Nonhuman family: the presence of the animal in the family album
Julie Dennis (March 2015)
The dog lies on a cushion in the corner of the room, breathing gently, ribs rising and falling. Her eyes are closed and her face is twitching as if in a dream. She has curled and folded her body into a position that appears uncomfortable. Her feet twitch forwards and backwards, scuffing the woven carpet with her rough pads. When she awakens, we exchange glances. She sighs deeply and closes her eyes again, disappointed (perhaps) to break from her imagined freedom to find herself here in this house. (Fig 1)
The dog that sleeps in the corner of the room is approximately six (human) years of age. She occupies a space on the floor, in between the sofas and underneath the windowsill. After years of sharing this space, her presence has become enmeshed in the human family, and she is also a part of the document that forms evidence of our existence; the family album. Her image has been situated purposefully in a space designed for the human family and so, despite the private and intimate nature of family life, it seems we want the dog to be one of us.
The keeping of household pets in the UK first became popular around 200 years ago (Ritvo, 1987 in Herzog, 2014) and as dogs, cats and other creatures were increasingly finding themselves inaugurated into the home environment, photography was also gaining in popularity with pet animals being photographed alongside children and families from the mid 19th century (Fig 2). Today, photographs featuring pets are often included in traditional family albums, framed for display on living room walls, or included in digital collections. It may seem expected that the family album or photograph collection, whatever form it takes, would reflect the trend for pet keeping just as it reflects other aspects of social and personal life, however, just as there are many theories around our desire for human portraiture, one may question why we are driven to represent nonhumans through photography and what we gain from viewing images of pet animals placed purposefully alongside those of people most important to us.
The framing of a photograph allows the photographer to define an area around the subject implying ownership of, or belonging within, the selected environment. The portraitphotograph also suggests character traits, not only through a set of bodily features but also through the inclusion of other subjects or objects. In pet owning households, grouped family portraits often position the pet(s) in line with the child(ren) suggesting equivalence with them in a family hierarchy (Fig 3.); in photographs without children, pets may be seen hugged closely by their owners as if they are children (Fig 4) and in dedicated animal portraits, often the pet occupies a place constructed by the human, removing them from all that is considered natural and clearly identifying them as ‘family’ animals, occasionally within homes adapted to incorporate pet presence (Fig 5). Broglio states that ‘introducing animals within the space of human dwelling complicates our own sense of place and sense of identity’ (2011, p71) which could imply that by including photographs of pets in the family album along with other personal and domestic images, we are further complicating our sense of self.
Current psychological theory suggests humans and dogs in particular may form mutual attachments similar to parents and their children (Carr and Rockett, 2014; Payne et al, 2015) and a need for security could offer reason for introducing animals into our home and photographing them as we do our offspring, however it also seems that we are naturally drawn to creatures sharing similar facial characteristics to ourselves. One study into animal adoptions found that “…dogs with juvenile (paedomorphic) facial features were more likely to be adopted than dogs with less infantile characteristics (Waller et al., 2013 in Herzog, 2014) which may indicate an inherent human tendency to act as ‘parent’ by nurturing other species, especially those with faces we can recognise and eyes we can gaze into. The creation of ‘adoption’ schemes by rescue centres, zoos and wildlife charities also demonstrates a very human service to species that are deemed culturally familial. However, the practice of incorporating a nonhuman into the family grouping also provides us with an opportunity for differentiation. Although we may find reassurance in acknowledging difference, pet keeping also provides us with observational experience of what our own future may hold as we witness old age and degeneration at a seemingly accelerated rate within our own sense of time. Seeing ageing and degeneration of the living body is rarely considered when a new puppy or kitten enters the family, just as it is something in ourselves we are reluctant to acknowledge. Within a decade or so, the family must face the processes of surface ageing in the animal they have grown attached to, witnessing its greying hair or hair loss, and “…conditions such as cancer, … cardiac disease. Hearing loss, cataracts and senile dementia …” (http://genomics.senescence.info). Levine’s project ‘Senior dogs across America’ (c2007-2012) was instigated by her own experience of witnessing her pet dogs age. (Fig 6) Her photographs show dogs in domestic settings, positioned on sofas and looking through windows at a world they cannot independently engage with, while she captures with her camera their bony frames and watery eyes. (Fig 7) Viewing dogs in their later years prompted Levine to consider her own mortality. “I saw how the dog … without the human’s painful ability to project ahead and fear the inevitable … simply wakes to each day as a new step in the journey. Though their steps might be more stiff and arduous, these dogs still moved through each day as themselves.” (Levine, www.lensculture.com. 2015). Levine’s response to viewing ageing dogs is that humans could learn from them by living in the present (Levine in MacDonald, NYTimes.com, 2011) instead of dwelling on past and future. Her decision to photograph the dog is a contradiction as she preserves the image before her and revisits it, however the popularity of the project is evidence of a wider human tendency to occupy our minds with what has passed and what may happen. As many humans attempt to defy the ageing process through treatments and masks, the photographing of the ageing family pet may also indicate a desire of the photographer to stop the unstoppable, the inevitable process of ageing, in its tracks. Of the family album, Hirsch writes that “… realities are submerged between the pages, imperceptible to anyone who looks at the album…” (2012, p192) and to include animals in that predominantly human space may provide a subliminal outlet for our temporal fears.
Lipps’ theory of empathy suggests that we assign our own feelings to all that we see. “I project my pride, my courage, my stubbornness, my lightness, my playful assuredness, my tranquil complacence. Only thus my empathy with regard to nature becomes truly aesthetic empathy” (Lipps in Arnheim, 1974, p448). If a photograph of a pet is an inanimate surface on which we impose ourselves, is pet ownership evidence of human aesthetic empathy with nature? The pet portrait that we take, view, and retain seems to be a symbol of self-indulgence rather than of the mutual bond we like to believe we have with our pet animals. After all we do not ever truly know whether our dog is feeling sad or bored, enjoying being with us or simply following a learned pattern of behaviour and we make assumptions based upon our own experience. The animal cannot communicate its thoughts to us. Derrida describes the gap between human and nonhuman understanding as an abyss and one that we are teetering on the edge of as we try to understand the animal. One fundamental problem identified by Derrida is the word ‘animal’ itself, that humans have created to describe all other living beings. ‘Animal is a word that men have given themselves the right to give’ (2008, p32) applying it to ‘all the living things that man does not recognise as his fellows, his neighbors or his brothers’ (2008, p34). By applying the term ‘human’ to ourselves and ‘animal’ to every other nonhuman creature we are seemingly using developed language to separate ourselves from all other species, yet at the same time we desire to understand and bond with them, even taking custody of them in our own homes to act as companion and confidante while knowing they cannot respond to us. We want to understand our pet; we yearn to know what she thinks and feels; we seek explanation in her eyes and we can respect the senses of the pet, perhaps recognising functions we have lost through our own ‘progression’. As one might argue that machines have led to a loss in manual skills, perhaps the development of complex vocal language and technologies of communication have led to a complacency of communication, diminishing or even destroying the ability of the human to utilise other sensory forms of interspecies interaction. Perhaps the dog in the album is an attempt to raise our non-verbal communication game, though we seem to assume that the dog has an equal desire to understand and communicate with us. In 1989 a Kodak advertisement declared “150 years ago a language was invented that everyone understood” (Hirsch, 2012, p48). This sweeping declaration of photography as a language for all reinforces the idea of an anthrocentric culture and a disassociation from the interconnectivity that exists between all living things. Only humans currently take and view photographs yet photography also provides us with opportunities to spend time with the animal and to include it in our lives and spaces. Paradoxically, by incorporating pet photographs into our autobiography we may endeavour to re-associate ourselves with the natural world that technological development has displaced us from; perhaps we are using technology to resist technology.
‘While the autobiographical act … begins with a disassociation (the self’s observation of the self as other), … the introduction of photographs into autobiography not only effectively represents that disassociation but also offers a possibility of reconciliation or reintegration’ (Rugg, 1997. p 14).
There have been recent developments in photographic equipment that allow cameras to be attached to pet collars to enable a view of the environment from the perspective of the animal. The Eyenimal (Fig 8) is a tiny camera which provides a sequence of images almost from the eye level of the cat, dog or other pet. Although this glimpse into the world from the point of view of the pet may be entertaining, it also provides further evidence of a human drive to understand the lives of other species, and may further distance us as we make begin to make assumptions that the animal sees in the same way we do when we cannot possibly know. It is also reflective of a non-acceptance of ourselves as animal – when we take photographs are we not simply representing the world from our own animal perspective? Artist Ken Rinaldo utilises computer technologies to explore organic worlds, reflecting biotechnological developments that may go some way to bridging the chasm between humans and other species. By placing cameras in goldfish bowls in a gallery (looking out at the humans looking in) Rinaldo expresses layers of human curiosity and our desire to communicate across the abyss. He remains open to potential development of the range of human senses aided by technology. “What new knowledge and ways of seeing might we have access to with new extended senses?” (Rinaldo in Aloi, 2012, p67). Perhaps the new accessibility of technology to photograph from the perspective of the animal specifically promoted to the vast pet-owning market, indicates a small step towards wider interspecies understanding or even transhumanism. The future of these explorations might allow us to gain (or re-gain) a human ability for wider sensory communication with nonhuman species, or alternatively the futility of attempting to experience another’s perspective may simply widen the gap. “Animals are always the observed … The more we know, the further away they are” (Berger, 2009, p27). Marcus Coates’ work demonstrates frustration with the way animals are represented in photography, through photographing other species and violently crumpling the prints prior to exhibiting them (Fig 9). Coates explains that his images are “… in a way another attempt, however futile, to become someone else or something else” (artsy.net) Coates’ engagement with the animal through the lens of the camera cannot satisfy him, and neither can the resulting printed image. Coates’ open displays about his frustrations in being unable to truly connect with other species, for example his trance-like attempts to communicate directly with animal spirits, may seem comical, but his work represents the exasperation of many in ‘capturing’ the ‘personality’, experience or behaviour of a nonhuman creature using visual representation.
When we photograph the nonhuman we are observing them, but we are also recording a point in our own life; a point which we will revisit through the image at a later date when we will recall the animal’s presence, but this will act as a gateway to opening up a multitude of connected thoughts and memories. The family album will provide us with our own gaps to fill between the images utilising memory and contextualising events in our own lives that allow us to progress. As every photograph immediately becomes a trace of what is past, we will experience the distance created by ageing and change not only in our pet, but in ourselves. By placing the pet in the family album, we will preserve this trace to be revisited for future generations, and by picturing our domestic lives with the nonhuman interlinked with the human family group, we will impact upon cultural beliefs and societal change. ‘Power and knowledge can be found in the act of constructing and reconstructing, of reading and re-reading’ (Hirsch, 2012, p211).
Augustine writes of fellow man that ‘it is easier to count his hairs than the passion and emotion of his heart’ (in Derrida, p91) reflecting both our desire to observe the details of the other but also to understand others on a deeper level. Photography enables us to count the hairs and scrutinise the details at length that make up each other but, almost two centuries after the invention of the camera, the essence of life itself is still sought in the photographic image whether the image represents the human or the nonhuman. To include a nonhuman as if it were part of a human grouping also serves a multi-layered function as not only can the viewer form a subjective idea of the character of the family and the animal, they can seek similarities between human and nonhuman. By placing ourselves alongside nonhumans as family and acknowledging similarities and differences through revisiting the album or visual collection, we also seem to be reaffirming our own sense of identity.
“When humans deal with humans, animals with animals, or when a cat and his owner try to get along with each other, they constantly read their partner’s external behaviour and control their own. This seems a remarkable achievement once we realize that the eyes of the person or of the cat see nothing but a relief of muscles and bones covered with skin and subjected to various displacements, contractions, and expansions” (Arhneim, 1974, p446)
By including the family pet alongside us in the photograph album, not only are we in a position to contemplate ourselves as individuals and the processes of our own change, but we find context for our own lives in a complex modern society. It is a human frustration that we cannot fully understand one another’s perspective and experience, but by questioning whether we once could, wondering whether we might in the future, and by using photography to explore our sense of place and self, we must surely be contributing to human development over a much larger timespan. For almost two centuries the family album has allowed us to ‘ring-fence’ all that we feel is most important to us, and has provided us with opportunities to compare and reflect, considering our existence both as individual and species. As a tool for human self-awareness, self-questioning and contemplation, the family album, with its combined human and nonhuman traces, represents one tiny phase of progression in wider human development and evolution.
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