Great nature photography is about more than beautiful landscapes, framed and hung on walls, or even stunning imagery of rare animals in motion. For iconic nature photographers like Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams, it was also about conservation — lending a voice to animals and places which otherwise might be driven out, paved over, or otherwise put in danger. As climate scientists grow more and more concerned about the impact of human behavior on the planet, that enduring legacy has remained crucial. On the pages of publications like National Geographic, images of endangered animals and habitats drive action from legislators and concerned citizens. But for nature photographer Frans Lanting, that’s only part of the importance of advocacy.
In one of his TED Talks, Frans explained the importance of the nature photographer, in the context of a story he’d once heard from a man named Jimmy Smith, who was a tribal elder from the Kwikwasut’inuxw people, near Vancouver, BC.
“Once upon a time, he told me, all animals on Earth were one,” Frans explained, “Even though they look different on the outside, inside, they’re all the same, and from time to time they would gather at a sacred cave deep inside the forest to celebrate their unity. When they arrived, they would all take off their skins. Raven shed his feathers, bear his fur, and salmon her scales, and then, they would dance. But one day, a human made it to the cave and laughed at what he saw because he did not understand. Embarrassed, the animals fled, and that was the last time they revealed themselves this way.”
The story has shaped the way that Frans photographs nature and animals.
“The ancient understanding that underneath their separate identities, all animals are one, has been a powerful inspiration to me,” he said in his talk, “I like to get past the fur, the feathers and the scales. I want to get under the skin. No matter whether I’m facing a giant elephant or a tiny tree frog, my goal is to connect us with them, eye to eye.”
Seven years before that, in another TED Talk, Frans explained a personal journey he had been on, wherein he explored the earliest incarnations of life on earth as we know it. Called the LIFE Project, the poetic collection of images and sounds dives deep into the very beginning, and ends with the interconnectedness of plants, animals, and humans. During that talk, he explained what he learned from creating the project.
“So who are we? Brothers of masculine chimps, sisters of feminine bonobos? We are all of them, and more. We’re molded by the same life force. The blood veins in our hands echoed a course of water traces on the Earth. And our brains — our celebrated brains — reflect a drainage of a tidal marsh.”
In his 2014 talk, Frans explained why his explorations and photography — and his emphasis on the humanity of nature and science — is so critical.
“As animals blessed with the power of rational thought, we can marvel at the intricacies of life. As citizens of a planet in trouble, it is our moral responsibility to deal with the dramatic loss in diversity of life. But as humans with hearts, we can all rejoice in the unity of life, and perhaps we can change what once happened in that sacred cave.”