Ask someone what a tear looks like, and there’s a good chance he or she will outline a drop shape. But ask photographer Maurice Mikkers, and he’ll likely tell you about otherworldly crystalline structures that take on the shape of coral reefs, pine branches, and snow flakes.
Mikkers learned that scientists group tears three ways: basal tears that the body creates to keep the eye moist; psychic tears that come about because of an emotional response like sadness, fear, or joy; and reflex tears generated from irritants like chopping onions or eating something spicy. Tears are composed of a variety of substances: oils, water, salt, and other antibodies and enzymes. What he wanted to discover is if these tears look the same categorically at the microscopic level. He staged an experiment to find out.
The photographer invited a few friends over and gave them the option to cry because of an emotional response or from cutting onions, eating hot peppers, or looking into a fan. He captured the tears in a pipette, created individual drops for examination, and then let them set. He looked at them under a microscope and shot the images.
There are certainly a lot of variables in the equation, and Mikkers concluded that the physical look of tears—as he saw them under his microscope—depended on the organic way they crystallized, not their composition. The same is true with snowflakes. “Two psychic tears with the exact same chemical makeup can look very different up close,” he writes on Medium.