These photographs depict birds that have been temporarily caught in mist nets during ornithological research. It is a unique moment, just before a researcher removes the bird from the net to be weighed and measured (and thus the bird becomes quantified by these concise numbers). The bird is then released and flies away, disappearing back into the forest as well as into the data the scientists have gathered. In these nets the birds dangle between our framework of ‘the bird in the hand and the bird in the bush,’ the wild animal seems neither known nor unknown. I have sought out this moment as a space to consider our values and balance our empathy with our capability to think abstractly.
The captured creatures look embarrassed, fearful, angry, and vulnerable. It is clearly an uncomfortable moment for them. Yet the process has a remarkably low causality rate and the overwhelming majority of ornithologists believe the technique is essential to helping us understand birds and bird populations (and I agree with them). This research has undoubtedly contributed to our knowledge of these creatures in ways that have helped to conserve them and provided data that show how and why their populations are in decline. I hope viewers can find beauty in this strange and privileged view, between their empathy with the struggling individual birds and their more abstract concerns about environmental issues.
My decision to photograph birds in this way also developed from my longstanding interest in birdwatching colliding with my studies of biology and art history. The first pieces of artwork I loved were two books full of bird paintings: John James Audubon’s Birds of America and Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Alongside personal observation, these books are how I learned about birds. In my photographs, I strive to continue this art historic trajectory and celebrate of the work being done by today’s ornithological researchers.
To create his paintings, John James Audubon (1785-1851) shot birds and contorted their bodies into dramatic poses by wiring and pinning them onto boards. The quirky and oftentimes unnatural postures were not immediately popular with the scientific community, but Audubon was on a romantic quest: his goal was to paint (and shoot) all the birds in America. Indeed, it was the scope of his quest as well as his skills with the paintbrush that have made Audubon such a famed ornithological painter. Today many bird-watchers share a similar goal to Audubon: to record every species in the country on their personal ‘life lists.’ My photographs are a reflection on this need to personally see, observe, and capture diversity.
My photographs are also a reflection on our desire to name, classify, and quantify diversity. It was Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996) who pioneered the idea of a field guide. His guides highlight observable marks, pointed out by carefully placed arrows, which allow for the identification of birds at a distance. Peterson painted thousands of systematic illustrations of birds in static poses, which he based on photographs, bird skins, and field observations. Field guides have allowed hobbyists, artists, and scientists to identify birds with binoculars instead of a shotgun.
Ornithologists now use mist nets to gather data that cannot be obtained with the help of binoculars, microphones, or telephoto lenses. These nearly invisible nets are set up like fences and function as huge spider webs, catching unsuspecting birds. The researcher carefully extracts the bird from the net. Each bird is then measured, aged, sexed, and banded with an individually numbered anklet. Then the bird is released, back into the wild. I hope that my images reflect the struggle to gain this intimate data and the different ways that this information can be used to create abstract understanding of these species. As the data gathered by scientists grows, it can offer profound insights. When depicted by these complicated numbers, the individual birds become abstracted and we can consider ideas about populations and species. This intimate knowledge is a powerful tool that is used to make decisions about conservation and answer other ecological questions.