Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Elephant No. 220: Photographic Essay

Although I originally conceived this as a photographic essay, I think it ended up being more of a scavenger hunt. If I were to pretend that there's an essay in here, I would say that I'm showcasing the depressing way elephants have been co-opted to sell everything from teething toys to rice. But that would be far more serious than this exercise deserves.

In simple terms, a photographic essay is a series of photographs that are meant to tell a story or evoke emotion. Photographic essays often present photographs chronologically, although this is not necessary. The main idea is that the essay relay a message of some sort, whether through photographs or a combination of photographs and text.

Occasionally what works as a photographic essay can also turn into a film such as Edward Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes and, arguably, some of Louis Malle's early documentaries. However, if you've ever watched Malle's (I'm sorry to say) rather stultifying film on a Renault factory in the early 1960s, you'll see as well how some films might have been better left as photographic essays.

The usual purpose of a photographic essay is to evoke some kind of response in the viewer. For this reason, photographic essays are often produced by photojournalists, as well as artists. They are frequently socio-cultural in nature, shining light on the plight of people, animals or the environment. They may also be purely descriptive—for example, documenting a process such as the demolition of a building, or the production of a play. The now-defunct LIFE magazine was long a master of this type of photographic essay.

I personally tend to gravitate towards photographic essays that deal with people and cultures, but that's just me. If you're looking to broaden your knowledge of photographic essays, my own favourites include acknowledged masters of the genre such as Mary Ellen Mark, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Andre Kertész and Sebastião Salgado, as well as talented newcomers such as Avi Hudson

Ram Prakash Singh with His Elephant Shyama, Great Golden Circus, Ahmedabad
Photo: ©1990 Mary Ellen Mark

I hesitate to call today's collection of photographs a photographic essay, since I have no idea what emotion or response could possibly be evoked by these images of found elephants. I wish I could have produced something that would make everyone want to run out and adopt an elephant. But I don't think I know anyone who would want to adopt the elephants I saw today. The only thing I actually considered bringing home was a bag of rice. And I don't even like rice all that much.

The rules for today's activity were relatively straightforward:

1. Take pictures of every elephant I saw within walking distance of my house. This is more or less a 20-block radius, especially on a day that threatens rain.

2. No photographs of anything I already own.

3. It could be a picture of any type of elephant.

4. I couldn't move things around to make them more appealing to the camera.

I hadn't scouted out anything ahead of time, although I suspected I'd probably find elephant-related stuff in the Asian and South Asian shops in my neighbourhood. I walked around for close to four hours, and realized that it's surprisingly tiring to be alert and on the lookout for a single object for a solid four hours. I should have brought snacks.

Anyway, for what they're worth, here are my photographs of the elephants I found today. I photographed every last elephant I saw, no matter how stupid or ugly. I went to several Chinese groceries, an Iranian food shop, an East Indian food shop, a Caribbean food shop, a junk shop, two liquor stores, an art store, a small department store, a pharmacy, a children's clothing store, a discount store, a supermarket, and a comic book store, as well as miles of storefronts. I ended up taking only 79 photographs of 38 items, but here they are, in the order I took them.

To be honest, the images above are really only the raw material for a photographic essay. To make it a proper essay, I would need to cut some images, find new ones, and reorganize everything. I can already see a couple of potential essays in the images, but they would be very short with the limited content I have here.

I could pretend I meant to create a random photographic essay by slapping on a pretentious title like "The Commercialization and Co-Opting of a Noble Animal", but that would be cheating. On the other hand, if I were to spend more time collecting additional images, a decent photographic essay might be possible at some point. It wouldn't be the type of essay to which I generally gravitate, but the possibility exists.

If I were to say anything about these photographs, it would be that there wasn't really a single dignified representation of an elephant anywhere. They were either tacky, cute or just plain weird. Given that elephants are shot or chased away when they go near tea and fruit plantations, as well as most rice fields, I also found it ironic that they're used to sell all three. Oddly, I didn't find a single elephant used in relation to anything large or jumbo-sized, nor anything related to peanuts.

One of the things I found interesting was that there wasn't a single elephant on display in the art store. No elephants on labels, rubber stamps, advertising, books, or even a paint-by-number kit. Perhaps I'm on the wrong track with an art-oriented elephant blog.

It was an interesting experience in some ways. I got odd looks in some of the shops, but no one followed me around or made me stop. In a couple of places I was asked what I was doing. The first time I said I was taking photographs of elephants for a blog, which resulted in such a blank stare that when I was asked again, I said I was photographing elephants for a friend, to see if she wanted whatever it was that I was taking a picture of.

I would definitely try something like this again, but I'd have a theme in mind beforehand that was more than, "all the elephants I can spy with my little eye." When you do a photographic essay on "Indian circuses" it makes sense; when you do a four-hour photographic essay on "elephant objects", I'm not sure it does.

Elephant Lore of the Day
While elephants are quite often the subject of a photographer's lens, they are never on the other side of the camera. With one notable exception.

In 2008, the U.K. Daily Mail reported on elephant photographers and their images of fellow wildlife. Using high-definition cameras invented by Geoff Bell, filmmaker John Downer created a series of elephant-operated cameras for use in a film about tigers.

Four elephants were outfitted with various types of webcam. Three were "trunk cams" that looked like large logs. Each log contained a camera that the elephant could hold in its trunk to shoot close to the ground. The fourth was a "tusk cam" that hooked over one tusk.

Elephant with tusk cam.
Photo: © John Downer

Downer told reporters that he had come up with the idea three years earlier while filming tigers in Pench National Park in India's Madhya Pradesh province. Noticing how gently elephants carried firewood, he wondered if they would be as gentle with cameras.

To his delight, Downer found that elephants were ideal photographers, particularly of tigers. Elephants and tigers do not see one another as threats, so the elephants could get quite close to the elusive cats. In addition, elephants move slowly and steadily, so the images were crisp and clear.

Leopard and her cub taken with ele-cam.
Photo: © John Downer

In addition, the elephants captured images of many other animals, including monkeys, a rare sloth bear, spotted deer, jackals, boars, birds, and a leopard and her cub. According to the filmmaker and his team, the elephants seemed to take quite readily to carrying the cameras around, often picking them up and setting them down at will. As Downer commented at one point, the elephants were quite capable of tossing and smashing the cameras if they'd been annoyed by them, but not a single camera was broken.

Langur monkey avoiding the paparazzi.
Photo: © John Downer

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)

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