In the photobook TRAPPED, the artist Alex Hanimann photographed passing wild animals with “camera traps”. Whenever the device senses a movement, it automatically triggers the shutter release. In the speed of one-two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a second, all lives within the flash range are captured, converted into digital pixels and transferred to the artist’s remote computer.
When I first read the photobook, it felt like a novel and intriguing book. Nocturnal animals moved, hunted and ran in a green gray world, satisfying human’s primal and instinctive curiosity about the natural world. But when I photographed the photos in the book again with a single-lens reflex camera, staring at these animals’ figures through the filter of another lens, I felt a sense of isolation and doubt.
Are these very things before my eyes really those lives that live quietly on the dark lands?
The book’s photographs are mainly of three types, the first are animals in the middle of certain sequential acts, entirely oblivious to the camera; the second are the moments when the animals looked up after the shock of the flash; the third are close shots of animals curiously approaching the camera.
With the first type of photographs, animals exist as a kind of scenery. With the help of advanced technologies, the artist captured the rare “real lives” of exotic animals, but their lives exist as objects of appreciation. Seeing a photograph of a leopard aggressively biting into and tearing through the neck of its prey, we are placed in a spectator’s position. Much akin to being in a zoo or an aquarium, we keep a safe distance as we take in nature’s rawness and savagery.
When we adopt this perspective, what it implies is a clear line that divides nature and civilisation into two completely opposite concepts. Only in the comfort of the civilised world, within intangible boundaries, are we willing to approach and understand everything about animals. If the object intrudes, and thus transgresses this boundary, civilisation must be guarded at once.
This type of animal images serves only as a medium to satisfy the imagination. What the camera trap captured was human’s one-sided gaze.
The second type of photographs make up the majority of this photobook. Nocturnal animals entered the trap range, triggered the flash, looked up and faced the machine, a moment’s fear frozen. Met with technologies that they were incapable of understanding, their muscles contracted, the senses of their whole beings directed towards the incipient danger.
We often overlook the fact that animals have their own gaze too.
Once upon a time, for a very long period, we survived under the gaze of beasts, making our place in the world’s periphery. When humans at last developed civilisation, they shut animals in by categories and spared no effort to teach children about zoology. Yet, to quote John Berger, ”the more we know, the further away they are”.
The child waves desperately at the glass pane, in hope of gaining the beast’s attention, but only receives an elusive side glance. Day after day, they blindly look into the distance.
Polish film director Kieślowski recalled an incident vividly, one that his mother had no recollection of at all. Back then, they were living in a quiet little town. One day at dusk, as he was holding his mother’s hand and walking from the market back home to their little hut, an old man walking an elephant came up towards them. It was a big thing in a small town, but everyone acted as if nothing was happening.
He kept staring at the elephant’s rounded dark eyes. The elephant also dragged its heavy gait and stared at the five-year-old Kieślowski continuously. The child made a turn until their figures faded out.
When we see the third type of photographs, photographs of animals that were curious about the camera trap, naturally we find them adorable and also quite humane. But to phrase it more precisely, it is in animals that we learn that some of our own emotions and qualities are interconnected in the world. Oftentimes, humans forget that they are themselves a kind of animal too.
For some people, rather than humans, animals are better at forming intimate relations with them.
Then of course, to most people, that is not the case.