Since they could be domesticated, animals have lived alongside humans in times of peace and also in times of war. Or rather, they have been forced to participate in their wars and, usually, bear much of the brunt of it. Horses, elephants and camels were decisive vehicles in campaigns and battles. In Richard III, Shakespeare makes the king cry out in despair: “My kingdom for a horse”. But in addition to means of locomotion, when necessary they could also serve as food. Today we know that, unfortunately, these uses do not exhaust the list of animal suffering in armed conflicts.
Recently in the Ukraine, Patron, a two-year-old Jack Russell terrier, was awarded the medal of honor for detecting more than two hundred explosive mines from the invading army and thus saving many lives. But the military “participation” of most of the animals has neither been as sweet nor have they had such clear recognition as (for now) the feat of Patron.
The Polish photographer, filmmaker, philosopher and visual artist Marta Bogdanska has carried out a monumental investigation on this subject that has shaped in shifters, a work to which PhotoEspaña 2022 has awarded the Best Photography Book of the Year Award, in the International category. The book, by the way, is on sale at the Web of the artist.
The project shifters The complete book is made up of 850 pages, divided into 14 chapters, a video of 12 minutes and a series of sound records created in workshops given by Bogdanska herself, who for years has dedicated herself to collecting, collating and organizing archive material, mainly from Western security and military intelligence bodies and forces since the end of the 19th century . Until September 25, part of this material can be seen in Madrid, in the collective exhibition Hybrids. Forging new realities as a counter-narrative.
Title: shifters (contraction of shapeshifterswhich could be literally translated as shapeshifters), and refers to the absurd presentation of the use of animals as soldiers, spies or weapons, as if it were a voluntary participation. But also to the whitewashing of these cruel practices by the media by presenting them with humorous tones.
Bogdanska tells in the epilogue of the book that her project arose when she noticed that the Western media ridiculed news from the Middle East, North Africa or Asia about the detention of animals accused of being secret agents of enemy countries. Lizards and squirrels accused in Iran of nuclear espionage, a pigeon caught in India on suspicion of being a Pakistani spy, a dolphin intercepted in Lebanese waters considered an Israeli spy, a spy swan arrested in Egypt.
The comic reformulation presented as remote the possibility that an animal could be used as a spy. But researching it, Bogdanska discovered that nothing is impossible in the long history of despotism and human arrogance over the animal world, and that there were precedents for similar uses in the West, not only numerous but also terrifying.
Thus began a research and documentation work whose results exceed what anyone could have imagined both in quantity and in variety of cruelties. Examples range from chickens introduced into mines to heat them up and facilitate their detonation, to bats with explosive charges released from containers to settle in homes and explode inside.
In the project shifters, Bogdanska has classified and presented these materials from a scientific perspective, but also with the expressive and aesthetic sensibility of an artist. In the book’s epilogue, she states that this work is also an attempt to encompass “the incalculable suffering inflicted on animals in her work under human command. Animal labor: unpaid, undervalued, taken for granted, is before our eyes and at the same time invisible. After the work of slaves and women, this is the largest area of massive labor exploitation. Their bodies are trained, disciplined, molded for human use.”
shifters (the project and the book) is deliberately limited to a specific type of animal exploitation: that which has been carried out in modern wars, which is a dimension of the phenomenon that few of us are aware of, and has also been limited to the Western world, that to which the artist belongs, to underline that the “civilized” West has always participated in this “barbarism”. In this way, Western jokes about news from other cultures where animals act as secret agents take on another dimension.
With this bold investigation, the artist unfolds a multifaceted story that leads to ethical questions about the use of animals and the protection of their rights. What are the limits of human intervention in animal behavior? What are the conditions in which animals live and what is the law that determines what can or cannot be done with them? Such questions become important in posthumanist materialist theories that incorporate the feelings and experiences of non-human agents in their field of reflection. Some philosophers have sought to change their paradigm to see the other not only as a human being but as a living entity, considering the being as a species.
In every chapter of shifters presents graphic testimonies about the use of one or more animals: dogs, pigeons, cats, horses. The edition avoids limiting the quantity and variety of the material, and merely organizes its overwhelming profusion, to confront the reader with the scale and scope of callous human domination. In addition to the actual military use, the work of support and rescue dogs is shown, or the underlying cruelty in scientific studies such as those of Eadward Muybridge.
Along with the prologue of the French historian Eric Baratay —specialist in the history of the relationship between men and other animals from the sixteenth century to the present day—, texts by Helen Korpak, Stefan Lorenzutti, Samuel Tchorec Bentoll and Jon Shubin are included, which contextualize the content of some of the chapters, or describe other practices not sufficiently documented with photographs.
Eric Baratay points out in his text the urgent need to rewrite history from the perspective of animals, considering them subjects and not just reflections of the human context. And it also shows that Bogdanska transcends the traditional split between art and science (in this case history, anthropology and ethology) by inviting the viewer to pass from the human perspective to that of the animals portrayed, which leads them to think of them as agent subjects and not as objects.
It is praiseworthy that PhotoESPAÑA 2022 has included two powerful projects related to the changes that are taking place in the human mentality regarding the animal world —what has been called in contemporary thought “the animal question” that becomes an unavoidable ethical issue—. It has done so by presenting and rewarding the work of the Polish Marta Bogdanska and also by including the impressive exhibition of Estela De Castro Animalsalso collected in part in his book with an introduction by Ruth Toledano and texts by Nerea Goikoetxea and Eduardo Mesa.
There is little time left to visit them. Don’t miss them.