My current project, CENSORED LANDSCAPES (formerly TESTAMENT) includes photographs of non-human animals. I use the word “portraits” to describe these photographs but it seems a poor term.
In the 1994 book Animals, A. D. Coleman writes, “A likeness is any image that resembles a person. A portrait is a picture that suggests something about that particular individual’s personality. Animals have identities, habits, moods, emotions, and expressions just as humans do, and photographers often find ways of revealing those characteristics.”
I don’t disagree with the statement as far as it goes, but it leaves out so much. Portraiture depends on a tacit agreement based on a set of conventions that have evolved over thousands of years, the understanding of which is limited to the human species.
The ways non-human animals recognize themselves or others have nothing to do with silver gelatin, ink, or dye on a flat substrate – or with an array of tiny dots of colored lights emitted from a flat screen. Our meager representations mean nothing to animals, do not even begin to suggest the richness and breadth of their perceptions, the smell and the light and the presence in all dimensions that characterizes an individual.
Humans, on the other hand, seem to confuse a flat abstraction with the thing itself. People point to their phone screens and say things like, “that’s my mom” or “this is me and my boyfriend in Costa Rica” or “here’s my cat.” Studies that attempt to prove that animals recognize humans from flat images claim to test animal intelligence - somehow we have decided that our reductionism is a sign of intelligence.
Magritte pointed out the absurdity of this in his painting, La trahison des images.
C’eci n’est pas une pipe – French for “This is not a pipe” - the thing we identify as a pipe is not a pipe at all, it is oily pigment that has dried on a sheet made of canvas.
Coleman’s anthropocentric definition also leaves out another element of portraiture: complicity between the subject and the photographer. The sitter gives the photographer permission to interpret her identity for other humans. A portrait is meant to memorialize the sitter. If the photographer is an artist or is famous, the portrait becomes part of an oeuvre.
But when I am photographing them, my subjects are not interested in my memorializing or my interpretations, much less my oeuvre. They are much more concerned with my movements, my presence, my being.
Photographing animals is essential to my project but at first I was resistant. Animals in photographs are most often just compositional elements, ways of modulating the light or of enhancing the image of humans. Animals are seen as entertaining, humorous, or as aestheticized objects, consumer goods, inferior and alien beings, almost always colored by the entrenched speciesism of our society. Why would my images of animals be seen differently? But so much passes between my subjects and me: trust, understanding, connection, affection, love. I’ve come to delight in the process.