Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2019 competition

Let me start by admitting that I have no pretensions to be a wildlife photographer. 

In fact, I own very few self-made images that can be loosely classified as wildlife photographs.

I have always found Nature enthralling, in all its aspects, and it is this bond with Nature which I have carried with me all my life that has led me to submit this image as my entry into the competition Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2019, a competition owned by the Natural History Museum in London, UK. The adult competition is divided into 16 categories and I decided to submit my entry in the category Wildlife Photojournalism, which is defined as such: 

“Investigating the relationship between humans and the natural world. Images can be challenging, uplifting, provocative or revelatory, and should illustrate how our attitudes, decisions and actions impact the natural world.”

The image I submitted (featured above) shows Sofia, an Asian elephant, at the Bioparco di Roma (Italy), in isolation while in ‘visual company’ of her new partner, Lakshmi (not pictured). Sofia lost her former partner, Nelly, and has since then experienced depression and several behavioural disorders. The park aims to unite Sofia permanently to Lakshmi.

This quite neatly explains the subject of the image and the pervading context. But every time I look at this image the same question lingers in my mind: who made this image?

It was summertime, and I was vacationing in Rome with friends. We had been to all the major cultural sites in Rome, so one morning we decided to visit the park. We paid our entrance ticket and soon came upon the enclosure where Sofia and Lakshmi were being kept. My friends moved on, but I stayed behind. I snapped away at Sofia, carefully hidden behind a bush, for around 15 minutes. Throughout the whole time, Sofia seemed listless and was completely immobile. At a particular point, I felt she sensed that there was someone behind the bush spying on her. And it was then, and only then, that she made her only movement – she gracefully lifted her trunk in the air… and I snapped.

Sometimes animals are pictured exhibiting traits we humans experience and which we can easily relate to, such as the feelings of pain, misery, sadness and despair. Rarely do we ascribe complex emotional and cognitive states to animals. What Sofia seemingly expresses in this photo is not just sadness or despair but the full complexity of the emotional and cognitive turmoil associated with loss that comes from a deep and fully embodied sense of love. I would like to believe that Sofia wanted me to be privy to her state of mind – that she lifted her trunk in the air purposefully, making what would have otherwise been a drab photo. It is only in moments like these that the notion of authorship completely fades away and instead gives way to a shared space between subject and viewer, immortalised through the genius of light as it falls on a light-receptive sensor.