I let the animals lead and invite them to express their own sensibilities in their own voices. A conversation with an animal begins by watching gestures and reading facial cues. It is a nonverbal conversation. You do not think an elephant. You try to feel it.
Since 1992, Gregory Colbert has launched expeditions on every continent to collaborate with more than a hundred animal species and the people who share their native environments. His project has taken him to such places as Antarctica, India, Egypt, Burma, Tonga, Australia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Thailand, China, the Arctic, the Azores, and Borneo. Elephants, whales, manatees, sacred ibis, antigone cranes, royal eagles, gyr falcons, rhinoceros hornbills, cheetahs, leopards, African wild dogs, caracals, baboons, eland, meerkats, gibbons, orangutans, penguins, pandas, polar bears, lions, giant Pacific manta rays, and saltwater crocodiles are among the animals he has filmed and photographed. Human collaborators include San bushmen, Tsaatan, Lissu, Massai, Chong, Kazakh eagle hunters, and people from other indigenous tribes around the world.
Colbert explains, “I try to create a climate of trust that opens the way for spontaneous interactions with animals. You cannot chart the course of a whale, dictate the wanderings of a cheetah, direct the gestures of an orangutan, or choreograph the flight of an eagle. I spend a great deal of time studying the natural behavior of animals while being mindful of their individual personalities. I believe the Australian Aboriginals were exploring the same enchantments when they painted animals; they were not interested in merely painting the contours of their bodies. They also focused equally on the animal’s interior dream life. The cave paintings of the San from the Kalahari Desert in Africa and the art of other indigenous tribes around the world also demonstrate their ability to look at animals from the inside out. That is what inspired me to begin Ashes and Snow in 1992. Our perception of nature had been human-centric. I hope to see the world through the eyes of a whale, an elephant, a manatee, a meerkat, a cheetah, an eagle, and I have tried to leave the windows and doors open so that others can share the same amazement I felt during each work’s creation.
“An elephant with his trunk raised is a ladder to the stars. A breaching whale is a ladder to the bottom of the sea. My films are a ladder to my dreams.”