Recognising Anthropomorphic Tendencies

When we consider Disney-classic childhood films such as Beauty and the Beast (1991) or Snow White (1937), a common hidden thread linking them together is the anthropomorphic character qualities in which we see a human-relatable attraction be born for ongoing future audiences. Particularly in regards to the application of human-like characteristics to animals, anthropomorphism in this sense tends to have an entertainment value. Presenting itself as being seemingly harmless in cartoon films, the presence of anthropomorphism in reality is an actuality. This seemingly harmless ‘literary’ device not only can instigate dispute due to the representative ethics surrounding animal depictions, but it also begs to question the reasons why it has been applied and further exploited on legitimate animals.

When we see the anthropomorphism of animals go beyond cartoon films and into a non-fictional realm, the judgement of how animals are treated can be put under scrutiny. The controversy of whether they should be treated with human-mannerisms or seen as purely instinctual beings requires a firm belief towards the existence of emotional intelligence in non-human animals. The 2013 documentary film Blackfish acutely explores this divide. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, it focuses on the contentious life of SeaWorld killer whale Tilikum who, “out of frustration” from twenty years of “intense confinement, isolation and lack of emotional and intellectual stimulation,” killed three people in separate incidences (SeaWorld of Hurt, 2017).

John Hargrove was a professional trainer who worked with Tilikum at SeaWorld in Florida and believes that the mistreatment towards killer whales, particularly in regards to confinement, is what led Tilikum to be humanly “domesticated” to produce “family-friendly theatrical settings. He states that the corporate marketing strategy had turned these animals into “pandas of the sea, commercial and cuddly” and left little signs of the “complexities of killer whales” (Hargrove, 2015) and the consequences of keeping them in captivity.

What is even more paradoxical is the fact that the trainers were told not to anthropomorphise the animals in order to not give them human sentient (Hargrove, 2015). However, despite this blatant demand, the fact of the matter remains that these marine animals did posses substantial emotional intelligence. Described as a social phenomenon between animals that helps maintain relationships, morality is seen as being integrated into their social behaviour (Bekoff & Pierce, 2009). Interestingly research conducted by David Mech highlights that the pack size of wolves is dependent upon the social attraction factor or rather, how well the wolf can bond. Furthermore as stated, “many animals have the capacity for empathy” which enables them to “perceive and feel the emotional state of fellow animals” (Bekoff & Pierce, 2009). Therefore, through close-knit interactions with animals in social groups, they can develop a knowledge for ‘codes of conduct’ and emotional capacity.

When acknowledging Tilikum’s removal from his pod around two years of age in 1983, it can patent to see the obvious psychological impact that it had on him and how his challenge to bond with other orcas was repeatedly unsuccessful. An orca’s life is governed by emotions and is a critical part of their social existence. The argument put forth after the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010 that Tilikum’s aggression was an instinctual act is unwarranted. Dr Lori Marino contends that aggressive behaviour in captivity is “not predatory instinct” (Hargrove, 2015) gone wrong – they are in fact definite acts of aggression made by choice in instances where an orca has experienced chronic stress and not learnt appropriate conduct through the family pod. Therefore it is the orca’s environment, boredom, constant training and performance expectations that prompt elevated stress levels and see them react in desperate measures.

Tilikum’s ordeal highlights the unnecessary exploitation of applying human behavioural customs to an idiosyncratic non-human being. Through such depictions of animals in various media mediums, we are endlessly feeding the notion that representing animals as being more ‘human-like’ is favourable. However as evinced from the removal of Tilikum at sea, placement in confinement and overall training as a performer, his frustration provoked his aggressive actions as a means of responding to his own suffering.

Ultimately it is through the deprivation of an animal’s freedom that we see the existence of moral frameworks breakdown. So when considering the anthropomorphic characteristics of Tilikum, it is crucial to retain the knowledge that “being inattentive to their feelings – and their acute sensitivity to environment and their complex relationships with other whales – can potentially be deadly” (Hargrove, 2015).

 


 

Bekoff M, Pierce J, 2009, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, University of Chicago Press, USA, pg. 4-5

Hargrove J, 2015, Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, Palgrave Macmillan Publishing, USA, pg. 8, 73, 167

SeaWorld of Hurt, 2017, ‘Blackfish’: The Documentary That Exposes SeaWorld, viewed March 24th <http://www.seaworldofhurt.com/features/blackfish-documentary-exposes-seaworld/>

The Questionable Right to Witness

Photographers will argue that their work exists to be a visual representation that increases public awareness. This awareness, when it is extracted from the photograph, will see us viewers be deemed as a ‘witness’ to such depictions. The ethical responses that will result from controversial images including those that depict rather severe cases of human suffering will be constantly disputed due to the equivocal righteousness in which the photograph was taken. Unless the purpose of the image and intent of the creator will induce a collective opinion towards combating the depicted suffering, the morality framework in taking such images will always be vulnerable to dispute.

Sebastião Salgado is a Brazilian photographer and photojournalist whom is widely known for his poignant images that attempt to document dire circumstances of raw human suffering. Recipient of the ASA’s Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues Award in 2010, Salgado was recognized for his contribution towards promoting sociological concerns via his photography. When researching about Salgado’s photography, there was an overriding sense of favourable admiration for his work. Being described as being “the last great photographer,” (Jones, 2015) and one of the most respected modern photojournalists, Salgado’s reputation has been built on the appreciation for his evocative visual documentations.

 

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Image via artsy.net

 

However, Salgado’s intent to portray humans dealing with extreme human conditions calls into question whether such images are taken in an appropriate ethical manner. As stated, “aestheticisation refers to photographs of human suffering” that are believed to offer disinterested pleasure to the audience (Grønstad & Gustafsson, 2012). It is argued that the presence of such representations aims to further “depoliticise the viewers” (Grønstad & Gustafsson, 2012) by diverting their attention away from the suffering depicted and instead, towards the image quality and composer’s artistry. Here we can see how the audience can be deemed insensitive to the circumstances being presented and thus, its failure to instigate an appropriate collective reaction to inhumane circumstances.

Additionally cultural theorist and critic Mieke Bal underlines the ethical controversy surrounding the publication of certain images. She states that the subjects in the photographs “do not get paid, or paid in proportion to their enduring exposure” and they are given “no chance to endorse the circulation of their image” (Grønstad & Gustafsson, 2012). Therefore, Bal argues that the viewers to these images are contributing to the subject’s exploitation (Grønstad & Gustafsson, 2012). Bal’s argument further feeds the belief that these photographs are not taken in the correct ethical manner for it is an unjust misuse of photography that does not benefit the subject in any instrumental way – for the subject is ultimately left in the same suffering that they were found in.

By contrast, the justification for exhibiting such photographs on a global scale relies on the need to educate and inform global viewers. An excerpt from The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, states that photographs bring attention to the “unbridgeable chasm that separates ordinary life from extraordinary experiences of political trauma” (Linfield, 2010). Furthermore, it discusses the depictions of Holocaust camps and how such events cannot be easily processed which is why photography can function to educate us on past failures in order to truly gain an insight into historical devastation (Linfield, 2010) .

The debate surrounding the publication of such unsettling images will continue to exist for as long as such distressing human conditions exist. The aesthetic aspects of Salgado’s photography can be argued to function as depriving the subject of true validation and value. However it is also the shock tactic that can also be argued as forcing recognition for such suffering caused by political and humanitarian crises. As a result of such informative artistry there will perpetually exist the questionable justification of being able to ‘witness’ such evocative photographs. Therefore it is our individual interpretation of such representations that will contribute to our comprehension of the image functioning as either an ethical or unethical method of communication – or perhaps even elements of both. While we are able to turn away from the photograph, the subjects in them are not given that prospect. So ultimately, it is our own inaction that can be our own undoing.

 


 

Grønstad A, Gustafsson H, 2012, Ethics and Images of Pain, Routledge Publishers, New York USA, p. 22, p. 25

Jones, 2015, The Guardian, Sebastião Salgado: my adventures at the ends of the Earth, viewed March 17th 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/18/sebastiao-salgado-photo-london-photography>

Linfield S, 2010, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, University of Chicago Press, USA p. 15

Artsy, 2017, SEBASTIÃO SALGADO, viewed March 17th <https://www.artsy.net/artwork/sebastiao-salgado-mali-1>

Artistically Amateur?

When we consider images that originate from the high fashion sphere, you wouldn’t bat an eye-lid if nudity was a feature among them. The omnipresence of nudity in artistry or rather more specifically, in the fashion industry is accepted as simply functioning as an aesthetic attribute. However, when we consider the reaction produced from nudity in self-taken photos or ‘selfies,’ there is an immense difference in the amount of controversy that is created.

An excerpt from a Popular Photography magazine notes that “since the ‘50s when Stern photographed Monroe for Vogue magazine, nudity in high fashion presentation has taken on a harder edge” (Kalmus Y, 1983). Now it seems that this shameless attitude has flourished not only into 21st century fashion, but also onto our screens in social media. With the proliferation of social media almost demanding ‘self-expression’ and ‘individualisation’ through our own means, when we see nudity it sparks a debate about the message individuals are trying to send to their viewers about themselves.

The selfie culture that has risen with the popularity of social media has seen associations of nudity with women be interpreted in a multitude of manners. For example, there are instances where nudity is utilised as a form of body positivity, self-expression or even liberation which has seen some objections claim that it is a move to empower women and defend feminism. However, it is in these cases that controversy is fed.

A notable article written by Hayley Phelan explores the conflicting views on such media posts and attempts to discover why it fuels diverse arguments. The apparent “double standard” that exists for women on social media has created an arena where their images are more likely to be “criticised for being exploitative, slutty or demeaning.” However, in mainstream media, we are continuously bombarded with photographs of “scantily clad women,” (Phelan, 2016) but are less likely to hear about the negative connotation of such images.

The obvious reason why women receive such backlash on images is due to the sexualisation that tints such photographs of them. As stated, it can be argued that audiences can “damn a girl for visual promiscuity, yet enjoy the spectacle at the same time” (Nelson, 2013). Furthermore such depictions of women, or rather younger teenagers also brings into the spotlight the ‘moral panic’ concerned with the nudity and the depiction that they dispatch to the public eye. This opinion that sexualising begins at a young age further highlights the “anxieties, concerns and ‘panics’ about the sexualisation of girls” (Gill & Scharff, 2011) and brings into question the inappropriate ways that they can be viewed via selfies made public on social media accounts. This reinforces that such ‘personal’ images are never confidential to harmful comments that intend to ‘slut-shame’ and demean users.

The way in which we view nudity in different arenas provokes a diverse amount of controversy and debate about what should be accepted as appropriate. No matter if we are looking at photographs of Bella Hadid’s fashion shoot featured in Flare magazine or images of a friend on Instagram, the ambivalence will always hold a presence in the message of the image.

 


 

Gill R, Scharff C, 2011, New Femininities, postfeminism, neoliberalism and subjectivity, Palgrave Macmillan Publishing, UK, p. 134

Kalmus Y, 1983, Popular Photography, Nude between the covers: a study of recent publications, volume 90 number 6, New York USA, p. 116

Nelson O, 2013, The Age, Dark undercurrents of teenage girls’ selfies, viewed March 12th <http://www.theage.com.au/comment/dark-undercurrents-of-teenage-girls-selfies-20130710-2pqbl.html>

Phelan H, 2016, ELLE, Is the Naked Selfie Good for Feminism? viewed March 12th <http://www.elle.com/culture/a34928/naked-selfie-and-feminism/>