REVIEW: Animals That Saw Me by Ed Panar
By Erica McGrath
“If you have suffered from trauma, one of the most healing things that can happen to you is being seen” - Timothy Morton
Being caught in the act of photographing someone who is unaware can be awkward or embarrassing for both parties involved. Why that feeling arises is complex but it has to do with the idea of being seen. Consider now though, how should a photographer feel if they are caught in the same act, but this time with the target being an animal? How should the animal feel? Does the animal feel? We have always drawn a strict impassable line between us (the humans) and them (the animals). Humans have self-concept and animals do not; this must mean when animals look they are not actually seeing, not actually understanding. In Ed Panar’s second publication on the subject, Animals That Saw Me (Volume 2), he continues to challenge the idea of what being seen by animals means both for the animal and us.
An amusing concept on the surface, the book is filled with whimsical photographs of a range of animals staring back at Panar and his camera. Dogs, cats, bears, deer, snakes, squirrels, you name it, can all be found staring intently, or uninterestedly, back at Panar. The presence of the camera adds an interesting element to the mix. It can be rightly assumed these animals do not know what being photographed or documented means, but looking at these creatures staring back begs us to question, what are they seeing? Timothy Morton writes at the conclusion of the book, “Why do we assume that it’s only us who does the looking”? Morton argues it is ridiculous of us to assume that humans are the only creatures on earth who can care, understand, and see, “Nonhumans seeing me is funny after a millennia of telling ourselves that they are unthinking unfeeling machines who couldn’t possibly see...That would imply understanding, we tell ourselves, convinced that thought is what drives perception ("I see” we say, meaning “I understand”) and that though is the top access mode…of getting at reality”.
Why we have decided that animals are only capable of looking and not truly seeing is hard to say. The photographs in Ed Panar’s Animals That Saw Me seem to suggest otherwise. While they may appear like everyday snapshots of animals Panar has stumbled upon, it may be beneficial for us all to give these images, and animals, closer examination. When we deny animals, or nonhumans, the ability of understanding then we reduce them to irrelevance. This has become dangerous as Timothy Morton points out about Panar’s images, “His photographs seem more poignant than ever, now that more of us (the humans) know that we have created an age of mass extinction, only the sixth one on this planet in its four-and-a-half billion year history".