Biologists are trained in the art of disconnection. They are taught not to humanize and never to anthropomorphize the “organisms” that they are studying. Luckily, artists are not constrained by such notions and we are free to bridge the gaps between humans and animals quite freely. Despite what we would like to believe sometimes, we ourselves are animals. We connect and relate to other living creatures and according the Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, we have an innate psychological need to connect and associate with other living things.
Recently I was asked to speak at the monthly meeting of the Outer Banks chapter of Carolina Nature Photographers Association and I chose to talk on this topic. That is, transcending the species boundary and connecting with your subject – or in other words, humanizing wildlife in your own photography. When first approached about this, I had considered speaking on light in wildlife photography and explaining the different types and directions and how to use them creatively. The day I was supposed to speak however I ended up photographing a young foal and its mother in Carova Beach and decided to switch topics at the last minute to something a bit more abstract.
As mammals, we have an intense connection to the eyes. We communicate volumes of information with our eyes and we in turn look into the eyes of both other humans and animals alike to read their eyes and their meanings. It is for this reason that capturing the eye of your subject is so critically important for wildlife photography. You have heard many times that above all else, make sure the eye is sharp. Why? Because this is where your viewer will look first. As animals ourselves, we seek out the eye for information and then build upon that with what else is going on in the image.
The eyes speak volumes in regards to emotion, feeling, and intent, just as the angle of the camera to our subjects eyes allows us to convey this emotion and feeling in our images. It is only when we photographers realize this, that our work begins to move beyond documentation and into the realm of art.
As art, an image has the ability to evoke emotion, wonder, or awe in a viewer. This is the power of art. Art engages the mind. And from the perspective of a wildlife photographer, transcending the barrier of species to evoke a feeling in our viewers is the first step in the direction of fine art.