Originally written October 2015 as a reflection essay
I acknowledge there is nuance to these issues which are not fully expressed in this essay
In The New York Times article “Shooting a Lion”, University of Cambridge professor and acclaimed writer, Helen Macdonald, details her recent safari at Kruger National Park in South Africa. Her visit was just a few short months after the Minnesota dentist, Walter Palmer, killed Cecil the lion just outside the very same park. Cecil’s killing was met with international uproar and “a white-hot debate over the morality of big game hunting”.
But there’s another kind of exploitative shooting of lions happening, only this kind isn’t with a gun, but a camera.
What is in a picture? The old sang goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and most would be quick to agree. A picture is a captured moment. It’s a representation of your passions, hopes, memories, and personality. Perhaps most of all, a picture represents you. A picture can say more than you could ever hope to with words, transcending time and language.
In the case of the lion, a picture represents hundreds of years of colonialism, a de-wilding of nature, and the narcissism of the human race. Macdonald seeing the lions was almost surreal. After all, like many of us, experiences with African wildlife have largely been mediated through television documentaries and nature specials. We’ve grown accustomed to it.
Most humans will never know what it is to truly be one on one in a genuinely wild experience with a lion. Even the lions of Kruger National Park hardly bat an eye at the presence of human activity. Macdonald describes the feeling of looking on at an indifferent lion as “highly unsettling” and wonders “if this is what spurs our desperate urge to take photographs” as some sort of attempt to turn the experience into something we can understand: “a lion on-screen”.
While I can very much agree with Macdonald’s sentiments, I think it less to do with an attempt at understanding, and more an attempt at feeding our insatiable egos. Social media outlets such as Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, and more, are littered with people making every shameless attempt possible to increase their popularity, better their image, and get more “likes”. Everything is a show, everything is about image, and getting a picture or video of a real-life lion is like striking gold. Just look at all of the recent cases of animal attacks at America’s national parks.
Virtually every single case in the last year has been related to a visitor attempting to take a “selfie” with wildlife. Not because it’s the only way they can interpret the experience, not because the only way they know how to see wildlife is through a screen, but because the vanity of the human race is stronger than ever. While African locals struggle and conservation efforts are impeded by illegal poaching, tourists take pictures, blind to the true reality of their circumstances.
For the lions who behave with indifference to human activity and the humans taking pictures, we aren’t so different. We’ve both grown numb, and that can change. But first, we need to stop looking in the mirror, or through a camera lens, and start looking at the world around us.