Over recent decades, the results of behavioural research increasingly suggest that many animals appear to demonstrate a form of “intelligent thought” and perhaps even consciousness, something we humans take for granted.
With this in mind, I wondered if it were possible to capture a photograph of the fleeting moment when a contact appears to be made between two self-aware animals; that elusive connection when one animal hold its gaze directly and deliberately into the eyes of another. This was the basis for the “Behind The Eyes” series. I realised that this was going to be quite a challenge; after all, I couldn't exactly persuade a lion to look into the lens! As it turned out, I didn't have to...
Needing to be practical and with a limited budget, I decided on Colchester Zoo, which is only 30 minutes from my home in Suffolk, in eastern England. As the animals live in a wide variety of locations at the zoo, I used a 70-300mm telephoto zoom lens, which gave a good range of focal lengths. It also had the benefit of built-in stabilization. Some enclosures had relatively low-level indoor lighting, and a fast shutter speed was going to be needed to maintain a pin-sharp image.
In the zoo, I encountered Subu, a large male African lion, who was pacing around a large fenced-off area. Finally resting on a central artificial “rock”, I moved up close to the surrounding wire fence and pushed my lens through slightly to get a clear shot.
At first, Subu was too distracted by other people to notice me, but after a while he finally spotted the lens poking through. As I'd been watching him through the camera for the “right moment” - so he'd look into the camera completely face-on, like a person's portrait - the D300's autofocus through the 70-300 lens has already locked on one of his eyes at around 200mm. He looked straight at me and I manually triggered the shutter so I could very quickly recompose the image before I took it, to try fill the frame as much as possible to maintain the image quality and reduce the amount of post-production cropping.
It was almost as though he was posing for his portrait. Until, that is, I realised that he had locked his gaze on me too. He did appear to be intently observing me. And at that point, it was probably a good idea for me to be the first one to blink. Gently removing the lens from the fence, I stepped back onto the pathway. Checking the images, I realised that Subu may well become the main image for the “Behind The Eyes” series.
Having successfully captured my first images, I was beginning to get a feel for the how rapidly the composition needed to be done, as well as spot-on focusing – this was where the camera's auto-focusing was extremely useful - and of course, a lot of patience.
The elephant images were more straightforward, being far slower-moving animals and out in the open. Again, I needed to have the camera focused and image composed almost constantly whenever I was looking through the lens. An elephant's vision is quite poor, but this one slowly turned and started to head towards me, perhaps hoping I had food. This gave me time to try different compositions as he headed over, and focus on the strong textural elements of his skin, which became a major feature of the final print.
I returned to the zoo many months later to take follow-up images. This time I headed over to the Orangutan enclosure. Using the same technique as before, I crouched down to his level and started to photograph the ape, who was looking at me directly through a thick perspex wall. The lens auto-stabilization facility was particularly helpful, as the light levels were much lower than outside, plus the slightly coloured perspex reduced it further. Even so, I still had to increase the ISO level on the camera to capture a sharp image, but only to about ISO 640, to avoid introducing digital noise in the image. The Orangutan was watching me very closely, looking right into the lens, almost quizzically. He held his gaze until his attention was drawn away by one of the other visitors, and moment was over.
A number of other animals were photographed successfully that day, including a chimp and a very active L'hoest monkey, whose wide open and attentive eyes I was able to photograph at very close range, as he sat near a glass wall in the daylight. In fact, it was only later when I started post-production work on the images, converting them to black and white back home - a process involving multiple software packages and which would take some time to discuss - that I discovered that this monkey had also inadvertently captured me: my reflection clearly visible in his eyes.
Travelling to exotic locations enables adventure and huge photographic opportunities, but it's still possible to stay fairly local and capture an impression of a variety of animals. And sometimes, with a lot of patience and practice, it's even possible to catch that passing moment when fellow animals connect.
Paul Coghlin is the winner of the 2010 Black & White Photography magazine competition. The pictures used in this article were the winning entries.
© Paul Coghlin