Don called with a panic in his voice.
“You’ll never believe it. Pick up this month’s issue of Oprah’s magazine, and turn to page 149. There is a picture of an elephant painting a giant ‘O’.”
When I got my hands on a copy, I of course already knew what to expect, but still found it troubling to see. There it was. Just as Don had described.
The June 2009 edition of O Magazine is dubbed “The Animal Issue”. Included are many sweet, poignant articles that draw parallels between humans and other animals. On many levels the “Look, They’re Just Like Us!” approach can work. If you’re not careful though, it can backfire.
Surely, whoever was directly or indirectly responsible for this image – the photo editor, the creative director, Oprah herself, etc. – had good intentions. On its surface, a photo of an elephant painting triggers a range of emotions, from fascination to joy to awe. And it seems harmless, right?
Except, when you fail to think critically about what you’re being shown, or not being shown, you can miss the big picture entirely. And, Don and I should know.
Two years ago, when we were shooting the first half of LEiT in Thailand, we had no idea what it meant for an elephant to paint. In fact, like most well-intentioned visitors with a place in our hearts for animals, we thought it was very impressive. We then realized how we and other tourists were being manipulated, and worse, how these elephants were trained to paint. Then, we only felt angry and duped.
Manipulation 1: Elephants do not paint figurative images on their own. They are being controlled by a human.
Since there is no information about the actual image in O Magazine (Who is this elephant? Where does it live?) viewers are left to assume a lot. Understandably, many assume the elephant, on its own, painted the picture.
Not true. Like most still images or video footage of elephants painting, the photo is cropped very strategically. The edges of the frame cut out the elephant’s handler, who by holding on to the ear, tusk, or small tush of the animal, is actually controlling the movements of the brush. When painting in front of an audience, the elephant is positioned to hide the trainer from the crowd.
Take, for instance, this video showcasing an elephant painting an elephant.
The frame never reveals the human trainer who is actually standing on the opposite side of the animal, controlling the movements. And many of the 10,000 YouTube viewers to date are under the impression that the elephant was painting independently. It’s just not true.
The idea that elephants are “intelligent” and “creative” because they paint is bogus. Elephants are intelligent, but not in the warped, anthropomorphic way this trick ascribes.
Abstract paintings are a combination of markings that the elephant did likely make on their own. However, they still did not just pick up a brush and begin painting. They were trained to hold the brush and perform the task. So, what happened before the elephant was submissive enough to follow these directions?
Manipulation 2: Training
What goes on before an elephant is willing to abandon its instincts and freedoms as a wild animal, and submit to a human being, remains behind the scenes for a reason.
In LEiT, there is footage of the traditional methods used to train elephants in Thailand. Our hope is that once people are exposed to what is actually happening to domesticated elephants, tricks like “painting” or standing on their hind legs will be significantly less mesmerizing. Once you know what it took to get them to behave this way, it’s just not appealing anymore.
Manipulation 3: Is this even a real fake?
Having seen many figurative paintings done by elephants (via the control of the handler, of course) I am very suspicious that this is actually one. The stroke movements seem too precise, and the shape too symmetrical. Admittedly, I have no way of knowing this for sure. There is no information about the picture provided. But I would not be surprised if it was entirely staged. Thus, further manipulating the viewer.
This is no reason to backlash against O Magazine or Oprah Winfrey herself. And that is not what we’re doing. If anything, this is proof that there is work to be done, even here in America. This image provides an opportunity for us to give direct feedback and share what we now know.
So, on that note: Thanks, O
UPDATE TO POST:
I googled the photo credit hidden in the crevice of the magazine’s spine:
“Stuart Westmorland / Getty Images”
And came across this:
It was staged! That is the same picture and the O was added later, further removing this image from the truth. Wow.
(original image found here: http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/200484400-001/The-Image-Bank)