Seeing the Familiar in Our Nonhuman Counterparts

A new book of captivating portraits explores the relationship between people and animals.

We could consider these pages a place to look at animals. And yet we must acknowledge that there are no animals here. Only highly seductive, question-provoking images. These are photographs that begin to deconstruct and question our perceptions of animals.

We unavoidably view the world through the filter of our humanity. We notice life and read life through that filter, as our cave-dwelling forefathers did and as our descendants will do. We cannot be other than ourselves. But we can push how that anthropocentric thinking works, and what kind of anthropomorphic forms we expect to see. This is perhaps the key drive of visual tension in Tim Flach’s new book, More Than Human, from which these images are drawn. Just how close to human are these creatures, we are tempted to ask. Whereas perhaps we should ask: Just how distorting is our vision when it comes to recognizing and respecting any other species? The answer is that we can never know another life, only our own.

See this article's accompanying photo gallery

We struggle to interpret our fellow humans, and there is a chasm to understanding other species. Flach’s mode of portraiture brings this into stark relief. These images play with our expectations: They are both familiar and strange, some nearer the one extreme and some the other. A key aspect of the surface impact of these photographs is that they often surprise us with a super-real detail that we could never see with the naked eye, revealing nature in a way that is not, has perhaps never been, visible to human sight.

The real becomes less real than the image. Flach’s pictures have an impact that is more precisely lit, more detailed in observation, more vivid, than our poor eyes normally encounter. Images that challenge and change our perceptions invite us to inquire further, as well as to re-sort and reshuffle our mental files.

Time and again, More Than Human invites us to connect—we see eye contact here, a sensitive gesture there, even a kiss—and yet leaves us unable to quite bridge the void. Flach brings us closer than we may ever have been but only to show us that there is an impossible gulf that we can’t cross. There is a wonder and a sense of sadness about our position. We celebrate these other species and at the same time we may feel the burden of our own inadequacies. Every day we hear that, from global warming to rainforest loss, we are the cause of, and need to take responsibility for, planet-changing activities.

The key to looking, whether at these images or their original subjects, would seem to be to never stop questioning what we see. Any wonder we feel is a tease as much as a truth. If there is one thing we can learn, it is that what we see is not how things really are at all. Our selves are just getting in the way, stopping us from understanding that there is so much more than human out there.