UC San Diego researcher finds cathartic outlet in creating abstract photography

Rishi Deka has begun creating "psychedelic abstract photography" as a way to process his feelings during the pandemic.
Rishi Deka has begun creating “psychedelic abstract photography” as a way to process his feelings during the coronavirus pandemic.
(Rishi Deka)

Rishi Deka, a UC San Diego postdoctoral researcher in radiation medicine and an award-winning photojournalist, has taken to creating what he calls “psychedelic abstract photography” in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a way, he says, to “internalize the chaotic external world we have been living in.”

Deka, who returned to his native San Diego after receiving undergraduate degrees in economics from UC Berkeley and a Ph.D. in health services research from the University of Utah, began photographing La Jolla beaches with “psychedelic” elements such as striations (lines and grooves) or blurs of color in the sky and sand.

He achieves the look by shaking or rotating the camera lens.

Rishi Deka took this photo at Torrey Pines State Beach, giving it a "surreal" appearance.
(Rishi Deka)

The photos, Deka said, represent “a trip to a different reality. It’s a real photo but showing a surreal perspective on things” that he hopes “engenders changes in thoughts and moods.”

Deka said his abstract photography began last spring when he “was home quite a bit,” finding news, politics and stay-at-home orders “stressful to think about.”

“In order to take a break from it and have my own space,” he said, “I got more into artistic photography. It’s a cathartic release.”

Deka said he wants people who view his abstract photography “to think about other perspectives, to challenge their own views” and consider “a different way of looking at things.”

“Ultimately, that’s the heart of my work,” he said. “There is another reality, and there are viewpoints that you can take from a different reality. That’s what I’m trying to elicit in the work that I do. The point is to have others challenge their own thoughts and ideas about everything. Don’t be so close-minded and restricted to different views.”

Deka said “one thing I feel right now is society is really polarized. I feel people are not taking other perspectives and looking at other viewpoints.”

The photography Deka produces intersects with his academic work, he said. “I do a lot of mental health research and I believe that a lot of psychiatrists themselves are burned out.”

Recent events related to social justice, he said, have further exposed “insensitivity” in society, Deka said. “I feel my work is highlighting issues pertinent to underrepresented groups; issues people may not be cognizant of. It’s good to be aware of it.”

Rishi Deka also writes and paints, but photography is his preferred medium of expression.
Rishi Deka also writes and paints, but photography is his preferred medium of expression.

Deka said he has gravitated toward photography as a creative outlet since he was a teenager. “It’s therapeutic; it helps me forget all the stress in my life. I enjoy capturing images behind a lens.”

“When I was in grad school [in Utah], I started working for the student newspaper,” he said. “That was my first foray into photojournalism,” during which he documented sports and other events.

In 2017, Deka’s coverage of Black Lives Matter protests in Utah won the university’s newspaper an award.

He continued his photojournalism work in San Diego, taking pictures of several events and submitting some to the Associated Press, which has published Deka’s images.

Deka is unsure what the future holds once his postdoc work is complete, but he knows photography will be part of it. “Photography is a very powerful medium, he said. “I want to give people the message that there is hope.”

To view more of Deka’s photography, visit