problem, or problems, need to be solved next, whether it’s making sure her kids have dinner, that the laundry is done, figuring out how to raise 600 million dollars to fund development, or developing theoretical methods for detecting and analyzing atmospheric compositions on planets orbiting stars trillions of miles away. I use that tone because I’m astounded by what Sara is accomplishing and I think you should be, too.
At some point in the conversation, Sara asked me about photography. I explained that I’m a portrait photographer and she asked me a series of earnest questions about what that’s like. I was surprised by how direct she was with them. There was something investigatory in her tone, as though she wanted to understand the nature of my work as fully and as quickly as she could. I talked about my interest in people. In understanding what they do. I remember saying to her, “Who knows, maybe someday you’ll be in front of my camera.” We talked for a few more minutes and I needed to get back to work so I thanked her for the conversation and asked if we might stay in touch. We must have discussed the emotional and psychological aspects of what I do because the subject line of the first email I sent her after we exchanged information was “Photography is Vulnerability.” Her response was kind and when I asked if she’d ever consider giving me a tour of MIT she wrote, “Yes definitely. Just let me know if you are ever in Boston.”
The following year, back in San Francisco, after working with Vicki Chandler, around whom the idea of creating a body of work specific to portraits of inspiring women coalesced, I happened to notice that Sara was on the roster for The Long Now’s speaker series. The Long Now is like the organizational equivalent of Sara. A group focused on very long-term thinking and planning (as in, 10,000 years from now long-term thinking) and for whom I’ve had a schoolboy crush for over a decade. It was a good enough excuse for me. I reached out to her to let her know about my project and to ask if she’d be interested. After not hearing back after two months, I wrote again. I received a response a couple of weeks later that began,
Thanks for getting in touch with me (twice). Thanks for thinking of me for your project.”
Because her trip ended up being very short we weren’t able to shoot but I was able to attend the lecture and we were able to talk briefly afterward. We agreed that I would come to visit her at MIT in October as I would be in New York for work. When the day finally came, I awoke before dawn in Brooklyn, took a cab to Penn Station, Amtrak to Boston, the line to MIT, and eventually arrived to Sarah’s building on campus, a nondescript, single tower made of mostly brick in a style that seems specific to college campuses in the 70s. It had the vibe of a library meets laboratory: Earth, Atmosphere and Planetary Sciences.
On the way to the 17th floor the elevator stops at the second and the door opens. There are two other young men in there with me and for a moment it seems like it's opened to nothing. Then a thick man in tan pants and a red sweater, maybe six foot two, walks in facing me. He has a black, neatly trimmed, beard and a round face. A large frame. I’m unsure of his ethnicity. Indian, maybe? I don't recognize his accent, which I hear because he addressed me without missing a beat.
"There he is," he says. At first, I don't think he's talking to me because I've never seen this man before in my life, but it's undeniable that this is being directed at me.
"Still trying to kill yourself, I see," he adds as he turns sideways, now with me facing his left shoulder as the elevator doors close.
I've got three bags with me. A backpack full of camera equipment. A smaller rectangular bag with a new strobe that I'd just bought the day before in Manhattan and the accompanying duffel that has the stand, trigger, and soft-box in it. I’ve been nagged by the doubt of having the right equipment, of having a clear enough vision. It’s just me here and I’ve traversed the country to ask this very busy person for her time with no agenda other than my pure, unadulterated, interest in her and what she does and combining that with what I do. No one has assigned this work to me and that leaves room for all kinds of doubt. So, when he says this to me, it’s difficult not to feel like I’ve just had a direct message hand-delivered to me straight from the universe. But it ends there, with no epiphany, no deep understanding or conclusion on what I should change, or how I should change and I’m left pondering that on the 16th floor when he exits and I never see him again.
I find Sara in her office. She’s seated at a long, wooden, plain table situated at an angle flanked on either side by chalk boards, one of which, to my right, is covered in an equation that’s roughly three feet tall and at least six feet wide. It would seem absurd, a caricature of an office occupied by an astrophysicist, if there wasn’t one sitting a few feet from me with her hands hovering over her laptop with a somewhat flat expression on her face. A flock of champagne bottles atop the waist-high bookshelf underneath the equation is the only trace of exuberance. There are covers of magazines blown up to the size of traditional movie posters, the kind you might hang in your bedroom when you were a kid, but these aren’t movies. They’re indications of what’s happening in this nondescript building and in this modest office and, incidentally, really, unbelievably, far away. There’s a painting of a ringed planet back-lit by the fires of a bright red star. At first glance I think of Saturn. But Saturn isn’t this close to the sun. And the sun isn’t that red.
Sara invites me in and we shake hands. I thank her for offering me the time and we discuss where we might get the best images. I suggest that we start in her office and she explains that at 12:00 she has a meeting that will last an hour and that she really doesn’t want to attend but probably should and as I’m listening to her I realize that I find it endearing that she’s sharing her internal thoughts about the politics of whether or not she should attend a departmental meeting. That’s when it begins to hit me; Sara would always rather be working and meetings aren’t work. They’re obstacles. Needless to say, I also begin to realize that her agreeing to my showing up to make a photograph of her, not for a major publication, or because the school is requiring it, or her bosses have asked her to do it, but simply because I asked if I could include her in my project, is both very flattering and equally intimidating. I hate the idea of wasting people’s time.
I explain that I’m going to set up and test the light and she goes back to work at her laptop. If there’s an elephant in the room I’m keeping it directly behind me and I do that by telling myself that this is what I should expect if I’m going to continue to pursue this kind of work. Better get used to it. I’m here to learn. I’ve never shot with this particular strobe before and the idea of lighting up the room while she’s trying to concentrate on her work and ignore me at the same time is uncomfortable, to say the least. But she’s given me permission to be here and that’s enough. After a little while I suggest we start and I move her around the room looking for ways to get both the best light while learning a new piece of equipment. For the record, this is the second worst way to learn a new piece of equipment, the first being on a paid assignment for a client.
After a few minutes I start to feel that thing that happens to me when I’m realizing that I don’t have much to work with and I’m not working with it well. We start talking. Because I’m standing with a world-renowned scientist whose job is specifically related to discovering planets, which is directly related to how they affect the light of the stars they orbit, I decide to share more about what I’m doing with the light meter, how I’m thinking about the light, and the differences between shooting digitally and on film. I’ve got my Hasselblad on the tripod and a DSLR around my neck. The irony that I’m explaining what little I understand about these systems to a doctor of science seems, at best, cute. Still, we move along. And then she says,
“It’s hard to have your photograph taken by someone you don’t know.”
It caught me off guard and I never really noticed Sara’s twisted hands, tied up in a small knot of anxiety, a cue that she was just as nervous as me, until months later while looking through the frames I’d shot on film. So I decide to ask the question I’ve asked when others have offered to meet me.
“Why did you say yes?”
“You seemed like an interesting person. Oh, and I looked at your work and the images are spectacular.”
I’ve gotten a lot of compliments over the years for my work. I almost always immediately dismiss them. Rather, they’re consumed; these small, beautiful, dense stones cast into an ocean of self-doubt. Sara paid me two compliments that day. Both somehow have managed to stay afloat.
Sara ended up attending that meeting. She pointed me in the direction of the buildings Frank Gehry designed for the school and to where I might get lunch. I roamed the halls and educated avenues of the institution, past the gentle glances of robots in comas, designed by the School of Robotics and on display in the food court, feeling a longing to return to a place where learning and discussion are endemic to the culture. I know my opinion of these places is biased, but the drugs my mind produce when I’m somewhere new, surrounded by the vibrancy of stimulated minds, with my cameras, have to run their course. And why wouldn’t I let them? Isn’t this the point? Isn’t this the goal of my life, to use my curiosity and what skill I have to surround myself with people that are deepening our understanding of the universe and our place in it, and, hopefully, mine too?
After lunch I return to Sara’s office to grab my equipment and she’s debating whether or not to bring a pair of heels on a business trip for which she’s leaving that evening. Another speaking gig, this time in the south. Arkansas, I think. She’s debating the question out loud and clearly caught between two mental projections of what she might wear, what she might need. Watching a person who’s in the very real position of making a discovery that could elevate her into an echelon of historical figure that’s recalled for centuries try to determine the best shoes to take on a business trip is like watching an astronaut that’s headed to Mars play a game of Sudoku on the launchpad.
She turns to me and asks my opinion. Should she take the running shoes, flats, and the heels? Or just the running shoes and flats? I laugh and comment on this being the thing that we might have most in common; indecisiveness when it comes to packing. It doesn’t seem like she wants to take the heels. Ultimately, though, they go in the bag and we’re out the door to make a few photos outside before we catch the Red line to South Station, where I’ll depart back to New York and she’ll depart for Logan International for another in a series of these things that she doesn’t really want to do but knows that she has to, because it’s part of the job, and her bosses don’t want to do it, either.
We return to a spot where I try to make some images of her that I hope will be interesting but they fall flat and I know we’re out of time. I’m disappointed about what I’ve gotten because I feel like the image, a good image, will be the only proof I can offer her that her time wasn’t in vain. We walk to the train and board, the tide of time that once brought us together now carrying us back out to sea.
We're on the train and it's not very crowded but it's also not the easiest place to have a conversation but it has the opposite effect and somehow loosens things up even more. We'd both already addressed the discomfort with sitting in front of a camera, or, in my case, behind one. Vanity. Growing old. Seeing that reflected in the image. Photography as vulnerability. Other than two five minute conversations we've had in person over the course of the last year, and today, we don't know one another. All of these things make sense to me.
During the course of our time together in her office, talking about her work, about mine, about our lives and our past, her losing a husband, how we relate to our partners, the various habits and orbits of our lives, we reach a place where I feel that despite not feeling sure that I'm doing a good job as a photographer (I rarely do) I feel like I'm doing an alright job as a human being. I want to be a great photographer. But for me it's a means to an end. I'm interested in the story and that is another way of saying that I want to be the one that got to be there, to see what happened in person. Anyone can see the photo. I was a witness. Maybe it's selfish, but it's one of the few things I feel like I’ve genuinely earned and it comes in the form of someone else saying yes.
When Sara turns toward me on the train I can tell she's about to open up about something. I'm not sure how quickly it occurred to me but it did and I'm thankful for that because when I turned toward her to make sure she knew I was listening carefully she said,
”Now that we've spent some time, I just want to say, I really enjoyed talking to you.”
Earlier she had told me that some people might find the folks at MIT, she might have meant in her department, rude, because if they grow tired of the conversation they'll just say it. Within a minute of talking to her you can tell that this is someone that has a lot on her mind and sitting for a portrait isn't exactly a priority. "The further I go with my work," she adds, the train carrying us sideways through space, "It's hard for me to go out into the world and talk to people. I don't know... do you... if you feel that way." This is where I feel like we're forming the beginning of an understanding of one another. The way that she told me that she enjoyed talking to me was in a combination of relief and slight surprise. That is the moment that I hope that I remember. That's what I think about when I look at the images I made of her. That’s what makes this image of her a success in my life, because it’s not Sara, the astrophysicist, or Sara, the businessperson, or Sara, the MacArthur Fellow. It’s not this person that you read about in the news or this incredible woman that, any day now, might discover a planet just like earth somewhere else in the universe. It’s Sara, the woman that I got to spend an afternoon with that warm October day in Cambridge in 2015, who shared her fears with me, and with whom I shared my fears, too.
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