I always have mixed feelings when visiting the zoo. On one hand, I get to see an array of amazing species, but on the other hand, they are locked behind bars. In the aviary of the L.A. Zoo, I spotted this Spoonbill in an enclosure with a couple Sacred Ibises. He (she) was hunkered over, emitting an occasional wheeze. I stood next to him for quite a long time and then snapped his picture, hoping to capture some of his dignity, his beauty, his misery. His eyes were rivetting. I’ve been taking a home study course in bird languages from the ravens, the blue jays, the mockingbirds, the mourning doves, the sparrows, and finches in my back yard. I’m still a novice, but I do notice how much they say with their eyes, speaking paragraphs through blinks and dilations. If I could, I would have told this magnificent bird, “You are beautiful,” and “I’m sorry.”
I lament the fraught relationship between humans and animals. We’re not so different from one another, and yet we humans act as if an opposable thumb grants us an oppressive dominion over everything, having the right to do what we will with other living beings. Heartbreaking stories abound resulting from abuses of that dominion.
In the research I’m doing for my doctoral dissertation on the influences between early twentieth-century women photographers and women writers, I’ve spent some time reading and thinking about the notion of an ethics of seeing, a topic Susan Sontag introduces at the beginning of her seminal book, On Photography. She writes: “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.” I certainly believe that aside from the prurient, exploitative, commercial value some photographs contain, a photograph can also be a witness, find beauty that’s overlooked, and stir our compassion for beings other than ourselves.
My own animal photos are inspired by the work of Isa Leshko. I am humbled and moved by the haunting beauty of her images of animals. In particular, her images of elderly animals are incredibly poignant and compelling. If there was ever a photographer practicing the ethics of seeing, she is. She has certainly changed the way I view other beings through my lens.