Kevin Hainline




It’s an understatement that art is everywhere, it’s just a matter of how you capture and express it. No matter what medium you choose, the source to create is always from the same source: awe. For Kevin Hainline, he finds inspiration from the night sky and in the science of stars. Hainline’s canvas is far-off galaxies and blackholes, proving that you don’t need a camera to call yourself an artist. All you need is a drive to present something in a new light, and that’s exactly what Kevin is doing with astronomy.

Interview by Sachin Khona // August 2018
Reading time: 15 mins


When did you know you wanted to be an astronomer?

When I was young, there were only two subjects that I could ever imagine dedicating my life to studying: the universe and dinosaurs. When you first learn about what science is and realize that it’s people uncovering fundamental truths, that’s a powerful draw.

And the idea of discovering a damn dinosaur, or a new planet, or galaxy, that nobody on Earth had ever heard of before you, that’s very exciting.

So, in high school, when I realized that at least with astronomy you could see the objects you’re studying, I chose astronomy, and never looked back. And I think that if I could sit and talk with myself as a child, I’d be very proud of my current self. I’ve written papers on new techniques for discovering hidden black holes! Astronomy, it turns out, is both exactly what you expect it to be and far, far more complicated than you expect it to be.

Where is home for you and where do you work?

I live in Tucson, Arizona, and work at Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona.

Have you always lived there or was there a conscious choice to move there?

I moved here from New Hampshire, where I lived for three years while I taught and researched black holes at Dartmouth College. In academia, you often don’t get a choice about where you live, it’s based almost entirely on what’s available when you go on the job market. I loved living in New Hampshire, but I was very happy to move here to Tucson. Tucson has a very diverse and thriving community of artists and academics, drawn here because of the desert and the low cost of living.

You travel a lot, tell us about telescopes and in what way does location influence your work?

One of the most exciting parts of being an astronomer is that the nature of the work requires lots of traveling to different telescopes around the world. The type of work that I do requires observations in places that are very dark and extremely dry, and so I get to travel to isolated mountains, like Mauna Kea in Hawaii, or the Andes Mountains in Chile. Seeing the southern hemisphere stars for the first time, miles and miles from any large city, was one of the most moving moments of my life.

When you grow up in the northern hemisphere, you become acquainted only half of the night sky, and so it was life-changing to see an entirely new view of the night sky. It’s like finally meeting a pen pal you’ve had your entire life.

You know so much about their life from their letters, and you’ve seen pictures, but suddenly they’re here, and real, and so much more important and vital.

Do you have a designated workspace or office?

I have an office here at Steward Observatory in the same hallway as the other people working with me on NIRCam, the primary instrument for the James Webb Space Telescope. This job requires a lot of collaboration, and I really need to be close to my colleagues. Astronomers spend a lot of their time in group teleconferences, and it’s way less of a hassle to just wander down a hall to bother someone and discuss an issue with a whiteboard in the same room.

Do you feel there was a turning point / monumental time/series of events in your life that you were felt as though you were on the right path in regards to your astronomy career, that brought you to where you are now?

I think that when you think about your future “career” before you embark on that pathway, you tend to look at it in the most optimistic way possible. But, and this is a mantra by which I live my life: Everything is far more complicated than it seems at first. Everything. I mentioned this earlier, but astronomy as a career is something that does offer a lot of discovery and excitement, but also hours and hours of tedium, with data reduction, hardcore statistical analysis and exacting and demanding bias management. And all of this is profoundly important, but it’s also sometimes soul-crushing. When this fact was dawning on me, early in graduate school, it took so much wind out of my sails. I went through a really dark period of soul searching and depression and anxiety and isolation as I kind of fumbled with my first big, messy, awful research project. Patches of my hair went stark white, and I lost a lot of weight, and I didn’t have anything in my life that I could look at and say: “well, at least I have that going for me.” And the thing that brought me out of all of this was twofold: first, I switched graduate advisors to someone who was a better match for me, but equally as important was that I started to work in science outreach. I started to run the planetarium at UCLA, and give public lectures and astronomy talks. And I started to develop the confidence in science communication, which it turns out, is something that I can feel proud of even when I discover that I had forgotten about some weird spectroscopic anomaly that means that my last month of work has to be redone.

And this is my primary advice I give to people: find something creative and outward facing and helpful that you can do that makes you feel proud of yourself for those times when you’re perhaps going through some difficulties.

Volunteer. Talk with people. Teach. Share your talents. Stop just being a consumer of culture, and start sharing and giving your energy outward.

Can you describe your work via a series of 10 photos that you feel define the work you’ve done in the last year and where possible describe why each one was included?


This is the first figure from my first academic paper, the Astrophysical Journal. It shows images of distant “gravitationally lensed” galaxies. The bottom right object, the Cosmic Horseshoe, is one of my favorite galaxies in the whole universe.

This is a “composite spectrum,” where I have taken faint galaxies, passed their lights through a prism, and then stacked the noisy data to get a beautiful measurement of gas motions and energetic processes using ~11 billion-year-old light.

This figure, while not very pretty, simply shows that supermassive black holes can perhaps light up an entire galaxy, like some huge fluorescent light. I’m very proud of this discovery.

This is from a recent paper and it’s a complicated plot that shows that you have to be very careful hunting for black holes since stars can mimic their signatures.

Here, I use a huge quantity of fake distant galaxies to show that the telescope I’m working on will be amazingly successful at finding the farthest objects humans have ever discovered. I’m the most excited about the prospects of this figure.

I make these sky maps using some software I wrote, and print them out when I give talks to the public. On the back, there is a simple, straightforward guide to how to use a sky map.

I want people to reconnect with the stars we’ve lost as the world’s night sky has brightened.

In the last few months, I’ve had published a new paper on a few years worth of work creating a fake universe of galaxies in order to test our methods for observing the real universe with JWST. We took what we knew about galaxies and extrapolated to cover what we didn’t, and we release the fake universe (we call it a “mock catalog”) so people could use it to help plan for what they’re going to do with James Webb. We even made a fake image of the fake universe to see if we could see far away galaxies. And here is a chunk of it. I’ve highlighted some objects that we can see in the fake image that are profoundly far away, like, that little inset with the z = 11.3 red smudge would be the record holder for farthest galaxy if it were real. We just have to wait a few more years until JWST is launched before we can see the real ones, but at least now we have a better idea that we might be able to see them.


This is an image showing the sheer number of monitors in a typical major telescope control room. Here, it’s the control room for the 6.5m (21 feet) Magellan Baade telescope in Chile.

Opening a telescope dome (again, the Baade, here) is one of the most magical parts of the night. IMG_1586.jpg – the sunset from the summit of Mt. Hopkins in southern Arizona, near the US-Mexico border, the site of the MMT, a 6.5m telescope.

The MMT, as it opens up and reflects the evening sky.

This is not a particularly pretty picture, but it’s important to me. This is the clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Center, where the primary mirror for JWST was assembled. Those silver domes hold individual mirror segments, being readied to be attached to the backplane of the telescope.

This is the face I made when I first arrived at Goddard, fulfilling a childhood dream of working with NASA. TUCSON/ART IMAGES

Tucson and the whole southwest has the greatest skies, huge and delicate and colorful.

By virtue of being quite flat, Tucson is perfect for biking. I have these red LEDs I put in my wheels when I go riding with my friends.


One of my paintings of the palm trees that are everywhere here.

This is from a talk I gave at Unique CAMP in 2016. Speaking at Unique CAMP changed my life, and taught me how important it was for me to connect my field to people using emotions rather than just cold facts. It’s because of opportunities like this that I’ve found out who I want to be in the world.


What inspires and motivates you to create?

I spend most of my week in an office in front of a computer, or a few computers, writing computer code and exploring various ways of managing and graphically depicting trends in large data sets. This is often just as boring as it sounds. So, when I come home from work, I find myself drawn to creative endeavors as a way of achieving some sort of mental balance. I do a lot of painting and small crafts. For the last few months, I’ve been making elaborate cardboard crowns for the graduating Ph.D. students here at the university. My fiancee and I spend a lot of time in the kitchen together. We’re very good at tackling new dishes because neither of us listens much to the part of our brain that says “hey, that might be too difficult for you.”

To be creative, you have to be able to have a space for failing without consequence, so if you paint something that turns out like garbage, or your dinner doesn’t come out the way you want, you aren’t kicking yourself, you’re just repainting the canvas with gesso, or calling for delivery Chinese food.

When you get stuck creatively, what is the first thing you do to get unstuck?

I am a thinker, and I’m someone who will get stuck, and just have to stop and walk away for a while to do something else. When I can’t figure out how to proceed with work or a personal project I find that I can usually trigger some insight by just talking it over with people in my life, because just the process of coming up with a verbal description wiggles the brain just enough to shake it loose.

How do you know when a piece of your work is finished and needs no additional work?

Ha! I don’t. I have no idea when to leave something I’m working on alone. Much of the work that I do ends up being overly messy, and the only thing that stops me from continuing to ruin something with unnecessary extra flourishes or touch-ups or endless words is just my own impatience and desire to move onto the next thing. James Baldwin once wrote that “the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too.” and he’s right. I’m a person who thinks that perhaps instead of finding that one perfect word, or bit of paint, or whatever, I can just throw in every word and somehow see what happens. And often the result is a mess, but sometimes what I create feels maybe more vitally me, someone who is messy and complicated.

Are there any key lessons in your career that you’d like to share?

I think that the best bit of career, or even life, advice that I’ve been given was actually from my mother. When I was younger, I would stress and stress about tests, and if I did poorly (which was often, I was never the top of my class) she would ask me, quite simply: “well, did you work as hard as you could to prepare?” and I would say “yes! of course! You saw me! You saw me stressing and studying and worrying the night before!” And she would just smile and say “well, that’s all you could have done, right?” And we’d just move on. And that’s something I carry with me in everything that I do.

All I can control is the effort that I expend on a task. And if I put my full weight of myself into it, well, the outcome is the outcome.

I have faced a lot of failure and rejection in my career, but the only time I’ve felt bad about any of it was when I knew that I hadn’t given the task my full attention and effort. So, then I am to blame. If you divorce yourself from the constant need to try to control what it is outside yourself, you will be happier, I 100% guarantee it. You can only do what you can do.

Can you share one creative tip that you use when you are working?

I think that, creatively, and academically, I really started to flourish when I learned how to put aside any ego I might have about my work and just ask for help, or advice, or insight, from other people. This is very common advice, but it is so hard to actually take because of how image-conscious we are in the modern era. When I get stuck, instead of just banging my head against the problem for a week, I’ll send an email, or wander around the department and find someone who can help me over my stumbling block and have me racing again. I always worry that people are going to look at my problems and think I’m an idiot for having them, but that has never, ever happened.

People are judging you a lot less than you expect that they are.


What are the 3 most important things in your life?

The relationships that I have with the people in my life, the optimism, enthusiasm, and curiosity that exists in the world, and art, art for art’s sake, to help us figure out what it is to be a living creature in a random chaotic universe.

Do you work / contribute / volunteer in any other fields outside of photography?

I do a lot of volunteer work. I travel a lot to speak with schools about what I do, and my path to astronomy. Tucson is a very diverse community, and I try to speak with students who might be underrepresented in my field, to show them that you don’t have to be the Smartest Kid In Class and Go To Harvard and Get Everything You Want Because You’re So Naturally Brilliant. I failed a lot and made it where I am largely through tenacity and enthusiasm, and I want students to know that astronomy has a place for people from any background. I also volunteer as a dog walker at a local animal shelter, which is a great way to get a chance to hang out with dogs when your landlord won’t allow you to have one.

Can you share a bit about your daily schedule / routines? Do you have a morning ritual?

My primary mode of exercise is running, and I’m a morning runner, so when I wake up, which tends to be quite early in the intense Arizona summers, I’ll go out running for four or five miles, which helps me kind of get my brain working. I’ll have a cup of coffee, sometimes, or a light breakfast, but I’m someone who doesn’t want to waste a huge amount of the morning and instead attack what I need to do for the day.

What within your work do you not like to do and why?

I am so easily distracted, and I’ll find myself hitting points where I can push through something difficult but instead, I’ll instead read some dumb New York Times article and waste a few minutes and then come back. I think that we should allow ourselves some time for distraction during a work day, but it’s hard to find the right balance when there is so much new, updating information on the internet. I need to really focus on a task to get something done.

Do you achieve “work/life balance”?

Yes, and it’s because I work to make sure that my life takes priority over my job. I love what I do, but too often astronomers fall into that trap of keeping themselves busy, and perhaps overworking, because they feel that this is the only way to success. For some astronomers, it’s true, but I’ve always been a person who knows that if I don’t give myself ample room to be a human and not just a constantly working robot I won’t be happy. And I don’t know if the gains I would achieve through overwork would ever be worth it.

Which person do you respect most in your life?

I really respect my partner, Lara Ruggles. She’s a musician, and she’s immensely creative and positive and maintains an amazing wellspring of patience. This is profoundly necessary in the music industry, and I draw from her strength a lot when I’m flailing in my own work. We work hard to hold each other accountable to our own ideals, which is such an important thing to have in your life.

What will you be doing (or hope to be doing) 5/10 years from now?

To be honest, I really hope that I can transition after the launch of JWST to more of an educational role, especially with the public. I love to talk about science with people and share the joy of the universe and how it connects us. There aren’t a lot of jobs like what I want, but I am slowly carving the job out for myself. While I work on my research, I give talks and make connections and develop my communication and listening skills.


Are there any mantras that you live by?

It is really, really cliche, but goddammit: being done is better than being perfect.

If you only had 24 hours to live, how would you spend your day?

To be honest, I don’t really know! Do you think anybody really knows the answer to that?

Have you ever doubted your talent? If so, how did you work through your doubt?

Oh, of course. Every day I make mistakes and have to repeat something I’ve done, or I fumble with something that should have been straightforward. But I really try to remember that we spend too much time looking back on our failings and too little time looking back on our successes.

If you could change one aspect of our society through your work, what would it be?

I think that we are in an era where we have stopped trusting science, as a process. Science is the best method humans have invented to look at and explore and understand the universe around us. I think that people are naturally scientists, as long as they’re curious, and have the right nudge to do something about that curiosity. And I’d like to help be a person who nudges them.


Your favourite podcast(s)

Important if True, 2 Dope Queens, Stop Podcasting Yourself

Fav Music // Share a (Spotify) playlist

Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, Hop Along, Sufjan Stevens, My Brightest Diamond, Mitski

Film / Documentary that is a must watch?

Real Genius (1985), by Martha Coolidge

Favourite book // A book you are currently reading?

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Leguin

A website you regularly follow?

Last place you travelled?

Chicago, Illinois, to see Lara, who was there on tour.

Favourite photographer or photo project outside of your genre?

Diane Arbus, Ed Ruscha

Do you have a favourite poem or quote?

We Real Cool
Gwendolyn Brooks


We real cool.
Left School.

Lurk late.
Strike straight.

Sing sin.
Thin gin.

Jazz June.
Die soon.

Favourite drink?

Gin and Tonic

Favourite TED talk:

Last gallery / exhibit you visited

I went to the Chicago Field Museum to see Sue, their nearly complete T-Rex skeleton

Your favourite photography book?

Photographs of the Southwest, Ansel Adams

A creative you’d love to see interviewed on ARC?

Liz Schaffer, Editorial & Creative Director, Lodestars Anthology


You can see more of Kevin’s work here // Web

You can see Kevin’s research work here // Web

And connect on social here // Instagram // Twitter


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Our next photography conference in Vancouver, BC is this October 22-25, 2018.

Niki Boon15

Above Image by 2018 Speaker Niki Boon

Join us for an out-of-the box experience with passionate photographers & creatives including food trucks, city adventures, a huge party and more …

Learn more here >> The Experience // ARC

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