Tears are not restricted to the quiet moments of sadness. Not only can we cry during a wide range of emotion, including grief, frustration, elation, rejection, relief, and laughter, but also inadvertently during daily activities like yawning or chopping onions.
Photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher realized this when she began her “Topography of Tears” project during a tumultuous period in her life. Her curiosity about whether there was any difference between tears of laughter and sorrow lead her to photograph 100 different teardrops from herself and others through a microscope, revealing the starling complexity and variety of different types of tears.
As captured by Fisher as well as scientifically documented, different types of tears vary dramatically in composition and structure. Certain types of tears serve different functions, such as washing away irritant particles or releasing some emotional stress. This causes the composition of the tears to vary as well – different types of tears have different percentages of water, proteins, minerals, hormones, and enzymes.
Fisher captured the unique microstructures within the three types of human tears: basal (everyday eye lubrication), reflex (washes away irritants), and emotional. Not only did she find that the different types vary in composition, but she also found a striking resemblance between the microscopic tears and aerial photography of Earth’s terrain. Each hydrophilic landscape resembles something seem in nature or construction; tears of laughter look like agricultural contours; tears of change look like a dense city; tears of grief look like sprawling neighborhoods seeping through a rural landscape.
Basal tears meander like distributaries of a delta. Elation and liberation tears look like old photos of a windy field blowing around weeds and allium flowers.
Fisher’s photo series reminds us that while we reside in the world, the world also resides within us. The watery shimmer of our swelling eyes in sadness and in joy not only reflects the world around us, but it is also composed of the very scenery and landscapes that captivate us. We are not separate.
“[Tears] are the evidence of our inner life overflowing its boundaries, spilling over into consciousness,” Fisher commentates. “Wordless and spontaneous, they release us to the possibility of realignment, reunion, catharsis: shedding tears, shedding old skin. It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.”