Revisiting the Human in These Multispecies Landscapes

By Jared Margulies, University of Maryland Baltimore County, photographs by Indra Kumar, reproduced with permission §

Indra shows me some photographs he’s taken recently of a variety of animals. I’m sitting with him as he explains why he took each picture, what he likes (or doesn’t) in each photograph, and their technical merits. These photographs are strictly wildlife photographs—well-composed shots of birds at sunset, an egret and its reflection in a pool of water, an elephant in the forest. Others he takes as part of his job with a local NGO, documenting livestock killed by leopards and tigers to assist people in receiving compensation for their losses. But some of his photographs center around what is absent from the frame.


Piling hay in the afternoon. Indra Kumar, Living with Wildlife in Mangala Project.

In the photograph above, Indra captured a moment of laughter on a man’s face during harvest. He tells me he didn’t take the photograph only to document the men pictured though, but what we cannot see. Earlier in the morning, over a small hill to the left in the picture, a leopard killed a man’s milk cow while he was just a few minutes walk away working in a neighboring field. The cow was worth nearly $450.00 and earned the man about $2.50 a day from the milk he can sell. If and when he receives any compensation from the government it will be for far less than the value of the cow (typically around $75.00) and will not represent the loss of income from milk sales in the interim.

Head of a cow killed by a leopard. Indra Kumar, Living with Wildlife in Mangala Project.

 Indira tells me quite a few stories like this; he has a knack for taking pictures that are beautiful, often misleadingly so. His photographs of herders capture the genuine grief many of them feel when they lose an animal, not only because of their economic value, but because there are also strong emotional bonds between them. When placed alongside Indra’s photographs of livestock killed by leopards and tigers, they become a powerful diptych of loss. They speak to the ways in which narratives about “species” are shot through by narratives about the “singular” animal and vice versa.

 Experiments in multispecies methods

Incorporating photography by others into my research process has revealed personal perspectives and experiences of living with wildlife that often differ across caste, gender, and occupational lines. On a practical level, these photographs serve as a tool for developing conversational space about human-animal relations through the context of the frame. In this landscape, the particular relations that are forged between humans and animals are always influenced by classifications of space and spatial boundaries; where the forest begins and ends; where compensation will be given (or not), where development can or cannot happen; what kind of barriers separate “wild” from “domestic” space. The photographs and the discussions that flow from them offer an opportunity for fleshing out more of these spatial relations between humans and animals in a landscape in which animals must be taken seriously as political subjects: both in terms of species, and as individual subjects.

In my conversations with participants, it is not necessarily the general threat of leopards or tigers that is often discussed, but when and where a particular animal, behaving in a particular way, is seen (or heard), and what type of threat they might pose. The photographs serve to relate the stories of humans and their engagements with animals as individuals. I’m reminded of the charge put forward by Kersty Hobson, writing in Political Geography, “if political ecology’s central tenet is social justice, and we acknowledge that animals play some role in enactments of injustice, then how animals are constituted as subjects of justice (or not) is an important analytical question” (2006: 255). Where the narratives of animals as individuals collides with the classification of species as governable categories is an important space for thinking critically about animals as political subjects.

A multi-species approach to studying this political landscape of animal conservation requires a relational accounting of animals beyond the population or species level to consider animals as lively political subjects rather than only as (un)governable objects. Doing so, as others on this blog have discussed (and see Hodgetts and Lorimer, 2014), can be difficult work, especially for those without formal training or capacity in ethology or ecology (or the necessary research permissions, for that matter). For this reason, such work often happens alongside, or in collaboration with research teams conducting ecological research with particular species of interest. In these cases, the understanding of the animal is therefore often filtered through the process of constituting the animal as a techno-scientific research subject and observing the animal-scientist relationship (e.g. Lowe, 2004; Barua, 2014). These types of collaborations hold great promise for increasing the more-than-human research and writing that so many of us desire to see and hope to produce, in addition to producing the exciting cross-disciplinary fertilization we all intuitively know is still lacking.

While I am inspired by such projects, I am also interested in looking beyond the scope of scientific knowledge-making processes in order to learn something about how animals are constituted as political subjects. As I described above, I’ve turned to the dispersal of cameras to a diverse group of people to investigate how photographs can act as another conduit through which human-animal encounters can be examined. While this approach does little to de-center the human subject in my research, what unfolds in conversation reveals the diversity of ways in which particular kinds of human-animal relations are forged in the landscape. It also reveals how vital the human in this relation is, especially as pertains questions of justice.

Fresh sloth bear prints in the mud seen on the way to work. Indra Kumar, Living with Wildlife in Mangala Project.

Consider one of Indra’s images shown above. The sloth bear’s pugmarks are trapped in the mud while it is out walking to a nearby waterhole at night, and Indra came across it the next day. “The sloth bear is the only animal we can’t really predict, we never know what it might do,” he tells me. Others have said this to me as well, that while some sloth bears run away from humans, others will attack if they feel threatened. I’ve heard stories from the local hospital of people coming into the emergency room with their faces torn away from their skulls by a bear; their capacity for violence is very real, but their propensity for doing so is erratic.

The stories pile up, and in the telling of all of these stories, the human-animal encounter isn’t always a deathly one, or one mediated through the loss of an important domestic animal, but many are because of the demographic and occupational realities of the people living here. Others’ photographs are of the landscape itself, of hills and trees with particular religious significance, or plants with important medicinal properties. They are photographs of a beautiful place where human-animal encounters strongly shape the meaning of justice and how justice is enacted differently across space.

If an accounting of animal individuality allows for examining how animals can be and become political subjects, then the processes whereby animals become populations for management and what is meant by the expression of population require more consideration,. Like many conservation landscapes, the basic management of animal space in the Mangala landscape emerges from a species-centric theorizing of the animal.[i] When an animal “goes rogue,” “becomes a man-eater,” or “strays outside,” their capacity for “acting out” is recognized by those who are responsible for their management, but the animal remains framed within a spatial discourse not of its own making. Photographs (and video), among other methods, have the capacity for offering different ways of seeing and thinking of animal space in relation to the human. While the choice of what is and is not included within the frame of a picture remains squarely with the (human) photographer, the relations described between the individual photographer and the animal subject are particular in ways that create fissures in the categorizations of animal spaces by those in charge of their management and the politics the animals thereby carry with them. What is classified as transgressive behavior by the animal becomes something else when viewed as everyday acts that resist prescribed spatial management goals. These classifications can carry vital implications; in extreme cases, who or what lives and dies. In employing photography as an analytical method, I am trying to contribute to an accounting of animals as complex political subjects that can speak to their capacity to relate as individuals to the humans with whom they share space.

[i] This history is of course a massive topic in and of itself that I can’t go into detail here. In the case of India writ large, Michael Lewis’ 2003 book “Inventing Global Ecology: tracking the biodiversity ideal in India 1947-1997” is a valuable resource.

Works Cited:

Barua, M. (2016). Lively commodities and encounter value. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 0263775815626420.
Hobson, K. (2007). Political animals? On animals as subjects in an enlarged political geography. Political Geography, 26(3), 250–267.
Hodgetts, T., & Lorimer, J. (2014). Methodologies for animals’ geographies: cultures, communication and genomics. Cultural Geographies, 22(2), 285-295.
Lowe, C. (2004). Making the monkey: how the Togean macaque went from “new form” to “endemic species” in Indonesians’ conservation biology. Cultural Anthropology19(4), 491-516.

Jared Margulies is a PhD Candidate in Geography and Environmental Systems at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He is currently funded through a Fulbright-Nehru Student Research Grant.
Indra Kumar is from Mangala, Karnataka where he is the manager of Temple Tree Designs and Trustee of the Mariamma Charitable Trust.

 This post is a part of the “Reports from the Field” series.