Spotlight: New work

Is nature a social construction?

The seized head of taxidermy zebra in the basement of the National Wildlife Agency in Argentina. © Sofía López Mañán

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.

The Moving Rock was a balancing rock located in Tandil, Argentina, that weighed around 300 tonnes — about the weight of a large truck. It fell in 1912 due to natural causes. In 2007, a copy of the original rock was built and placed in the same place, few visitors realise it is fake. © Sofía López Mañán

“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.”

A pit full of thousands of dead geese was found by the National Wildlife Agency in Bahía Blanca, Argentina. Due to excessive hunting and the alteration of its habitat, it is now in danger of extinction. © Sofía López Mañán

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.”

Natalia is one of the eighty felines from the Lujan Zoo in Argentina, where the director believes that wild animals can become domesticated. Natalia walks through his house with absolute freedom. © Sofía López Mañán

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.

This hollowed out book was used to smuggle geckos from Australia to the Czech Republic. © Sofía López Mañán
Lunch boxes covered with pantyhose are used for reptile traffic in airplanes. © Sofía López Mañán

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.”

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Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Commissioning Editor. This was preceded by a degree in English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.