Earth Island Institute logo, tap or click to visit the Institute home page

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Summer 2011 > 1,000 Words

1,000 Words

Eye to Eye

Bryant Austin

close-up photo of a whale, underwater; it is looking right at the camera

One of the great dangers faced by the naturalist and the animal-lover is the lure of anthropomorphism. We apprehend nature and are desperate to see ourselves in it. Irrepressible narcissists, we project human emotions onto other creatures, though our better wisdom knows they are apart and different from us. It can be difficult to resist attaching sentimentality to other beings, especially mammals. The ego has a hard time grappling with the thought that they may not have a sentience similar to ours.

Bryant Austin’s life-sized whale portraits skate the very edge of that pitfall and manage to avoid romanticizing animals through the grace – the maturity – of seeing the thing for itself. The result is gripping: intimate images of the faces of creatures most of us will never otherwise glimpse. It may be the method that makes the art. Austin avoids anthropomorphism by exhibiting a kind of humility. He waits for the whales to come to him.

Austin got the idea for his whale series in 2004, when, while floating with a snorkel, he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around to see a 45-ton female humpback looking directly at him. The whale, he says, had used her 15-foot-long pectoral fin to alert him that she was there. Austin then spend four months free diving in the South Pacific waters inhabited by whales and hoping for similar experiences.

Eventually, eight individual whales from three different species chose to spend time with Austin at close distance, allowing him to take their portraits. In each case he waited for the whales to initiate contact with him. The relationships, Austin says, often demonstrated great sensitivity. The huge animals would carefully swim around him and would reposition their fins and flukes so as to not do him any harm.

This spirit of mutual curiosity is what gives Austin’s work its force. It allows the human viewer to imagine that – who knows? – maybe the whales are eager to approach the photographer because, in making that eye-to-eye contact, they sense that really it’s we who are like them.

Bryant Austin’s whale portraits have been shown at galleries and exhibitions across the United States, as well as in Spain, Norway, and Japan. You can view more of his photographs at the website of Marine Mammal Conservation through the Arts.

close-up underwater photo of a young whale swimming close to a larger one that is festooned with remoras

close-up underwater photo of a whale eyeing the camera

close-up underwater photo of a whale rostrum pointed skyward

very close-up photo of a whale eye underwater

close-up underwater photo of a whale, eye and remoras evident - it is looking at the camera

very close photo of a whale examining the camera


Email this article to a friend.

Write to the editor about this article.

Subscribe Today
cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJFour issues of the award-winning
Earth Island Journal for only $10



Saw your work and presentation at an ACS-LA meeting. You are truly a “whale whisperer”, whose works need to be shared with the world to help in marine conservation issues!

By Erlinda Cortez on Sat, June 11, 2011 at 6:50 am

gorgeous! what a gift to be able to photograph these beings!

By Daniele Erville on Mon, June 06, 2011 at 12:49 pm

I was fortunate to have gone to one of his exhibitions in San fran AND I got to shake his hand as well!!

By Judy on Wed, June 01, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Leave a comment

Comments Policy

Please enter the word you see in the image below:


Four issues for just
$15 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!