The courtship dance of the Weedy Sea dragon in South Australia is one of the most exquisite things I have ever seen. In the evening the courting pair start to mirror each other in a waltz that can last hours, only broken by the male dropping his head in a bow and rising up into the females midriff. In darkness he takes her eggs onto his swollen tail where they embed. Words cannot describe the deep sense of connection one feels with the ocean when witnessing such ephemeral beauty.
Wildlife filmmaking is an environmental contradiction. At it’s simplest the acquisition period of a wildlife film – or series of films – uses hundreds of tons of fossil fuels to put men and women with cameras near to animals. The animals do not benefit from our presence and, it could be argued, the local and global environment suffers too. And yet culturally the work of wildlife cameramen and women recording the natural world is, in general, regarded as important and worthwhile. Why should that be so?
I think the answer lies in artificial memory and the importance we, the human animal, subconsciously put into it.
It is become very clear to me through my work we are not the only animals with the capacity for “spoken” language. You only need to put your head underwater in Western Australia and listen to Humpback whales singing to each other, or wake early in England to hear the dawn chorus, to know that language and communication are important parts of many animals’ lives. The difference between the human animal and other animals is the distillation of this communication into writing. It is this that has given us the ability to share experience across generations.
Interestingly, early writing often preserved strong links to the natural world – the pictographs Sumerian, Egyptian, and Chinese civilizations are, in my view, as beautiful and metaphoric as any wildlife painting or photograph of today.
It seems like with the development of phonic writing that connection with the animals we shared our world with was, at least to some degree, lost. It is really tough to write well about the natural world. Phonic writing is great for telling anthropocentric stories and passing ideas (and of course information) about the state of the human mind but good writing about the natural world is rare and very often so loaded with metaphor and anthropomorphism that the meaning is either lost or the text becomes unreadable. It is no accident that the popular tomes on wildlife tend to be picture books – mostly of the glossy coffee table variety.
It is this creation of artificial memory of the natural world is, at least in part, what we photographers in my industry do. The moving wildlife images we produce contribute to a visual history of a world that, if we are careful, can be preserved when no memory of the actual world remains. In the same way as the IIiad, passed down through countless generations in song, allows us a vision of a archaic civilization I believe, or at least pray, the work film makers, photographers, writers and artists do in our time will sustain a record of how things were for generations to come. My hope is, in the process of creating this record we humans learn find intrinsic worth in the world we are responding to and recording…and perhaps even learn to keep a little of it along the way.