Thomas Koidhis: This is probably the hardest question yet for me. Literally, from everything. I haven’t just been practicing photography for 5 years. I have also dedicated myself to higher learning and understanding of the universe at large. I would never hope to grasp something so limitless but for me that’s the fun part! There will always be something else, some new manifest to experience while I am here. I have a great quote that I’m very fond of that I’d like to share because I feel it will help me explain. Keep in mind I’ve modified the pronouns of the quote to make them non gender-specific as the original quote used ones such as “he, man, his” and I feel it’s wrong to say something so important with a sexual polarity:
Every human is more than just them self; they also represent the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way, and never again. That is why every human’s story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every human, as long as they live and fulfill the will of nature, are wondrous, and worthy of consideration. In each individual the spirit has become flesh, in each human the creation suffers, within each one a redeemer is nailed to the cross.
– Hermann Hesse, Demian
If I notice a particular blade of grass my mind delves into its true nature in this world, it’s atomic structure and what comprises those ‘particles.” I wonder about the way the fabric of its energy is woven in with the rest of reality seamlessly. It is so fascinating for me that I almost cannot contain myself! I can barely talk to someone without philosophizing or drawing parable to some aspect of the conversation. And we’re talking about a friggin blade of grass here! Never mind the grandeur of the universe. Photography is just another extension of myself and my thoughts, something I love to do that helps me relate the gratitude and wonder I feel for existing in the first place.
Let’sBeWild: Success is measured in many ways. For you as a photographer, what would success be?
Thomas Koidhis: So for this I’m going to rest heavily on the “as a photographer” part as I can so I don’t branch off endlessly. First though, I do want to say that in a general sense, I have deep seated qualms with some ways that humanity defines success. Without going too far into this side topic, I have to say that I believe that we are defining success in ways that are damaging to ourselves and the systems of the planet. We have chosen our addictive abstractions over truth. We are all guilty of it in some respect. I place no blame but I do urge people to see that there is no “completion” which we are progressing toward. This is where everything is happening, right here and right now. You are fooled if you think you aren’t complete and whole as you are.
So in life, based on those convictions, I already feel successful. I already feel complete and whole, I have every opportunity and all that I want. I really feel terribly spoiled sometimes, living in this “first world.” To sum it all up, I am happy and thankful with my life here on Earth. For me the ultimate success if I had to still reach for something more would be to effectively communicate these ideas – to come as close to what is true as can be attained and share it freely with others. Photography is one of the most powerful revolutions in the way we communicate with each other and so if my photography can help me be a part of humanity coming to their senses a little then that is a complete win in my book.
Let’sBeWild: Your wildlife photos seem to show a real connection with the animals. How are you able to get close to the wildlife you photograph and what are your interactions with the animals like? Are there any especially memorable experiences you’ve had while photographing wildlife?
Thomas Koidhis: What a great question! Are you ready for a novel? Our knowledge of animal psychology and behavior is limited. Many scientists believe that all creatures but humans experience only something called “primary consciousness.” In the words of Gerald Edelman, “primary consciousness. The experience of a unitary scene in a period of seconds, at most.” It is common belief that they do not ever experience anything remotely approaching what we call “secondary consciousness” which is the awareness of being alive and aware. I’m not always so sure. We definitely have several layers of grey matter on them but I’m quite positive that there is more happening within the experience of every living thing than we’ll ever be able to account for. A wild animal may not have a particular sense of identity but it immediately recognizes the identity of life. That one reference frame of life immediately recognizes another is no empty fact.
I should explain that more. My perspective of life on Earth in general does not go back to complete “origins.” That is, I do not subscribe to the notion of first cause. I don’t believe that a single microbe just “twitched” into existence by accident billions of years ago. I don’t believe in “creation” by something separate from this reality. I believe that because of the structure of reality itself, the fabric of the universe, that life is not an accidental possibility but an integral inevitability when the right vibrational harmonies are present, such as on Earth.
All of that said, in some form or interpretation, life “started” at one point on Earth. Its conditions were here all along and when you get down to the nitty gritty, it becomes extremely difficult to draw the line between “life” and “non-life.” For most of us though, and the science community, life began when protien complexes made of amino acids combined with other building blocks such as RNA to start forming single-celled organisms. There is a key insight here. Whatever we define life to be, all of us have the same background. We all come from those first steps toward the grandeur of life as we know it. Most people don’t know that even a tree is so frightfully similar to a human being in terms of DNA and biological structuring that it seems silly that we would treat them as something far removed from ourselves. Because you and I, because every single “living” thing on Earth shares a common ancestor, we are more deeply connected than any of us can fathom. We are all in every literal sense, family.
I go into my wildlife photography with that mindset. One thing human animals do is they tend to anthropomorphize other animals. It is understandable, because they ARE so much like us. That doesn’t mean that unique human characteristics, such as our methods of abstraction and desires, apply to them whatsoever. What I do when I’m photographing wildlife is just attempt to see everything for what it is. Because of that, every movement I make, every inhale, every gesture of my body language is done in a bona-fide way. I strive to be as sincere and well-meaning in every thought and action I make while interacting with them. Of course, always with the careful consideration of both of our well being. I never invade their space knowingly or create a disturbance. I acknowledge the essence of what they are and I make the mental gesture that I want them to be free to be exactly what they are, no more, no less. I believe that this somehow comes across in my body language. I am rarely, if ever, percieved as a threat. I’ve actually lost count of the times where I was keeping my distance from a wild animal out of consideration for them and they instead approached me out of curiousity! It never fails to delight the hell out of me to see their own version of intrigue and interest. Those are the times I know that they aren’t much different than I. They think in some measure, and they feel. I care deeply for them as if they were my own kin, because they are.
I’d say my two most memorable experiences were, firstly, a wild beaver who literally walked right up to my feet down at the rapids of the river here in Smith. I just…Looked down and there he was, looking up at me. I had enough presence of mind to lift my Olympus (this was way back) and shoot a single black and white frame, since my camera was set to black and white for some reason and I was shooting in jpeg, which I almost never do anymore. He checked me out for another ten seconds or so, sniffing the air, then turned and slid down the rock back into the pool. I look back on that and reflect on it often.
The other one was a red fox who I was kind of paralleling from a distance. I kept a low profile like always but you cannot fool a fox in that way. They can hear you breathe from a mile away. It knew I was there and I actually was glad for the fact. A tip I picked up from National Geographic photographer Klaus Nigge, who is an inspiration to me, was to intentionally, though lightly and tactfully, make the creature aware of your presence. This is mainly so that you don’t catch them off guard (not that it was a problem in this instance) and frighten them. Also, it helps to bring some measure of familiarity between you and the animal. At first it is rare for any creature to “trust” you on sight. However, with sufficient good behavior toward them and again, good tact, often times they will accept you as just another part of their surroundings. My only struggle with this is that while a single good experience with a human animal won’t automatically mean a wild animal will be careless around any people, there are times where they do take a liking to us. This is often most dangerous for them, not us. So…Exercise caution is what I have learned. Not all people are kind. Many people don’t consider other animals to be anything approaching equivalent to us existentially. Some don’t consider them to be alive at all.
Anyway, the fox stopped somewhere to pounce on a mouse. I got some frames of that and then it started to walk down the hill in my direction. As a precaution, following Klaus’ lead, I spoke lightly and quietly to it when it came near because I didn’t want to startle it in any way. It stopped and became clearly curious. It would take a few steps toward me, cock it’s head to the side, approach some more. I dared not move from where I was sitting. In the end it approached me within less than 10 meters. It clearly was wondering what I was all about. It was probably just me but I felt so close and connected to that fox for those moments that I entertained the idea for a minute that animals do have much higher levels of consciousness than we ever acredit to them.