Pandas // Adelaide Zoo, 2018

One of my go-to YouTube videos to watch when I’m feeling low is the video of the zoo keeper trying to clean a panda enclosure, and the little panda cubs keep trying to climb into the wicker basket full of leaves. It never fails to make me smile. I have a thing about pandas; I always have. But pandas are a rarity – once on the endangered species list, they were only very recently fortunately moved onto the vulnerable list. There are only two in the whole of the Southern Hemisphere where I live; Wang Wang and Fu Ni, who live in Adelaide Zoo.

Since I’d been taking photos at Melbourne Zoo more frequently, I started to seriously consider flying over to Adelaide to see the pandas. I started looking at the Adelaide Zoo site, and found that they did a “VIP Panda Tour” that let you actually hand feed the pandas and spend the morning with them and their keepers learning more about them. I impulsively bought a pass, and used frequent flyer miles to fly over to Adelaide. I am so, so glad I did.

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I stayed within walking distance of the zoo, and had to go early to meet the keepers because the tour was taking place first thing in the morning, when the pandas would be most active. Any time after that they would most likely be snoozing.  It was only a small group; there was four of us plus three keepers/aides. We met Nicole, who would be taking photographs of us during the tour (dream job right there). The keepers were Angie and Nathan.

They took us into the room where they fed the pandas and kept them overnight, and showed us the huge bamboo fridge overflowing with bamboo plants. The feeding and care of the pandas is carefully regulated as is the case with all animals in a zoo, however there is the extra focus on recording and documenting everything because reports are sent almost daily to China. The care of the pandas is a highly reciprocal partnership between Adelaide and China, and every element of their care and breeding is monitored.

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Apart from the predominant diet of bamboo, the pandas both have special foods that are more “treat” foods. Wang Wang loves carrots, while Fu Ni loves apples. Both pandas also eat special “panda cakes”, made up of mulched bamboo, sugar, vitamins, and eggs for protein. I didn’t know, but pandas are actually carnivores who have adapted to a diet of bamboo. These panda cakes and handfuls of fruit and vegetables would be what we would be hand feeding the pandas.

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Angie kept reiterating that the pandas acted exactly like two year old children, and that each had very distinct personalities. Wang Wang was raised a single cub by his panda mother, and so he was more laid back and patient than Fu Ni. She had been a twin, and so had spent a lot of her life being reared by people and so was more adept at getting attention and getting what she wanted. Pandas are mostly solitary creatures, and although Wang Wang and Fu Ni did interact they were actually kept apart for the majority of the time, only really coming together during the very brief periods Fu Ni came into season.

We went to see Fu Ni first. Angie told us that even in China Fu Ni was praised for having a “pretty” face. She was smaller than her male counterpart, and had a little tuft of hair that stuck up between her ears like a mohawk. She immediately wandered over and sat in front of the bars, waiting impatiently for her panda cake and apples. We each took turns to kneel down in front of the bars and hand feed pieces of apple, then once we gave her the panda cake we were allowed to pat her paws while she was distracted. She watched us intently the whole time, her little Mickey Mouse-like ears moving as she chewed happily. It was so surreal, watching this beautiful animal that I had only really seen up close in photos and on videos.

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She soon lost interest in us when she realised we didn’t have any treats left, and she munched on a bamboo stick absentmindedly, waiting to be let out into her enclosure.

We then went to meet Wang Wang, who had been waiting for his turn patiently. He was definitely bigger than Fu Ni with a larger head and build, but he seemed calmer and was more happy to watch us and wait while we all took turns to give him his carrots.

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While we were feeding him, Angie and Nathan told us more about the pandas; about their breeding cycle and the attempts to breed cubs so far (they haven’t had success yet), about how long the pandas have in Adelaide before they have to go back (the contract is until the end of next year, but they are trying to work out to keep them here longer), and about how they vocalise (they can sound a bit like puppies!)

Once the group had all had turns feeding both pandas, we took a few more treats out to put into each enclosure. The enclosures were separated by the feeding area, and almost in a horseshoe shape. Each panda had an indoor and outdoor enclosure, as well as the behind the scenes sleeping/feeding area. The indoor enclosure was climate controlled and sound proofed, and had plenty of branches for climbing and sleeping. The outdoor enclosures were almost like little valleys, with plenty of tall trees and crevices and rock ledges. There were tire swings, hammocks, and plenty of toys on rotation to aid in enrichment. Wang Wang apparently loves nothing more than sitting in a tub full of soapy water filled with bubblegum-smelling bubble bath that he happily splashes on himself. Fu Ni loves the smell of perfume and musk, and happily loves cuddling towels drenched in essential oils. Both love sawdust, and enthusiastically roll around in it. The keepers rotate what they leave out, and also rotate which outside enclosure the pandas go in, to keep them from becoming bored. We hid the treats in different areas to encourage them to sniff around and seek them out, then we all went out to watch them while we had morning tea.

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The time flew by, and by then it was starting to get extremely hot (it ended up being 37 degrees Celsius that day, or 98 degrees Fahrenheit, so not the best day for the zoo or taking photos). I took as many photos as I could before the tour ended. We each got to choose a photo that Nicole had taken of us during the morning. Then it was over. I was exhausted and elated.

I spent the rest of the day making my way around Adelaide Zoo. I fell in love with it, and with the organic way the enclosures fit into the environment and fit together. So many animals were placed in proximity to each other, and could see and hear each other which I thought was a really cool thing I hadn’t really seen anywhere else.

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The thing that kept standing out to me was how quiet the zoo was, even though it was the middle of the school holidays. Go to Melbourne Zoo during the school holidays and it is a mad crush at each enclosure to get to see the animals. But there would be long stretches where I would be walking totally alone in amongst the sounds of the animals. Although, given the heat, I wouldn’t have blamed anyone who had decided to go to the beach instead and I spent an inordinate amount of time being very envious of a hippo who did a luxurious belly flop dive into the water in his enclosure near where I was eating lunch.

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I sat at the lion enclosure for a long time, watching a male and female lion interacting which is something I hadn’t seen before. They were purring loudly (it was like a muscle car idling in your ear) and trying to find somewhere cool to lay in the shade.

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By the time I’d made my way once around the zoo, it was getting way too hot and there had been lots of animals hidden away that I hadn’t seen, so I decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel. But I decided I would definitely be back, and I would also try to make it to Monarto Zoo, which is Adelaide’s open range zoo and home to one of the largest lion prides in Australia as well as the Lion 360 “people cage” where people get to experience lions up close. 

I wasn’t 100% happy with the photographs I got on the day, but I try to look at it like it was a once in a lifetime experience I was able to have, and I can always go back to try to take photos another day when the weather is a bit better.

I highly recommend the experience to anyone who loves pandas. To learn more about Adelaide Zoo, Wang Wang and Fu Ni, and more about the special animal experiences available there, visit their website here!

 

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Patience

I’m not a wildlife photographer.

I follow photographers like Laurent Baheux and Richard Bernabe on Twitter. They are wildlife photographers; Bernabe is regularly flying to Iceland or the Antarctic to capture animals all over the world, while Baheux champions conservation of animals in their own habitat with his heart-rending black and white photographs of animal families, especially big cats (my favourite).

I’m not a wildlife photographer. I take photos at the zoo here in Melbourne, far away from the wilds of the natural habitats of the animals I photograph. But it’s become something of a lifeline for me over the past couple of years, and especially the last month or so where I have been twice already.

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Each of the photography styles are very different, and oftentimes you will hear photography experts tell you that it’s better to hone your skill set into one particular direction; portrait, landscape, wildlife, weddings, infants, concerts, sports, etc. This is true, and at my heart I think I will always want to be good at portraiture. I think it’s what I most want to do. But at its core I believe that when you’re doing any kind of photography you’re calling upon the same fundamental skills; your base technical skill, intuition, practice, luck, and empathy. I strongly believe that empathy is what will set you apart as a photographer. You want to evoke feeling from your photographs, and how can you do that unless you know how to feel?

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I like the fact that I can use those fundamental skills in an environment wholly different to the one I was used to. In a con situation, my mind is buzzing the whole time. There is no quiet, it’s all noise. When I’m doing a portrait, I sort of go into a trance where I couldn’t tell you a lot of what happened if you asked me afterwards. I’m usually overcome with nerves and focusing on all the things I need to remember.

But when I’m taking photos of animals, it is wholly external to me. I bring what I need to, but I am completely at the mercy of a subject I can’t direct. I can’t explain what I want. I can’t even really anticipate in the same way I sort of became able to with conventions; if you did it long enough, you could begin to tell when you would need to pay attention and when you would need to make a move. I’m going to watch this guest answer this question, because it is a moving subject and their facial expression will react in a way that shows they’re touched. This is where the music builds, so someone will likely be moved by the music and throw their head in abandon. It became like a dance I knew the steps to. But this … this is like waltzing with a partner who is breakdancing. I just have to be patient and let go.

And it’s so quiet, which is something I crave.  

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I acknowledge that photography at a zoo is a very sterilised version of taking photographs of animals. Going on safari and photographing wild animals would be different again, in a myriad of ways. But for awhile at least, this is my only option. I can try to frame and compose in such a way to focus on the animals themselves and not the enclosures, not the environment, but instead to try to make them and their behaviour and interactions the focal point of the photo. It’s taking small pieces of a puzzle and fashioning it into something in my control.

Given everything that happened last year, I’m just grateful that I have something that is driving me to take photos and driving me to improve. I was scared that I had lost something last year, but I feel as though I’ve taken it back.

Heatwave

There had been a heatwave in Melbourne at the end of last month; a week or so of not only hot but stifling humid weather, where the air feels thick and oppressive. The night temperatures were hardly any better, so there was no real escape from it. You just had to lie still in the dark and listen to the fan or the cooler running and pray that it would be over soon.

When it finally did break, it was almost like the end of a delirium fever. I remember coming out of a shopping mall (that I had escaped to because their air con was better than ours) and it felt like rain. You know that feeling? There were cracks in the walls of heat and the moisture was getting through. You felt like you could breathe again.

The funny thing is, that is the second time I have felt that relief so far this year. But the most recent wasn’t a heatwave. It was a realisation, an epiphany, and it happened to me yesterday. I hadn’t realized it fully, but I had been laying in the dark not wanting to move for so long, for possibly a year, and last night the fever broke.

I have depression. It’s not something a hide. I like to think I’m not ashamed of it, but the truth is I am. But I don’t hide it. It’s an illness. I’ve had it since I was 18. I would ride out the waves of it when they would come as best I could, and try to carve out some form of existence around it and through it.

When taking photos became a big part of my life, that process became a whole lot easier for me. I had something that filled me with so much passion there wasn’t room or time for anything else. For the first time in my life I had something that was truly mine. I taught myself, I practiced, I traveled. I would have never traveled on my own before, but now I was doing it regularly. I was doing photoshoots with the incredible cast of Supernatural. People actually wanted to work with me. No one ever paid me any attention before, but these people didn’t care about my past or how I had spent most of my 20s hidden in my house. They liked my work and wanted to work with me. I made so many friends. So, so many. People that changed my life. People would actually want to meet me at conventions, and would tell me that my photos made them feel happy when they were sad, and they would say the nicest things and I was so overwhelmed. I felt like someone feeling the sun on their skin for the first time in a long time.

Then it got to 2017, and I was still going to cons and still taking photos and still having opportunities but something was changing. The seams were starting to fray a little, but only a little at a time. It was too subtle a thing for me to notice. It was like the temperature climbing steadily up, so steadily you don’t notice the change. I wasn’t taking care of myself. I found things harder, more confusing, more frustrating. I felt like I was walking around with that hot feeling behind your eyes, the feeling like you know you’re going to cry but you’re desperately holding it in. I started to withdraw; not just from my friends, but from everything. My world shrunk and shrunk until it was basically my room. I work from home, so I would work and sleep. I avoided going out. I didn’t really speak to my family. I went from being almost sugar free for years to eating too much sugar, which is bad for someone with depression because it made my lows unbearably, uncontrollably low.

I took photos, but didn’t get the abject joy from the whole process I did before. Nothing I did felt like it worked for me. I would look at other photographer’s work and despair that I would ever do anything like that. It didn’t feel like an incentive, it felt like an irreparable fault with me. Whenever people would try to offer advice about what to do next in my budding photography career, I would feel like I couldn’t breathe and it would start a spiralling tailspin of thoughts until I couldn’t see myself doing anything at all. When I tried to look at my future, all I saw was black. I didn’t try to harm myself, but I did think it would be okay if I just … stopped being.

I still went to conventions, but everything felt stressful. That was my overriding feeling. I would feel so happy to see my friends, and to see the cast of people I love so much, but this anxiety would plague me. I would avoid people and sit in my hotel room alone as much as possible between taking photos. I started to convince myself that I was out of place, that I was supposed to be able to just launch off into the next phase with this whole photography thing and that was what was expected of me. That the cast must have wondered why I wasn’t making anything of myself. That Chris was disappointed. That my friends would get impatient with me. That if I wasn’t what people wanted when they met me that I would be a horrible person and a huge let down. I felt like Stardust and Melancholy was this wholly separate entity from me; that she was the one who had it all together, while I was putting on weight, not sleeping, getting worse at photography and slowly falling apart.

San Francisco Con was the worst, and the few months over Christmas was where it was at its peak. I felt like I was encased in this glass that would just shatter if someone so much as looked at me the wrong way. I can distinctly remember an incident happening towards the end of the convention that sent me up to my hotel room and I didn’t even say goodbye to anyone. I just packed, cried myself to sleep, woke up and got on a plane home. I was at my lowest point.

But all this was happening so so subtly that it wasn’t until it had hit its fever pitch that I realized that I had been trapped in this for so long. I put up a sign on my Stardust & Melancholy twitter to say I was going on hiatus. It was one of the hardest things I’d done, because I’d felt this intense pressure to put out work and that if I wasn’t, people would lose interest. But I needed to relieve some of the pressure, and it was the first thing I did.

I tried to be more gentle with myself, tried to improve my eating and sleep hygeine. I did it slowly. I kept a diary. Bad thoughts would go in there and be shut away. I went to my doctor.  It felt like fingers grasping one by one around the reins of a careening horse, but it was some semblance of control. But it still didn’t fully feel like that oppressiveness was really gone until last night.

Last night I talked to my mum and for the first time I told her how bad it was. It just all came out. It was like thunder rumbling in the distance of the heatwave, the fever bursting. I told her I hadn’t felt like myself in something like a year, and I was scared. Why was this happening to me again? I think she was upset that I didn’t tell her sooner, but how could I when I didn’t even fully realize it for myself?

I don’t know where I go from here, but the heatwave is over. Rain is weirdly cathartic and washes away a multitude of sins. I’m crying when I write this, but it feels like relief, not confusion.

It will be back, it always comes back. Depression is a thief, and a liar, and it’s persistent. But I want to be the version of me that made it work around her, not the me that shrunk down to let it consume her.

Pete Souza & Photographic Resistance

Like a lot of people, I’ve been following ex-White House photographer Pete Souza’s Instagram and seeing his almost daily posting of photos taken during Barrack Obama’s eight year presidency, often reflecting in them differences between the current and former administration. These are equally biting, critical, melancholic. They serve as an authoritative primary document – a way of reminding us of certain aspects of history in a climate where it is becoming frighteningly easy to bury and deny even things that happened yesterday.

As well as the moral and ethical implications these reminders have, it’s also really interesting from a photography perspective. A lot of the photographs Souza is posting are photographs he has posted before; he is reposting them to highlight a point, to serve a purpose. When these were taken, it is highly likely that the original intent was not the point he is making now. Documentary photography especially is meant to embody and encompass the world we live in at a particular time. We bring to it our knowledge of what is currently happening, as well as what has happened.

However, when Souza is posting these photographs – often tagging them and captioning them with pointed descriptions – they have an entirely different message to perhaps the original one intended.

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Souza was a prolific photographer – Obama wasn’t the only President he photographed – and during Obama’s administration he was with him almost every day, shooting thousands and thousands of photographs. During the beginning of Trump’s administration, he was actually going through his catalogue to pick out photos for a book he is releasing. So it was obvious that as certain things were happening, mirroring or sharply contradicting what had happened before, he would post or repost things he had seen as a form of social commentary. His captions were never outright hostile; they didn’t need to be. The photos said everything better and more succinctly than even the fiercest critic could.

For example, there has been growing criticism over the Trump administration’s responses to deadly hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Houston. Trump was accused at worst of negligence, and at best of using the size and scope of the destruction as a political and egotistical measuring tool. During all of this, Souza would post photos of the various relief efforts conducted during similar disasters during Obama’s campaign, as well as photographs highlighting the former President’s natural empathetic and selfless nature.

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During the aftermath of Charlottesville, Obama tweeted a photograph that Souza had taken of him alongside a Nelson Mandela quote, which became the most liked and fourth most retweeted tweet in Twitter history, showing not only how powerful and potent Souza’s photography coupled with Mandela’s words were, but also how desperate the world was to feel some sense of humanity and empathy.

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It has gotten to a point now where people are beginning to expect some form of photographic social commentary from Souza. There’s even memes about it, which he seems to find amusing. But in the comments there is also a sadness, a longing to go back to a time before. The comments are always a mixture of joy and pain, a reflection of what a country once had and a critical examination of what it has become.

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I can’t speak as to Pete Souza’s original intent in his “commentary” – he has started doing a book tour where he speaks about his experiences and he apparently feigns ignorance at his “shade” and insists he is only posting his work. But you have to think that for someone who was so intimately in the shadow of a great man such as Barack Obama, it would be increasingly frustrating to see the good works and the good intent being torn down daily, and worse yet, rewritten to suit a different narrative. To be able to post a photograph that says, “No, this is how it happened,” would be a powerful act of rebellion and resistance.

Words are becoming increasingly twisted and manipulated and denied and distorted. Photographs can change context, but what they show in them at their core rarely lies.

Lion Cubs

On Monday I went to Werribee Open Range Zoo with my sister. When I’ve been taking a lot of photos of people – doing portraits or con photos – I always need to decompress by doing something completely different.
When I heard that there were four newborn cubs at Werribee I knew I wanted to go and see them before they got too big! We were really lucky, because that day was the first time people were allowed up close to the glass (they had to be introduced to crowds very gradually). They didn’t seem bothered at all, and made a great show of sharing their first bone, rolling around on the grass practicing pouncing and stalking, and bothering their parents.
One of the best parts was watching them all sit up when they heard their dad growling, and then start to run around trying to growl like him.
They are such beautiful, graceful animals and it was so rewarding just sitting quietly and watching them. The lion cubs were obviously the big drawcard, but I found the lioness just as captivating to watch. She seemed very patient with her new babies, constantly making sure they were all getting a chance to eat the bone and giving them baths. She didn’t seem overly bothered by us all watching, every so often casting us a glance but then going back to her newborns. The photo that I took of her was probably my favourite of the day.
This did nothing whatsoever to quell my wish to one day do a proper safari. I can’t even begin to imagine how amazing that would be.