The Portrait of the Animal
Here I want to share some simple pictures of animals on black background. I do like it, because its focus is on a part of figure isolated from natural background. Though the animal is isolated from its natural surroundings whether it be a park, a zoo or a forest, these pictures somehow look “alive”. When I first saw that bison looking sideways and passing away from my vision field, I felt a bit disappointed that no worth pictures have made. However, being at home and checking the photos, his sad animal eyes hooked me. Thus, I croped the picture and separeted the animal on a passive background in order to segregate his gaze. As Theodor Adorno says, there is nothing so expressive as the eyes of animals, especially apes, which seem objectively to mourn that they are not humans (Adorno T., 1997, 113). Of course, the bison or a dog are different from ape, but their eyes and its gaze is magically very humane. I would call these pictures the portraits of the animals. Although, quality of the photographs due to the camera limitations or light conditions could be doubtful, but hope it will earn some attention from DT users one day. One may ask: How do you create a portrait of someone without a face?
We seem consider something as a face when it carries human likeness. How can we add this category “face” to the animal who cannot reason, talk, think or feel? The history shows that Rene Descartes already in seventeenth century has warned us not to give human’s abilities to animal. And this historical thought of line is very powerful. If you see in animal eyes kind of emotion or the animal makes sounds similar to pain, joy, we should have in mind that these sounds do not express any real inner feelings, because animals do not have souls. It would be a Cartesian notion of animal-machine which is unfortunately still alive.
The “face phenomenon” is emphasized a lot by a famous French philosopher Emanuelle Levinas, who discussed its notion in ethical background by stressing the Other’s face as the original site of ethical responsibility (Levinas E., 2004). When we speak about face, in a first place we speak about something what is regarded as humane feature and belongs to a moral person-hood. Yet, even Levinas has been silent having in mind animal, or even more, he has rejected the face of animal as it can function like this. Probably, he would not give a head for a human industry alone which is continuously causing regular suffering on animals. We know about it, but we pretend not to know.
In a conversation with his friend and colleague, Max Horkheimer, Adorno states that philosophy can help us redeem what lies in the gaze of an animal (Adorno T., 2005). I would add that photography is what lets us to catch that gaze. One of you have tried to photograph animal in a zoo park, I guess. Did you notice that at first sight an easy catch to make lots of pictures has failed? Animals avoid your look. They look sideways, but the desire for the gaze to be returned remains. Most visitors, especially kids starts feeling disappointed, because their look at animals remains unfairly one-sided. This is why zoos disappoint, a public purpose of such a place is to offer visitors the chance to look at animals; yet, very often this remains a one-way encounter. In other words, a photography of animal gaze is basically based on this two-sided desire. Sometimes it makes this magic happen.
So what lies in the gaze of an animal?
Philosopher Slavoj Žizek writes on a photo of a cat after it was submitted to some lab experiment in a centrifuge (Žižek S. 2012 ). A picture shows a cat, its bones half-broken, its skin half-hairless, and its eyes helplessly looking into the camera. Žižek asks: What if the perplexity the human looking at the cat sees in the cat’s gaze is the perplexity aroused by the monstrosity of the human being itself? What if what we see in this abyss of the other’s gaze is our own abyss?
In the same manner could be remembered same Levinas and his famous memories from the prisoners camp during World War II. There he writes about the dog who entered their life appearing every morning and waiting for prisoners return after labour (Levinas E. 1969). The dog named Bobby was every time jumping up and down with full eyes of happiness. The point of Levinas story is to show how Bobby is more responsive, more humane more ethical than the nearby population of human beings - Nazi soldiers - for whom the prisoners are only regarded as nameless apes.
Thus, Levinas invites to imagine what kind of monstrosity we are for each other. Žizek invites to imagine what kind of monstrosity we were and still are for animals. Maybe this is what we should read in the perplexed animal gaze.
In the end, I would say that an animal as a living, moving subject present the perfect opportunity for us to test the limits of the camera. In the process, the picture made is the material evidence of the aesthetic pleasure we take in watching the ‘living Other’ who could show himself.
According to Adorno, in the encounter with the animal gaze, the subject momentarily loses itself, but discovers, at the same time, the promise of a human society that includes animals (Adorno, 1997). Moreover, this picture taken of magically humane animal gaze, in a sense of Žižek and Levinas, carries a living message of who I am.
P.S. as for technical side of these photos I would recommend to pay attention on figure – background extent. Some photos were refused, and it was done fairly, due to the black space size. Of course, as I said earlier the important role belongs to the light under which a photo is taken.
P.S.S. For further readings, references redirects to:
- Adorno Theodor, Aesthetic Theory, London: The Athlone Press, 1997;
- Letter to Max Horkheimer. Quoted in Stefan Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005;
- Levinas Emmanuel, ‘Interview’, in: Animal Philosophy: Ethics and Identity, London and New York: Continuum, 2004;
- Levinas Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969;
- Žižek Slavoj, God Without the Sacre. 2012. You can find audio lecture where he is on animal theme right here: www.nypl.org ;
Photo credits: Helgardas.