When we think of animal photography most of us think of National Geographic‘s crystal-clear close-ups or, in a more contemporary light, we think of cat mustaches or particularly silly-looking dogs. Finnish photographer Perttu Saksa takes a different kind of animal photography with his 2013 show A Kind of You proving just how jarring and haunting animal photographs can be without being gruesome or frivolous. Mr Saksa took on the project as a means to feature monkeys who perform in the ages-old tradition in Indonesia (and a handful of other countries) known as topeng monyet. Though the tradition, wherein street performers use monkeys dressed in outfits and masks to do tricks and bolster daily earnings, is in the process of being banned in Jakarta, the questions the photos raise about humankind’s relationship with the animal world are worth considering. Mr Saksa took these pictures with the assistance of the “monkey masters” themselves, in natural and staged settings, intentionally blurring the line between natural environment and urban setting.
I respect Mr Saksa’s decision to leave the owners of these monkeys out of the photos, as it would be far too easy for observers to demonize an individual who is caught in a tough system and probably forego asking any of the questions that the photographer is clearly asking himself; How poorly are we willing to treat animas just to make a little money? Does covering a poorly-treated monkey’s face with a hollowed out doll’s head help us to look past its suffering? Does it make the monkey more relatable? Do we regret the bondage they are in because we would rather see them “looking cute”? Mr Saksa’s patience must be commended as the straight-ahead look from the monkeys immortalizes this tradition (even if it is banned everywhere tomorrow) in a set of portraits meant to make us squirm a little, meant to create an obvious gulf between the viewer and the image; not only between human and monkey, but between viewer and subject, and between slavery and freedom.
Please don’t be afraid of the questions that you are confronted with as you look at these photos and don’t forget that they are supposed to make you think and feel. Don’t forget that art might not always make us feel good, but it should make us feel something.