THE FIELDWORK OF LOOKING AND SEEING
ESSAY BY ASHLEY HAY
When I was younger, I spent a lot of time wondering how other people saw things. That colour I saw as blue in the sky, in the ocean, in the royal brightness of my school uniform: did other people see it the same way? If I stood with someone and looked at my favourite painting, did they see it as I did – or did we each see whatever most pleased our imaginations? As for those people themselves, they were a whole separate line of inquiry – what I saw of them; what they saw of me. Could we possibly see that same complex world, all those colours and patterns and intersections?
I read something the other day that described one animal seeing another – a whole new species – for the first time. Exquisitely described, particularly the first animal’s incomprehension of what the second one could be, it made me think about how very few surprising things we see these days. We know what other places look like, even those we’ve never visited. We know what other people look like, even those we’ve never met. We even know what things look like when they’ve been imagined by other people, because we see them realised in films, on television, in all kinds of images.
And when we don’t know what something will look like, we tend to fall back on the things we suspect they’ll most resemble. We interpret new things in terms of familiar ones: the whole Linnean system of taxonomy depends, in many ways, on this compare and contrast approach. In a way, we fall back on our clichés.
Almost 60 years ago, the anthropologist Margaret Mead described a scientist – necessarily male, she felt – as someone who “wears a white coat and works in a laboratory. He is elderly or middle aged and wears glasses … He may wear a beard, may be … unkempt … He is surrounded by equipment”. And most children agree with that shorthand: ask them to take a “draw-a-scientist-test”, and they almost uniformly produce an image of a man in a lab coat with glasses and a beard, surrounded by test-tube-ish things and other equipment. Quite often, they include a speech bubble that says “eureka”.[i]
This is how we understand researchers to look – when we don’t know; when we’re not sure who they are or what they do. But look here: a man sits on the edge of a cliff, a night sky with its stars above and the single-line signature of some fast high-in-the-sky movement. A woman leans down towards the surface of the sea, her reflection reshaped by the grey-glass water. A man stands with a bird on his arm – both man and bird still beyond the freezing of this frame. A woman looks out beyond an edge we can’t see while vast clouds bank behind her in a too-close sky.
Here they are, pinned to paper as securely as any Linnean specimens: a concurrence of researchers. Us looking at them – and them looking at the landscape that contributes to their professional lives. Not a lab coat or a test-tube in sight. And all these people – all the people in this Wild Researchers suite by Tamara Dean – work in the worlds of science and research in fields as diverse as Indigenous astronomy (Duane Hamacher), marine ecology (Adriana Vergés), philosophy (Thom van Dooren) and climate science (Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick).
The things they seek to understand through the data their landscapes contain – in Australia and around the world – are intrinsic to their work. They seek the appearance of meteors, supernovae, aurorae and more in Indigenous Australian traditions. The restoration of underwater forests. The ethical impacts of the extinctions and resurgences of various species of crow. The heatwaves of the future. And these landscapes – those above, and those below – feed both the questions they ask and, often, the means they have of answering them.
For years, Tamara Dean recorded the world for the news, her creative work carefully corralled. As a staff photographer with The Sydney Morning Herald her portfolio ranged from protests to terrorists to disasters to arrests to portraits to tsunamis and more. Immersed entirely in her own artistic practice since 2014, she records the world still – leaning more towards some of its particular places and the ways in which people connect to them, or cherish them, or are inspired by them. She slates this to a childhood spent on the edge of a nature reserve in Sydney, imprinted by its smells and its sounds. These “shaped a part of me,” she says, “and ever since I’ve been trying to bring that back into my life”.
She’s spoken of a sense of “conjuring” something – “finding images in the air and light. Waiting for energetic points to come to a head … holding for breath … pausing for space” in the context of other photographic series she’s created.[ii] And there’s a sense of this in her work here too – and of a certain grandeur. There’s something vast in their conception: they evoke the richness of painted canvases, or perhaps something cinematic. The same grandeur imbues their poses and their grace.
“Heroic” is how she describes it. A quest to “represent the ways these people related to landscapes in a way that makes a heroic image of them and the way that they work”.
These words are not the usual descriptors of fieldwork – fieldwork is a thing of busyness, of collection, of immersion, of data. Yet fieldwork is a necessarily various thing too. Fieldwork has required Thom van Dooren to dress up as a whooping crane so as to be able to spend time with these critically endangered birds without introducing them or habituating them to humans. He calls the work he does “field philosophy” and finds it very difficult to “think philosophically without a connection to the landscape”. Fieldwork has required Duane Hamacher to visit places that he knows few others have experienced, and have conversations with Aboriginal people about things they take as common knowledge that he knows have never been recorded – about sites aligned to the Milky Way; about meteorites that struck this continent more than 4,000 years ago. And fieldwork removes Adriana Vergés from our sight altogether; she’s submerged in the water, at the bottom of the harbour, at work – in her element – down there.
That perfectly placed streak above Duane Hamacher’s head is not an utterly apposite astronomical phenomena but the result of shooting the image near the “aeroplane superhighway” of Sydney’s airport approach – a site close to rock carvings Hamacher has used in his work. “That Tamara managed to capture the plane trail at exactly the right angle and right overhead …” he trails off like a light in the sky.
For Tamara Dean, the image of climate scientist Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick utilises “the perfect landscape … to give a sense of the scale of her work”. Whereas for Sarah – whose heatwaves are wrangled entirely from modelled information rather than the field – “I don’t always picture them as sand dunes, but in my mind they definitely look very dry … brown grass and sickly looking trees, and landscapes with reduced water levels in rivers and dams. If it’s city data I’m looking at, I think of tar melting on roads and people’s ice creams melting …” The image itself, she finds “rather emotive – it symbolises my field of research perfectly, and it also shows that I’m a tiny speck in this massive field – though perhaps still an important one. It’s a large field and we need to research more of it.”
If I could have any piece of knowledge, I would ask for what these subjects thought about as they sat still – pinned, pressed – while Tamara Dean fixed these richly made images. I would ask for the train of thought that looped and twisted through those minutes: Hayley Bates remembers hers. To sit and look at the landscape without having to undertake the work that she usually associates with it – “checking traps, catching animals or conducting habitat surveys; focusing on collecting data and making observations” – allowed her to look around and immerse herself in the beauty of the landscape she was in. When she’s not there, she says, she thinks of that place, the Snowy Mountains, with pure awe.
In his recent book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, the usually peripatetic Pico Iyer writes of “sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it”. Sitting still is the natural companion of photography – even in an age when enthusiasts can meditate on the possibility of an f/0.1 lens comprised of a 35mm lens with a 350mm aperture diameter.[iii] But the stillness, of course, is an illusion – and not just in terms of how fast a frame can snap these days, impossible to conceive of when 19th-century subjects were strapped into torturous metal frames to hold them still for their photographs.
And the eye, too, is a jittery thing of busyness: for all our sense of a lingering gaze, or of total concentration, the eye – as Russian ophthalmologist Alfred L. Yarbus demonstrated in the 1960s – “even when seemingly fixed on the most stationary of objects … drifts away and back again, jumps from side to side, and hovers around, but not on, the point of focus”. He called these movements “saccades”, discovering, beyond them, that to still an eye of its activity was to institute a state of blindness for as long as that stillness lasts.[iv]
An eye not able to move is an eye not able to see.
We may be a long way past philosophical and spiritual suspicions that photography is capable of capturing, perhaps even stealing, its subjects’ souls, but Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous designation of each frame as “the decisive moment” still feels true. “What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality,” Cartier-Bresson wrote in 1952; “what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye.”[v]
In this way, photographs catch and store something essential: the images themselves and all their different components, and the stories that the photographer – the artist – hopes these frames will transmit. And the loveliest thing? If you can’t see those stories straight up, you can always imagine your own versions. Imagine sitting on that night-lit ridge with Duane Hamacher; imagine the stories told to him by Aboriginal people about the skies above and the narratives they’d shaped for the earth below. Imagine standing in that water with those three chilly mathematicians – literally dipped into the information they unravel and expound at their work each day. Imagine standing in an empty field with Thom van Dooren – trying to think on it the way he does – with or without attendant crow.
This wondering, this imagining, is an important part of what’s on show in these frames and that seems an important thing to bear in mind. In a 1996 address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Gerald Holton – professor of physics and emeritus professor of the history of science at Harvard – spoke of “the early, nascent phase of an individual’s research”, the “private science”, he termed it, “before results are cleaned up and, as Louis Pasteur put it, made to look inevitable, that is, before they become science in that other sense, namely ‘public science’”. What was at work in this private and arguably more meditative time? Certainly there were a scientist’s tools of the trade: “perseverance, the use of one’s rational faculties while forming and testing hypotheses, mathematics and instrumentation, judicious modeling, looking skeptically for flaws or disconfirmations”.
But there was something else going on too, he thought, something more that could explain “the daring and risky leaps of speculation that are often the crucial ingredient, or even the initial impetus, for a project”. That something else, he thought, was a suite of “complementary forces” that he characterised as “an art of the imagination”.[vi]
Imagination: it’s not the first word usually associated with research – with science itself – but it’s a vital one. Perhaps these images can serve as new shorthand for the richness and necessity of its load. These workers paused and caught in a landscape they help to define.
Part of van Dooren’s work – as the only researcher from the humanities side of the fence in this cohort – has engaged with “philopatry”, as biologists term the tendency of some animals to remain in or return to a home range, a special place. Gazing across these rich images – across dunes and caves and nights and days and development and wilderness and water – it seems a word worth thinking about, too, not only in the contexts of these researchers and their specialties but also in the context of the world on which they draw. It’s our place, all of it, whichever of its tiny constituent parts we choose to register as particular, unique or sacred; the kind we’d show Tamara Dean as our own special sites.
Each of these investigators works with place through the particular prism of their discipline, their interests, their own unique research questions. They’re an answer to my childhood question of whether our eyes see differently, and the answer, in the context of their different and complex work, is yes. They’re the people who work with our world, all its pieces, so intimately and individually, to understand and reveal more that’s there, to contribute to an extraordinary and ongoing accretion of knowledge.
To lay bare, piece by piece, its complexities.
[vi] Holton, in Daedalus vol. 125, no. 2 (Spring 1996), p.184
Ashley Hay is a journalist and author of six books including non-fiction titles Gum and Museum (with visual artist Robyn Stacey), and her latest novel, The Railwayman's Wife, which won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies' Colin Roderick Award and the People's Choice Award at the 2014 NSW Premier's Prize. Her work has appeared in journals including The Monthly, Griffith Review, Australian Geographic, Best Australian Essays and Best Australian Short Stories, and she was editor of Best Australian Science Writing 2014 (published by NewSouth Books).