Our liquid fingerprints: Micrograph photos reveal the unique beauty of tears

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Maurice Mikkers invites strangers into his home in the Hague and makes them cry.

Don’t worry, it’s not illegal. It’s part of an ongoing art project called “Imaginarium of Tears,” in which the Dutch artist captures close-up pictures of tears under a microscope. 

“I ask you to bring the things that would make you cry, like a movie or a book,” Mikkers tells Quartz. “There are lots of things that make you cry, and you know yourself best,” he says.

If that doesn’t work, Mikkers has a few tricks up his sleeve to make his subjects tear up. These include cutting an onion, looking into a fan, and pulling out a nose hair.

It turns out that each tear is different—and beautiful in its own right, as you can see in the video above. The fact that we don’t really know what causes this variation—it might be the humidity of the atmosphere, the composition of the tear, or even the source of the pain that drew the tear from the eye in the first place—imbues the project with a sense of mystery and exploration.

In the past year, Mikkers has taken pictures of more than a hundred tears. Friends, family, and even complete strangers have donated their tears at dinner parties and exhibitions, like at TEDx in Amsterdam, where Mikkers was invited to set up a temporary tear collecting booth for people to cry in. When someone contacts Mikkers to ask if they can visit him to have a picture of their own evaporated tear taken, he usually invites them over, makes them cry, and then sends them home with a photograph of their own unique tear. 

Currently, Mikkers is working on producing a collection of postcards showing images of the tears, as well as a book. 

The first tear

The project started in January 2015 when Mikkers, who worked as a lab technician before attending art school, was photographing crystallized drugs under a microscope at home for a personal project.

“I went from my desk to the kitchen to evaporate the drug on the hot plate, and when I walked back I bumped my toe against the table,” Mikkers tells Quartz. 

The pain in his toe made his eyes water, so he blinked and captured a tear in a pipette he had in his hand. Then he put the tear on a glass slide and let it dry. The salty crystals looked like a snowflake or an intricate piece of lace under the microscope. 

“My first thoughts right after seeing my first tear was, “I want to cry again!” and “Is this for real?” Mikkers writes in a post on Medium, in which he tells the story of how this single tear became a year-long project. 

What the scientists say

Today, Mikkers is most interested in exploring the variables that make each tear dry differently. He sees this scientific aspect of the project as very important to the art. 

“If you only go the artistic way you will keep creating the same experience with variables you don’t know how to control,” he says. “There is only the possibility to change the shape if you know how to control the crystallization of the tear.”

Mikkers has played around with different variables, such as drying tears in a climate-controlled environment. The rate at which the tears dry seems to have some bearing on the way they look under the microscope, he says. Then there’s the actual composition of the tear itself. 

“I think the first thing is that it would depend on who the tear comes from,” Dr. Naomi Chayen, who studies crystallization at the Imperial College in London, tells Quartz. “Crystals are very dependent on the ingredients,” she explains. 

Of course, Mikkers has dried and photographed his own own tears many times, and they all look very different.

“I emailed with a professor from the UK, and we were discussing this point,” Mikkers says. “He wanted to know what would happen if you took a tear from the left eye and the right eye, so I decided to do it and see what happened. They look like they could be from different people.”

Can you see sadness?

The question at the heart of Mikkers’ investigation is whether or not tears caused by emotions differ visibly from those caused by other forces. He researched this online and found that there are three types of tears—basal tears, reflex tears, and emotional tears—and that all of these tears are made up of the same elements, with one exception: Emotional tears contain three extra ingredients called prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and leucine enkephalin. 

According to Dr. Chayen, the only way to see this may be to look beyond the microscope. 

A lab procedure called spectroscopy, in which scientists measure the composition of crystals by passing x-rays through them, would reveal whether the makeup of the tears or the way the tears dry causes the difference in the images, according to Dr. Chayen.

“If it is the same person and the same day and the emotional tear dries differently than the one caused by the onion, it would be very, very interesting,” she says. 

Little, if any, formal research exists on the crystallization of tears, which leaves Mikkers to answer this question by himself. He hopes one day he will have access to a full lab to do this, but for now he is content with tweaking minor variables. 

“I want to buy an incubator or even make one myself,” he says. 

In the meantime, he will continue creating art from people’s beautiful, unique tears to stoke viewers’ imaginations. 

See more of Mikkers’ work here. “Imaginarium of Tears” will be on display in Kuwait City from March 29 to April 4.