Having an animal’s eye in sharp focus is traditionally a make or break element in wildlife photography. Perhaps for evolutionary reasons, we like to look at things that can look back at us. Here is the background, but clearly distinguished from it is the subject, which is also a “subject,” something akin to us, something that looks.
While I work hard at learning how to create these kind of photos, I’ve been thinking about the limits that accompany their strengths. I recently found out from Frank Lang, a local biologist, that wild turkeys, which I find visually interesting, aren’t native to the area. That their presence is, in fact, “an ecological disaster.”
How could I photograph this fact? I can think of many ways to graphically illustrate it. For example, I could do a fun chart mapping out how, as Frank explained, turkeys deplete the lizards who, by a fascinating alchemical dance with ticks, help keep Lyme disease in check. I could also hope to catch a turkey in the act of eating a lizard, or at least overgrazing acorns. But neither of these approaches would make much sense without supplementing the image with a narrative, with words.
I could also stage a photo. I could build up a huge mound of acorns and plastic Godzilla lizards, and then film the rafters of turkeys as they descend, zombie-like, for the acorn feast. (Assuming, that is, that they would play along, and not be afraid of the swarm of Godzillas.) But, again, this would be illustrating something, even staging it. Much as I enjoy deconstructing the boundary between natural and cultural, constantive and performative, this would not satisfy me. It’s not the sort of photo I think I’d find myself coming back to or lingering over. Nope: just a clever message to be consumed and discarded.
Another approach would be to emphasize time. I could document how a landscape changes over a course of years after turkeys are introduced. There are lots of ways to do this kind of time-based documentation without photographs per se. For example one could attach GPS devices to the turkeys and then superimpose the path of them traversing territory on top of a map or satellite photo.
But that does take one away from the photo, from the snapshot. A snapshot is not, strictly speaking an instant in time. (Consider, all the steps, including automated ones, from the shutter click to the final, processed image, as well as the technologies for disseminating it and the contexts in which the image is received, considered, and interpreted.) Nonetheless, I think it is a slowing of “duration,” as Herni Bergson describes it, to the point where we perceive a photograph as something still.
How, then, do you photograph the turkey’s effects? Not on the level of an individual bird, but on the level of a population. How does one photograph a population, photograph movements of biomass, gradients of population density and of diversity? In short, how does one photograph change on a level that exceeds the individual–that other so clearly delineated from the background, that individual who looks–who we find so appealing?
I’m not sure where this will end, but I think one place to begin is to spend some time looking at Daoist art where living figures are 1> often subordinate to their contexts, and 2> not always different in kind from the larger environmental forces around them. Indeed, the individual and the environment are not entirely distinct, even on the level of living and non-living forces.