This Earth Day, Talk to a Praying Mantis

April 22, 2015

Academy Award-winning artist Zana Briski has spent the past 10 years documenting insects around the world. For Earth Day, Creative Time Reports features the intimate moments Briski has shared staring deeply into the eyes of praying mantises and other chitinous creatures.

I am enraptured by the natural world. For as long as I can remember, all I wanted was to have contact with animals, to be Dr. Dolittle. I wanted not just to talk to the animals but also to listen.

As an artist I followed an unexpected path into the brothels of Calcutta to photograph and film women and teach their children photography. Even in the brothels, I was most captivated by the animals: rats and roaches, an occasional pet rabbit, parrot or ferret. Toward the end of this 10-year project, I had a wake-up call. I dreamed of a praying mantis. I call it a dream—or a series of dreams—but it was a visceral, life-changing experience. I could see out of the eyes of a mantis. It was a vision of astounding lucidity. Penetrating, alien, yet deeply familiar.

All I could do was follow this dream. I have spent the past 10 years photographing and filming insects all over the world, often camping alone in remote wild places for weeks or months at a time. I work at night, and insects come to me. I take care not to trap, drug, freeze or harm them in any way. It is a horizontal relationship involving curiosity, friendship and deep respect. I ask for permission and wait for collaboration: “Hi! Who are you?! Would you like to have your portrait taken?”

In this increasingly distracted and disconnected world, my desire is to remind us of the wonder and awe that surround us at every moment by noticing the small things and recognizing them as the sentient beings that they are.

The video above is a trailer for my film Reverence, which is part of a traveling exhibition that also includes large-scale photographs and music and is housed in a stunning movable pavilion designed by the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Shigeru Ban. Reverence, the migrating museum, will travel to city parks around the world. It is my hope that this exhibition can inspire us to re-envision our relationship to the Earth and her creatures.