Toward a Non-human Lens

Marine Hugonnier’s Apicula Enigma (2013). [A film still of four people in beekeeping suits holding a camera, boom mic, and other filmmaking equipment and filming bee boxes. Behind them is a mirror, which reflects the green and mountainous landscape around them.]

In the opening to Marine Hugonnier’s Apicula Enigma (2013), a short film about bees in the Koshuta mountains of southern Austria, a human clad in protective wear carefully tinkers with the setup of an artificial wooden beehive. After the keeper is seen to be loosening the hive’s tension rope, removing some of its components to spray the bees, and exiting the frame, several scenes in which hives, and thousands of bees buzzing in, out, and around them, are shown against backdrops of mountain ranges. With no explanatory narration, something peculiar for what could be considered a nature documentary, a combination of beekeepers and film crew — it’s unclear where one duty ends and the other begins — arrange mirrors against and measure distances between various combinations of beekeeping structures, grass and flowers, and film equipment. Mirrors are positioned to reflect wildflowers blowing in the breeze, but also catch glimpses of the film crew in action. In one shot, one of the film crew can be seen brushing off their camera on-set, presumably from an unmanageable amount of pollen accumulating on the lens. At one point, a voice, the only audio akin to dialogue in the film, whispers: “Nature doesn’t tell stories.”

Apicula Enigma, like many other films which invert film’s gaze back towards its viewers — and in this case its subjects, the bees, too — complicates the typical trajectory of filmmaking with non-human subjects and stories. Instead of a smooth continuum established by clearly defined filmmakers, filmed subjects, and the environment, the film uses what feel like “behind the scenes” shots of meticulous audio capture, film equipment setup, measuring, and beekeeping to complicate the boundaries between human and non-human, filmmaker and subject. Contrary to the typical conventions of representation in anthropomorphic nature documentaries, Marine Hugonnier decided while filmmaking to shoot at a slower frame rate than normal and at a distance such that the viewer wouldn’t be in a position (or possess a gaze) in relation to the bees beyond the usual. The bees can be perceived, but not entirely seen, and the film acts as a record of this symbiotic relationship between camera and animal. The recurring appearance of cameras recording, mirrors, measuring tape, and what feels to be at times invasive audio recording equipment, starts to become a seemingly tongue in cheek parody on the explicitly ethnographical methods of capture inherent in filmmaking. The film, which translates to “the bee’s riddle,” helps pose similarly cryptic and elusive questions: what does it mean to film the natural world through a non-human lens? Is such a thing possible? What filmic conventions aid, or hinder, in doing so?

Marine Hugonnier’s Apicula Enigma (2013). [A film still of a mountainous landscape, a low, sprawling tree, and bright green grass. In the foreground a loose swarm of bees blur in motion.]

We could potentially start to answer those questions by asking another: what is cinema’s role in shaping humans’ gaze towards non-humans in the first place? (In order to untie a knot you first need to gauge the extent to which the thread is entangled.) In Donna Haraway Reads “The National Geographic” On Primates (1987), a video segment from the public access television program and open media collective Paper Tiger Television, Haraway performs an expanded reading of The National Geographic’s coverage of Koko the gorilla. She leads an exploration into the anthropological arena of primatology, and how Koko’s eventual, and intentional, equation to that of the “universal man” is problematic across lines of culture, race, decoloniality, and human and non-human relations. In describing this array of entanglements, Haraway says, while untangling snarling balls of yarn:

Let's look at those words from the point of view of the way a world looks to a culture critic, and let's take culture apart like these balls of yarn. First I'd like to explain the principle I use in the production of modern culture. It seems to me the culture critic is faced with a world that looks very much like tangled balls of yarn, and one way to approach the situation is to pull on a thread and untangle the ball of meanings, and begin to trace through one thread, and another, what gets to count as nature, for whom, and when, and the cost to produce nature at a particular moment in history for a particular group of people.

Donna Haraway Reads “The National Geographic” On Primates (1987). [Donna Haraway, sitting before a painted film set and beside a person holding a sign that says “Koko,” talking while unraveling a ball of yarn.]
Natural Geographic Magazine’s October 1978 front cover [A magazine cover with a yellow border and a camera-wielding gorilla as the cover star.]

Ever since the photographer Eadweard Muybridge used galloping horses as the subjects for his chronophotographic studies via the Zoopraxiscope — a predecessor to the movie projector — animals and cinema became inextricably linked. Originally as a tool for gait analysis in response to the work of Étienne-Jules Marey, Muybridge’s work, the most well-known of which is the The Horse in Motion from 1878, aimed to make visible to the human eye previously unseen (or indecipherable) movements in animals. This made possible a new kind of gaze towards non-humans species, one through the lens of a camera. Using a combination of illustrated animal figures and actual photographs, like those of a horse skeleton, the Zoopraxiscope used 16" glass disks which when illuminated and projected would reproduce the effect of a motion picture. Muybridge lectured about his work extensively, including a presentation on the “Science of Animal Locomotion” at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in the Zoopraxographical Hall — the first commercial movie theater. The illustrations on the zoopraxiscope discs were elongated in appearance to account and compensate for the distortion that took place when projecting them. This slight, but representative, disconnect between the material being displayed and that which is projected (and considered “seen” by viewers) would become a recurring theme in depictions of animals, and the natural world at large, on film.

Sketches from Étienne-Jules Marey’s photography of horses. [What looks like a film strip of several images of a man riding a running horse.]
Black-and-white picture of a coloured zoopraxiscope disc, circa 1893 by Eadweard Muybridge and Erwin F. Faber. [A disc that almost looks like a record, with horses lining the edge.]
“A New Use for Moving Pictures,” illustration from The Graphic, 26 July 1913. [A black and white illustration of men aiming guns at horses on a movie projector.]

Similar to the Zoopraxiscope’s cinematic qualities, and sharing its namesake, zoological gardens (abbreviated to “zoo” by the world’s oldest, the London Zoological Gardens) make animals visible in a similar way. As Filipa Ramos observes, by “exhibiting, editing, framing, and fixating the living things they detain, zoological gardens activate specific modes of looking and being looked upon, which transform the status and nature of the displayed animals and condition the ways in which they are dealt with and thought about.”1 With the menagerie as a predecessor, zoos embody messy entanglements of entertainment, education, science, ethnography, and colonial narratives — just like film. Zoological space facilitates a particular image of animals, and their relationship to humans, which becomes inseparable from actual encounters between the two. In the absence of such interactions, which is increasingly the case, zoos — aided in addition by the objectification of animals via their representation on film — provide the de-facto site for defining these relationships. By rendering animals as marginal “others,” zoos cut, splice, and assemble otherwise impossible scenes (a polar bear beside a giant tortoise, beside a tiger) into successive frames — enclosure, after enclosure, after enclosure. The zoo directs and defines the viewer's gaze when “looking” at animals, its captive actors. Given this one-way, manipulative dynamic, and with the impending ecological collapse in large part a direct result of it, it’s now more important than ever to question how, why, through what lens, and mediated by what screens we look at, think about, frame, live with, and meet (or increasingly not meet) non-human species.

This keeping of captive animals has a long history, one that operates in parallel to humankind’s evolving perception of itself, beginning over more than 4,500 years ago. In their book Zoo Culture, Bob Mullan and Garry Marvin provide an overview on the origins of assembling collections of wild animals as a practice that arises in the early stages of hierarchically organized, agriculture-based societies. Beginning with menageries for aristocrats, then parks for exhibiting wild animals, followed by menageries that were open to the public, Mullan and Marvin highlight how the display of captive animals served as demonstrations of power and their gifting amongst high-ranking officials as tools of diplomacy.2 Often as symbols for nationalism and imperialism — the initial collections of many of the first zoos were via colonial exploits — zoological space, like the museum, is an architectural project whose objective is to gather specimens and objects in order to frame our encounters with them, in turn acting as anthropogenic indexes and taxonomies for the non-human. In her book When Species Meet, Donna Haraway calls for humans to better understand (and imagine) the possibilities present when encountering other species. By asking that we “build attachment sites” and “tie sticky knots to bind intra-acting critters,” Haraway’s work calls for a world-building which nourishes a future in which human and nonhuman animals are companion species, or “messmates at table, eating together.”3 Through an examination of how zoological and cinematic space conditions human notions of the animal and demands borders separating the two, perhaps its possible to better imagine such a future where we meet animals as comrades instead of as sites for (agricultural, industrial, visual, entertainment) production.

Where animals are in relation to humans is what gives zoological and filmic space their mirror-like, reflective qualities — they are captive technologies, with a defined border and power dynamic between human and non-human species. This of course wasn’t always the case, and it is a relationship that has changed over hundreds of thousands of years (and continues to change). A relationship often defined in parallel by how humans see themselves, it has gone from one of natural interconnectedness to artificial domestication for reasons pertaining to agriculture, industry, science, and entertainment. Not dissimilar to the alienation-inducing corner in which humans have built themselves into, animal life has largely been reduced to one of an economic unit, attributed value by its ability to produce and be consumed. As seen in their ability to be harnessed as agricultural mechanical equipment — the impetus behind early time-motion studies — human’s capacity to exert dominion over non-human species is an act of also assigning meaning to their own place. As Haraway writes, a meeting of species to break bread (or untangle knots) isn’t without its share of “indigestion,” whether on behalf of human or non-humans, and what happens when engaging with the mirror isn’t for certain.4

Zoologists and videographers Anne-Marie Hubert-Brierre, Xavier Michel Hubert-Brierre, and Michel Guiss Djomou installed several large mirrors at various points in the Gabonese forest between Pongara National Park and the Presidential Wonga Wongué Reserve. Staged at several spots along a path from Oyan to Nyonié, each mirror has accompanying cameras pointed at it in order to remotely film animals’ interactions with them. Animals, like humans, don’t innately possess the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror, and the captured videos contain a range of reactions from their subjects. In a video uploaded to YouTube on May 6, 2016 titled “Some chimps are angry at mirrors, while others are calm,” the full range of response by several chimpanzees to the mirror is filmed. While initially under the impression that an intruder is before them and thereby stomping on the ground, charging towards the mirror, and kicking up earth in retaliation, they eventually identify the reflective rival as themselves. No longer fearing the mirror, they use it to learn about themselves — like a chimpanzee examining (surely for the first time) its rump. In describing why a gorilla doesn’t look its own reflection in the eyes while simultaneously attempting to intimidate it, Xavier Michel writes that it’s in order to not initiate a full-on confrontation with it: “It is only the lack of knowledge of the mirror that makes him react in this way.”5

Still from user Xavier HUBERT-BRIERRE’s YouTube channel. [A chimp climbing on to a large mirror set up in the middle of a forest, in order to better examine themselves.]

Whether it’s a cracking of the mirror, the ability to see through it, or its pointing in a different direction, we need cameras/films/zoos/knots that expose the zoological and filmic gaze as one that promotes captivity, and, through empathy with our non-human companions, call for its transformation. Zoological gardens emerged from the practice of assembling collections of wild animals in agriculture-based civilizations, and as the world still collectively reels from a pandemic — another extension of ever-rampant ecological destruction, wildlife domestication, and industrialized agriculture — it’s an appropriate moment to reconsider their legacy and place in contemporary life. Like the state in which Anne-Marie, Xavier, and Michel find their motion-activated cameras after months of not tending to them — possessed by jungle critters which alter their functionality, capabilities, and range of vision — we need devices and models for seeing that are interspecies in nature, see through the cracks, and are mirrors that look at humans looking at animals.

Critter-covered wildlife capture cameras from user Xavier HUBERT-BRIERRE’s YouTube channel. [A broken open camera leaning against a tree, inside of which insects have made their homes.]

At the end of Haraway’s reading on Paper Tiger Television, and displaying a Hallmark card of a white woman peering into a silverback gorilla’s bedroom — inverting the racialized roles normally seen in the King Kong series Haraway has just described — she says:

The question that confronts us, as we leave the wild of Tanzania, and the extraterrestrial and mythic regions of space, the Silicon Valley, and the Los Altos hills, the question confronts us, of what oppositional politics looks like, and, the first principle that it seems to me that we have to learn, is that reversal won't work.

Donna Haraway Reads “The National Geographic” On Primates (1987). [A close shot of a greetings card, in which a gorilla in bed is clutching his bed sheets in modesty, as the enormous head of a blond woman peers curiously through the window. A King Kong reversal.]

It’s possible that these sets of questions can’t be answered, that there’s no such thing as a non-human lens in human-produced film, and that cinema’s historiography and captive foundations will never permit it to exit beyond the inherently anthropocentric gaze it commits to film. Nonetheless, films willing to revel in the captivating and sometimes problematic liminality of the at-once failure, at-once unique ability, of cinema to approach such topics are certainly well-received and embody worthwhile pursuits toward what a non-human lens could come to represent. In continuing to frame the dangers in simply “reversing” the power dynamics at play, Haraway ends by saying that such an oppositional politics might look like a “re-coding” of nature, and that these re-codings “have to be unwinding, rewinding, and decodings, and re-codings, that again, and again, and again make clear to us the contradictions of race, sex, and class, in what gets to count as nature, for whom, and at what price.” As evidenced by Haraway’s literal and literary unwinding of human/non-human twine on public access television — alongside a “gorilla” pointing a mirror back at the camera, a recoating or re-cording of the mirror’s surface — video and film possess interesting opportunities to dwell on what it could mean to hold such a mirror to our own human-centric gaze in pursuit of such thing as a lens through which to see (and be with) the non-human world around us.

“So it could teach me to tirelessly touch with my gaze the distance from me at which the other begins.”6 —Serge Daney 

[1] Ramos, Filipa. “Looking at Animals.” In Theater, Garden, Bestiary: a Materialist History of Exhibitions, edited by Vincent Normand and Tristan Garcia. Lausanne: ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne, 2019.

[2] Mullan, Bob, and Garry Marvin. 1999. Zoo Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

[3] Haraway, Donna Jeanne. 2009. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minne- sota Press.

[4] Anna Tsing; Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species: For Donna Haraway. Environmental Humanities 1 May 2012; 1 (1): 141–154. doi: https://doi. org/10.1215/22011919-3610012.

[5] Hubert-Brierre, Xavier. 2015. “This Silverback Thinks This Intruder In The Mirror (His Own Reflection) Comes To Steal His Wives”. Youtube. com/watch?v=tz0avWZoqjg.

[6] The Tracking Shot in Kapo by Serge Daney, translation by Laurent Kretzschmar. Sense of Cinema ( via Marine Hugonnier in BOMB (

Jacob Lindgren is a graphic designer, web developer, and artist living in Chicago with an interest in exploring the ways knowledge and visual language are circulated across and mediated by (hi)storytelling technologies. He is a partner at the design studio Platform, a co-founder of the bookshop Inga, and working with the Anthropocene Commons network.