In Conversation: Haseeb Ahmed

The overlap between science and art is extremely large. In more ways than one, science and art are two sides of the same coin. Apart from glaring similarities in their principles, art is perhaps one of the most organic ways of communicating science (in my humble opinion). Through a series of interviews with my friends, colleagues and mentors, called “In Conversation”, I aim to explore this amalgamation of science and art and highlight all the times science and art converge in our daily lives without us actively realising it.

In the first installment of this series, I’ve interviewed Haseeb Ahmed, who, alongside being a dear friend and a self-declared film critic, is a bourgeoning physicist and a photographer. We talked about his major, his scientific interests and photography. He broke down the science behind some of his photographs and we discussed the prevalence of physics in photography and finally, the importance of photography to mankind.


What inspired you to study physics? Was there a specific moment that sparked an interest in you or was more like a slow process?

There was never really a eureka moment. I always liked science as a kid and enjoyed reading encyclopaedias. When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I received this electronic Lego set and I built some basic robots out of those; that was an interesting experience. I joined university as an electrical and computer engineering major but after my first year and after having taken some physics courses, I changed my major to physics and here we are. So, you could say it was a slow process.

Could you describe, in one sentence, the most exciting aspect of what you studied?

I think it’s very simple; everyone is curious to know how the universe and stuff around them works and that was also what was interesting for me.  

What about picking up photography as a hobby – how and when did that start?

I picked up photography when I was around 16. It was a free summer and I was looking for things to do or learn, and flipping through magazines and articles, great photographs caught my attention. I also came across the blog of a physicist turned photographer, Ming Thein and his consistency and style really inspired me. Over time, I got myself a small camera and started experimenting. I’ve always wanted to take part in something artistic and have some sort of creative output, and photography suited me best. I think I still have my first photograph somewhere around here.

As someone who has an eye for things/scenes/situations to photograph, could you recount a memory you have of something you looked at and immediately felt like you had to capture it?

A few years ago, my family and I went on this vacation among the mountains, and at some point, while we were driving there, I witnessed a scene where a strong sun beam was shining down on a river, which was flowing through a very steep valley. I remember asking my dad to stop the car so I could take a picture!

Has there ever been a moment, in your career, where physics and photography have intertwined, to create something meaningful?

That was when I was experimenting with astrophotography and took time lapses in the middle the night. It kind of gave me the opportunity to witness the motion of the universe…and I was also able to relate some things we had actually learned in class.

Why do you think photography is important to mankind?

Photography documents our lives. We’ve been recording our lives for the longest time and visual forms of this recording has always been important. I think anyone can take up photography and learn how to capture valuable moments. With a photograph, you can take a mundane subject and turn it into something worth remembering.


“Spectre”, Haseeb Ahmed, 2016

Tell me about this picture: the moment, the inspiration, all that.

The idea for the photograph started out when I was bored actually. It was pretty late into the night and I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I set up my tripod to try something new.

Could you, as a physicist and a photographer, break down the science behind this picture? How did you capture the person at the computer in a blur, but the rest was all still?

Cameras basically operate by opening and closing a shutter and letting light fall onto a sensor(or film if you’re old school). If you’re trying to take a photograph of people in general everyday activities for example, you want to keep the shutter open for a few microseconds at most, since at those timescales, we seem to be frozen in place. Keep the shutter open for too long, and you get blurry photographs. Motion blur is usually seen as a nuisance but here by using a camera set up on a tripod and keeping the shutter open for a few seconds, I’m deliberately trying to add it to the photograph whilst keeping everything around me still.

Is there any artistic meaning behind this photo?

The motion amidst the static objects adds another element to the photo, a temporal moment. In a way, it conveys how fleeting any moment it.


“Through The Looking Glass”, Haseeb Ahmed, 2017

I have similar questions about this photo as well. Tell me about the moment you decided to capture whatever was happening around you and tell me about the science behind this picture.  

My mom was visiting me (in Bremen, Germany) and my host family and I were showing her around. And the thing about me is that when I go out, I often fall back from the group to take a few pictures or capture a moment that catches my eye. This is one of those pictures.

I like working with light, reflection and motion for my photographs and the many reflections   on these glass panes from the light falling on them made the scene other worldly, and added a feeling of ambiguity to it. There are all these figures you can’t make out on the right while on the left, you can see the ‘real world’. All of these elements put together made the moment worth taking a picture of.

Is there any artistic meaning behind picture as well?

It felt like there was a portal to another dimension and it looked like people were moving through that portal. You can’t see the people clearly; it’s as if they are in some sort of a transition and that was what seemed artistic to me.

Take a look at some more of Haseeb’s photography here.