The genetic modification of foods is not the sort of topic that inspires ambivalence. When Murray Ballard first visited the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, England—Europe’s “largest independent research facility for the study of plant science and microbiology”—he thought he’d already picked a side.
He grew up in England’s countryside, where his parents grew organic vegetables in their garden and fulfilled their “1970s self-sufficient dreams.” As a result, he was predisposed to wariness of genetic engineering. Nonetheless, he entered the facility on a commission from the British Science Festival with “the aim of gaining a deeper understanding of genetic modification technology and its applications in the development of crop plants.”
Initially, the work Ballard was making was “more playful and a slightly more abstract interpretation of the facility as a whole.” That changed, however, when he selected three experiments at the facility to focus on: the first, an effort to increase the nutritional content in tomatoes, the second, an attempt to eradicate blight in potatoes, and the third, a project to engineer drought-resistant barley.
At that point, his work became more concerned with education than pure aesthetics. “The whole idea of me getting involved with genetic modification was to understand it better and then communicate that to the public. There became a responsibility to communicate this to a broad audience, people not from a scientific background,” he said.
Eventually, Ballard’s opinion about genetic modification changed. “I walked into the place sort of suspicious of it, but once I understood some of the science behind it, it made a lot more sense and it wasn’t the sinister science I imagined,” he said.
Genetic modification happens on a scale that our eyes can’t see. Most often, scientists represent it visually through diagrams and graphs, which “people find very hard to imagine,” leading to mistrust, Ballard said. “We’re inherently suspicious of things we can’t see or understand, so the idea was to present these genetic modification experiments in a very simple way and photograph what it looks to our eyes,” he said.
In addition to visual clarity, Ballard strove for representation of the human element in the scientific process, one that is rarely seen or imagined in conversation about genetic modification. Photographs of genetically modified tomatoes on a scientist’s messy desk, for instance, make them appear less foreign and more commonplace.
Ultimately, Ballard turned his project, “How to Genetically Modify a Tomato and Other Things We Eat,” into a single-issue newspaper (available by contacting Dee Rawsthorne at the John Innes Centre) with the graphic designer Elliot Hammer. The paper is meant to serve as a manual for those who want to better understand genetic modification, in the style of maintenance and repair Haynes Manuals.
Using photography as an education tool, Ballard said, made him “very nervous,” but he said he felt it was important to combat the popular “Frankenstein science story” about genetically modified food that many people encounter in the press. “I really felt like that’s what I needed to do because that’s what’s missing. People not from a scientific background get lost. The people I was working with were the first to admit that scientists don’t explain themselves very well,” he said.