Sofía López Mañán seeks to unravel the boundary between the natural and unnatural, questioning how humans perceive their environment through issues of animal trafficking and environmental conservation
In June 2016, Buenos Aires Zoo announced its closure, pledging to move 2,500 animals to nature reserves across Argentina, and transforming itself into an educational eco-park for trafficked animals. Photographer Sofía López Mañán was hired to document the process. This involved photographing the zoo’s gradual shift, which is still ongoing, from captivity to sanctuary, and recording the animals that were left or stayed.
For López Mañán, originally a trained painter whose past photographic projects have employed a more “personal, visceral, and intuitive” approach, the job at the zoo sparked the beginning of an interest in animal trafficking and environmental conservation, and how humans perceive nature.
“Nature as we know it is a cultural construction,” says López Mañán, elaborating on the idea of how a human understanding of nature is informed by the way we perceive and interact with it. Nature is commonly associated with purity, harmony, and truth, but, “that’s just our human idea about what it is,” López Mañán points out. “We have no idea what it’s like to live in symbiosis with an ecosystem.”
The resulting project, Nature by Humans, was nominated for the Joop Swart Masterclass, a week-long education programme that was held at the World Press Photo Foundation in Amsterdam last month. “This project is not about defining what nature is,” she clarifies. “I’m trying to say that we are limited in the way we perceive it, and being conscious of that can be a way of changing it.”
The photographs span straight photography, collage, still life, and computer-generated graphics. “The images are varied because I work like an octopus,” jokes López Mañán. “It’s about observing how we construct the way we see.”
The mixed nature of the work is intended to blur the line between what is real and what is constructed; when a photograph of a tiger poised on a bed is presented next to a rendered image of a mountain range, we immediately assume it is fake. The tiger belongs to the owner of the controversial Lujan Zoo, an extreme petting zoo just outside of Buenos Aires, who believes that wild animals can be domesticated.
In another image, a man cocoons himself in the confiscated skin of a jaguar, and in others, we see prototypes of the strange contraptions used to traffick small birds and reptiles. Each image in Nature by Humans tells a story about trafficking or conservation, but collectively they raise questions about how humans perceive nature and the lengths to which people go to preserve this ideal.
The photographer continues to work for the Buenos Aires Eco-Park (formerly Zoo) and is working with biologists, conservationists and anthropologists to expand the project. “I’m not doing it for me anymore, my personal work has turned out to be my service,” she says. “This will be a lifelong project. It is constantly growing, like a painting.”