Tag Archives: Edmund Husserl

Phenomenology and a Day at the Omaha Zoo

I hate zoos. Animals shouldn’t be confined and put on display for our amusement. That being said, this past summer I spent a day at the Omaha Zoo, it being, I’m told, “world famous.” I’d have been perfectly happy to sit for the day in our hipster hotel room in downtown Omaha drinking bourbon while the wife went to visit family. Instead, I was dragooned into visiting the zoo. You’ll have fun, she said. Remember that guy who took photos at the zoo, the guy who you like who took all the crazy street photos, she asked. Why not do the same. Take your camera and see what you come up with, she said. It’ll be fun. I had been giving animals a lot of thought recently, so I figured, what the hell, let’s go to the Zoo.

During that time I’d been reading in a philosophical movement known as “Phenomenology,” and specifically the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and the Swede Jakob Uexkull. In 1934 Uexkull published A Foray into the World of Animals and Humans, much of it based on ideas first elaborated by Husserl, which established what is now known as ‘biosemiotics,’ a fancy word for the premise, based on Phenomenologist thinking, that you must first understand the animal’s environment, its “umwelt” (literally its “around-world”), before you could have any sense of what it might be like to be that animal. The animal is its umwelt. This has obvious implications for housing non-human animals in zoos. If your intent is to understand the animal as it exists in nature, the one on display in a zoo enclosure won’t help, because it’s not that animal. Their respective umwelts are completely different.

The art critic John Berger, the guy who wrote the iconic “Ways of Seeing” in 1971, recently wrote an essay “Why look at Animals?” (2009). In it, he argued that zoos are emblematic of western society’s disenchanted worldview, where science has stripped away the basic ‘Being’ of animals, considering them devoid of any interiority. As such, house them where you will; they’re all the same wherever they live. They’re machines made of meat, inert things to observe and exploit rather than creatures who have a life and with whom we might share a life. Instead of acknowledging their being and sharing a world with them, we capture them and exhibit them in museums we call ‘zoos,’ where they become an object whose sole use is to be gazed at. In attempting to understand them, we negate them. It’s all very sad. This sadness, essentially, was Gary Winogrand’s point in his first published book of photography, The Animals (1969).

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Winogrand, from The Animals. This Photo Makes Me Sooo Sad.

So, as I walked through the Omaha zoo, camera in hand, I was thinking about non-human animals and umwelts and Husserl and Uexkull and Winogrand. I wanted to be more cognizant of the being of the animals I observed… and more deliberate in my photographic response to them than Winogrand probably had been. I wanted to ‘think’ my photographs, to ‘see’ photographs that reflected the big ideas I carried around in my head. I had my Sigma Merrill, which is slow and encourages slow contemplative technique. No point and shoot. Rather, consider, evaluate, compose, reevaluate, recompose, shoot…and then wait as the camera processes the massive file. Then start again. If I took 30 photos while at the zoo, that’d be a good day’s work. Not much different from the film photography I’d grown up with.

While in the zoo’s aquarium, I noticed a guy with 2 DSLR’s hanging from his neck, enormous lenses mounted on both. Typical meatball, probably with a social media feed full of photos of sunsets. I watched him hold his camera up and heard the rapid clacking of a modern DSLR in burst mode. He must have fired off 15 shots in a second or two, put the camera down, and walked to the next exhibit, where he did the same thing. I saw him again later, outside, standing in front of the zebra pen, burst shooting at a zebra standing forlornly in the enclosure’s far corner. What’s it like to be that kind of photographer, I wondered?

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Edmund Husserl says we create our umwelt by the attention we pay. Our realities are unique to us, created in the space we live in as opposed to some objective geometric space, in lived time as opposed to clock time. For Husserl, all experience necessarily involves a subjectivity the quality of which creates the experience itself. In effect, we get to choose our reality by choosing how we attend to it. In watching this guy with his cameras, I couldn’t help but think of the lessons I’d been taught reading the phenomenology of Husserl and Uexkull, of how you choose to structure your embodied experience in the world, and how that choice creates meaning, what Husserl calls your ‘lifeworld;’ how the experience of embodiment – bodily spatiality, but also attention and agency – affects the quality of your reality, your umwelt.

Me. At My Fancy Downtown Art-Deco Hotel. Creating My Umwelt. This is what my Wife Dragged Me From to Go to the Zoo.

What would have been DSLR guy’s experience? It certainly couldn’t have provided him the same experience of a more thoughtful photographer – someone slower and more nuanced, someone paying attention and attuned to his tools and his subject matter. I thought of how an hour really looking, attuned to the subtle changes of light and shade, the play of forms as people move about, the aesthetics of their groupings, the search for that one instant that makes a photo – the ‘decisive moment’ to use the overburdened cliche – contrasted with an hour hustling through that same landscape reflexively pointing one’s camera at things in 11 fps burst mode. I pondered the umwelt of the person who off-loads aesthetic decisions to burst-mode, how his disembodied interaction with his tools shapes his experience of his photographic act and environment. My experience versus DSLR guy’s experience. Both of our hours at the zoo, camera in hand, consisted of the same number of minutes ostensibly engaged in the same activity; however, I suspect that our respective lived experience differed as night does day.