• Madeline Shann

The Canine Gaze

As you can probably tell I am new to photography. I don’t have a natural knack for it, and no technical or artistic context really about what I should be going for. I can see things with my eyes and think “hey, that’s nice! I will try and catch that in my camera!” But I don’t know how to arrange things, I don’t know about light and movement, I don’t anticipate, and really I have not the first idea about what all these settings do.

But I took my camera out, and walked around the park. The weather was utterly beautiful. Real dream weather for the season, and the colours were absolutely gorgeous. The park had turned itself into an autumn wonderland.

And it’s incredible what happens when carrying the camera. Suddenly the concentration of looking, seeking, it’s such a lovely way to be present. It reminded me a little bit of the story The Dog Beneath the Skin from Oliver Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, where a man develops hyperosmia, an incredibly powerful sense of smell, and finding himself sensitive to much more information about the world, finds life suddenly more detailed and fascinating: “It was like a visit to another world, a world of pure perception, rich, alive, self-sufficient, and full”.

As walker’s dogs ran excitedly through the grass, through the leaves, around tree trunks, investigating, checking, reading the detailed micro-stories of every single thing in their path, that’s also how I felt.

I love walking through the park or through the woods with friends, but as I blast my brain with screens and fill it with information more and more, I’ve developed a habit of slipping into soft focus, of being easily distracted. Talking without listening, listening without looking, looking without seeing, thinking about work and my social life and petty online arguments and other minutiae which occupy so much front-brain space.

I’ll stop for an obviously gorgeous vista, or get excited about a jay or a kestrel, and these things are fantastic, of course, but there is so much more to being here, around other living beings than just the showstoppers.

With my camera for a dog’s nose, I was energised, focused, overjoyed. The thrill of looking, chasing, discovering. What’s this? Is it interesting? What about over here? What’s it like by the water? What if I get up really close? What if I go upside down? And suddenly the world is new and there is so much information, and detail, and nuance, and it feels as though you are shrinking, getting such close perspective on these tiny things, a patch of moss becoming a lush green rolling field, a toadstool becomes towering architecture, making mountains out of molehills.

Coming back into this process of creative investigation, outside, after what feels like a lifetime of doing all of the admin and none of the artwork, feels amazing, feeling my brain poke out its antannae and swivel them around, feeling ideas start growing, and forking in different directions, and branching out and out and out.

It becomes so clear how much of this enchantment is unlearned, how so much of our emotional investment and sense of value in our environment is lost through just a serious lapse in concentration, a lack of attention. For me certainly an addiction to tiny, acute hits of dopamine from silly, empty calorie newness - a new message, a new interaction, a “like” - has crowded out the attention span I have for the subtler, but much deeper and more existential and sustaining love for being a part of the natural world.

And this is not to cast aspersions on communication and social connection - both of which are deep and real joys, as well as being key to our survival and harm reduction going forward into the anthropocene, but it seems to me that we have to figure out how to access and amplify our biophilia, to make it feel acute, and serious, to make it an overwhelming part of our joys, dreams and desires. It is worth noting that this will happen anyway, when it’s too late, when it’s gone.

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