An Emotional Connection to an Image (with cute animals)

An Emotional Connection to an Image (with cute animals)


oday’s the day I sell out by posting a photo of cute animals. But what do you feel when you see the above photo?

It was taken a million miles from nowhere, in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

We were heading to the airstrip to fly out that day.  Our trip was supposed to be completed, we were supposed to be heading home, when we stumbled across this scene.  The back-story for this photo is covered in my “Behind the Images” PDF.  If you are reading this email, you probably already read that story.

But why does this image connect with people?  Because it’s cute?  Three baby cheetahs, backlit, hanging on a branch– what could be cuter than that?

The Setup

What if I were to tell you that just a few days before I took this image we came across another cheetah, not much older than these three, feasting on a baby gazelle, its face all covered in blood.  There wasn’t much cute about the baby cheetah that day.

What if I were to further tell you that it’s unlikely that all three of these animals are still alive today, because of the harsh realities of the African savanna.

For me, this image raises a complex set of emotions.  Struggle.  Despair.  Hope.  Loneliness. Impending death (either the cheetah’s or its prey). Fragility.  Vibrancy.  Joy.  And the sorrow that undoubtedly occurred when mamma cheetah discovered the death of one (or more) of these three.

An image is successful when it evokes a broad spectrum of feelings.  It’s that richness and intensity of feeling that makes us want to look.

Anyway, that’s what we’d say if we play the academic, if we become the photo critic, if we over-analyze.

For this image, at least for the moment, I’m happy to settle for cute.

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Behind the Image:  Manarola at Sunrise (Cinque Terre, Italy)

Behind the Image: Manarola at Sunrise (Cinque Terre, Italy)

In the Cinque Terre region of Italy there are these five coastal villages; not too long ago they were only accessible by boat. Cinque Terre means “five lands” in Italian, and the region received this name because it was very much like five separate land-locked islands with five separate villages separated by very rugged terrain and sea.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

While many people have heard of Cinque Terre, very few have heard the name of the village of Manarola, one of those five “lands,” the one depicted in this photograph.

I had been aware of Manarola for quite some time.  Because of my Italian heritage, it was on my list of places to visit even before I was a photographer.  But becoming a photographer caused this village to move from my “places I’d like to see” list, to my “places I must see as soon as possible” list.

Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen Before

When you look at the photo above you will realize this an iconic (and idyllic) scene.  The villagers paint their houses in a rainbow of colors so individuals could easily pick out their own home from a distance while at sea.  Although many of the villagers still make their living on and from the sea, as you can imagine, tourism has been added to their sources of income.

When I arrived I expected to be greeted by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of “hungry” photographers (read my earlier Yosemite post).  Much to my delight, that didn’t happen.  There were tourists taking the occasional snap, but the first morning I was there, as I got up before sunrise (leaving my wife and son to sleep) to trudge down the long series of staircases to the outcropping where I could take this photo (Cinque Terre could be more aptly named “Mille Scale” or “a thousand staircases”), I was greeted by a photographer’s paradise.

When I got to the outlook (with my friend and guide Paolo), absolutely nobody was there.  No teeming busloads of tourists, no platoons of photographers tripping over themselves to get the perfect composition, no squadrons of selfie-snappers leaning over the rail for the best narcissistic image, nothing!   This was anti-Yosemite!  Not only was it stunningly beautiful, here was the solitude I was hoping for.

The Capture

Making the image was perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had in photography.  I could set up, move around, take my time, change lens filters, go for a longer exposure to get the water effect I wanted, move again, try different exposures, try different compositions, whatever I needed to get my shot.

It’s been almost three years since I made that image and I’ve never had the kind of time and conditions I had on that morning in Italy.  And the image remains one of my most popular.

Golfers keep going because the game teases them into believing that their next game might be their best.  In some ways, photography does the same thing.  As I go around and find places to shoot, I’m always hoping I’m “that close” to another Manarola.


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Over a Million Social Media Views and Counting

Over a Million Social Media Views and Counting

Afew months ago I passed a million social media views of my images on Flickr.  The more upscale photo site 500px reports that I have over 500,000 views with them.

So I started doing the math.  To get to 1.5 million views would require over 4000 views a day, every day for a year.  That’s a lot of people seeing my images, and for that I’m very grateful.

But then I began wondering, “who are all those people?”  That’s the problem with social media, you never know.  One power of the medium is that your admirers remain anonymous.  Only your detractors make themselves known.

Almost Famous

An artist I know has several of his paintings hanging in famous peoples’ houses around the country.   I once mentioned to him, “If all those famous people know who you are, you must be famous yourself.”

He replied, “Famous?  I don’t know what famous is.  There’s no way a million people have seen my work.  Maybe a many have seen yours.  Are you famous?”

“Of course not,” I replied.

“Then how can I be?  Anyway, what good does it do to be famous when you’re famous and poor?”

Which brought me back to a fundamental point.  Artists don’t do what they do for the money.  They do it because they can’t not do it.

So I’m well on my way to two million views.  Woohoo!

That and four bucks will get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

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