Why look at animals?

by Kitty Drake in March 2020
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Fotograf is a photography magazine from the Czech Republic that has been publishing since 2002. The thirty-fifth issue is entitled Living With Humans and it opens with a statue of two babies suckling the teets of a wolf. The Romulus and Remus story is given a novel twist on page 28, when we see a puppy being breastfed by a human being. It is a revolting picture, but at the same time oddly tender.

The work featured in this slim volume is remarkable for its unconventionality. You can imagine a run of the mill photography magazine churning out an issue on ‘living with animals’ and it being lots of moody ‘wildlife’ shots. Fotograf is doing something more interesting: one of the first features is about Marcus Coates, a photographer-cum-shaman who sometimes dresses up in a grotesque bird costume. In Ritual For Reconciliation (2013), Coates crumpled up photographs of wild animals and then laid them out on the floor. A reflection on the superstition that cameras “steal souls”, the work is a way of coming to terms with the distance of 2-D images, as well as a ritual attempt to renew the feeling of being together with the captured animal.

Perhaps the most striking thing about these images, though, is their tactility. The cover is of a woman cuddling her dog — not an unusual subject, but transformed by photographer Maja Smrekar into something unfamiliar, and sensual. Another highlight is a beautiful, abstract series of horses, by Jitka Hanzlová.

In Why Look At Animals? (1980) John Berger wrote, “Animals come from over the horizon. They belonged there and here. Likewise, they were mortal and immortal. An animal’s blood flowed like human blood, but its species was undying and each lion was Lion and each ox was Ox.” The great strength of this issue is it captures the strangeness of animals, their unknowability.


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