Many people might think it’s mildly amusing. Others might find it in bad taste. A few might even say that the poor beasts should be allowed their privacy. I think it’s a stunning photograph that exposes deep truths about human nature–truths that had been so forgotten that they now have to be rediscovered as if they were radical, forward-thinking innovations. But I’m getting ahead of the story. And no story should get in the way of experiencing the shock that I experienced when first seeing this image. The shock of recognition that can only come from seeing humanity mirrored in another species.
I’m not talking about the sex. This is not the 1850s (or the 1950s), and there is nothing to be gained by saying that, gasp, sex is an animal act. (That’s why the image could only pass as a feeble joke.) No, I’m talking about the skeleton and musculature revealed by the loose skin, and the crouch that could just as easily be seen at a starting line, and bumps, scars, and wrinkles that can be found on any body of a certain age, and the unhurried, familiar coordination of the two individuals, and the strange combination of uncertainty or even anxiety on that oversize head. He is both not-us and just like us.
One can see how earlier lions were transposed into the half-human figures created for gargoyles and bestiaries. Those visual artifacts were capturing something that was sensed when the keeping, breeding, killing, and butchering of animals was a much more visceral part of everyday life. Something all but forgotten in a world where kids think food comes from the store, and adults think that human beings are only incidentally animals, a species still encumbered with mortal bodies but otherwise not defined by them.
This photograph was taken at night, but the black and white print has additional resonance. It seems to me that there’s been more black and white work showing up in the slide shows lately, so perhaps there are some things that can’t be said as well in color. Black and white carries the tone of documentary truth, but that isn’t needed here; instead, I think the photo channels the emotional orientation of an earlier photographic humanism. Not least, the humanism of The Family of Man, which reopened recently as a permanent display in Luxembourg. But that humanism has become dated, for it relied on a strong distinction between humans and other species. By contrast, I think the image above is one example of how humanism can be reconstituted as a mode of trans-species identification.
Obviously, “humanism” no longer is the right word, but let’s keep it for a moment as a placeholder. (For the record, there are other terms emerging that do some, but not all, of the work that is needed: see, for example, trans-species psychology.) The point is to see what is held in common across species–that skeleton, for example–and consider just how deep a connection it represents in evolutionary history, social affinity, and much more, and then to consider the implications for understanding human beings and their relationships to each other and the rest of the planet.
So, once again, it’s not about the sex. The common bond that we see between the two animals mating is a metaphor for something larger–and closer to the bone.
Photograph by Michael Nichols, from the National Geographic photo essay on The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion.