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These photographs are from my book With Animals, the title of which comes from a line in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “I think I could turn and live with animals…” All the images were taken with a Leica M6 or Leica M7 (I still shoot film) on my travels to Brazil, Peru, and Cuba.
Animals have always been part of my life. I attribute this to growing up in rural Georgia in the forties and fifties. I lived in what we always called “town,” rather than in the “country,” but I was close enough for my childhood to teach me to hear the crow of a rooster, to gather eggs from laying hens, to keep, if only briefly, a baby goat for a pet. Above all, those years taught me to see “the terrible beauty,” to appropriate the words of the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, of man and mule yoked to the rhythm of the seasons by the plow cutting through the cotton-producing earth. At twelve, I felt the visual poetry of such a scene enough to ask my father to buy me a mule so that I could participate in the beauty. Quickly, he reminded me of the terrible: “Plowing is hot and hard. You’d last about five minutes in that blazing sun.”
I have been an urban dweller almost all of my adult life, yet today when I see a llama outlined against the Peruvian peaks of Machu Picchu or a shepherd sitting with his dog on the slopes above his grazing sheep, I am transported back to my past. Perhaps I belong to the last generation of American southerners whose formative experiences were rural. And perhaps many of my photographs are attempts to re-construct and re-connect with those experiences. Call it nostalgia. But hopefully it’s not a superficial “longing for the good old days” that never were, but an awareness of and a desire to capture the inter-connectedness of animals, human beings, and the earth.
While a love for animals and what they represent may be the primary reason I am drawn to photographing them, there are other reasons I must mention. I have always been an observer, an introvert more apt to keep my distance before taking slow and careful steps toward intimacy or involvement. That is, perhaps, part of the explanation for my having always been comfortable holding a camera in front of my eye.
Yet, as the observer, I am aware that the same camera that offers me protection against involvement can, paradoxically, become an instrument of aggression. As a photographer, I am aware that, similar to the writer who constructs characters, I am constructing an image and not simply capturing a slice of observed reality. By choosing my distance, along with my aperture and shutter speed, I determine what the center of the focus is, what is included in and excluded from the frame. And when people are included in the frame, there is no way to escape the fact that the entire process can turn subjects into objects. Perhaps in some ways that is but modern theoretical language for saying what the ancients believed, that a picture makes the soul captive. To photograph in a culture not my own, something I do often, can exacerbate the problem because surface differences can beckon to the eye. Like the nameless grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I can easily glance out the car window and announce that the “cute,” scantily dressed child not of my race or culture is a good subject for a photograph.
That awareness of my potential to treat the individual toward whom I point my camera as “the other” can sometimes inhibit me. I may even put the camera down for fear of being an aggressor behind my protective lens. Animals, though, can often change the equation. If I see a person stroking a pig, riding a horse or donkey, or herding sheep or goats, instead of equivocating, I’ll dash to click the shutter. I don’t turn a blind eye toward either human consumption of or human cruelty toward animals, but in most scenes of human/animal interaction, however, I see commonality rather than otherness: a shared love for, at least a bond with, animals.—Willard Pate
Willard Pate was born and spent a good portion of her formative years in Hawkinsville, Georgia. She received her Ph.D. In English from Emory University in Atlanta. At present, she teaches the literature of the American South at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. While she is passionate about introducing her students to the works of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, she is equally passionate about photography, an avocation she has had since she was a child. She has had several solo shows in the southeast and has been in a number of group shows throughout the United States and Europe. Her work is found in private collections in the US and England, including Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.