Photographer Ellen Mitchell is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this photo essay.  From the series ‘Sky Rats’.  To see Ellen’s body of work, click on any image.




Locals call them the rats of the ocean. I only photographed them because I thought that their wings might look cool with strong camera flash lighting on a rainy day. But what I saw in the photos surprised me. Frozen in time and space, the familiar creatures looked completely altered. In some photos, the birds seemed to float motionless across the sky, silent like spaceships. In others, they twisted and stretched as if participating in a joyous, leaping dance. In yet others, they cloaked themselves with their wings, peeking out like Dracula from behind his cape. These fleeting movements were imperceptible to me until I snapped them at 1/200 of a second. Captured in the midst of their aerial pursuits, they looked ridiculous at times, and mysterious at others. Mysterious, if only because they are seagulls and we are not, and we can never fully enter into their world. 




After I started this project, I made a point to learn more about the birds. Much surprised me. For instance, the gulls, who always seemed to stand aloof from one another (except when bickering over food), are actually members of a tightly-knit, reproductively isolated colony that has its own unique culture. They know their neighbors intimately. They can distinguish the alert call of a reliable individual from one who cries wolf, and can identify a mate mid-air at a distance of more than 100 feet. They have some facility for facial recognition, a skill used not only to identify fellow seagulls, but also to recognize humans. I do know that they recognize me. 



As social animals, they are surprisingly like us. A careful observation of their behavior raises some uncomfortable questions about our own animal instincts. The aggression, the greed, and even the stupidity, is uncomfortably recognizable. Yet, much of their behavior remains enigmatic. For instance, I don’t know why they inexplicably disappear from the beach for days at a time, or where they go. I don’t know why an entire flock will suddenly alight, as if obeying an unspoken command, and sweep out en masse over the water, only to return a minute or two later, landing one by one in the same places as before – as has happened on many wi yet afternoons during my shoots. Even having benefited from viewing close-up photographs of their interactions, I still know very little about them. In fact, after taking the photos, I realized I had barely perceived them before, and still miss most if not all of the nuances of their behavior. Since the animal world is also our world, I’m struck by my narrow point of view, the blindness at the very depths of my being, as these animals have suddenly made apparent how little I comprehend of natural phenomena, even that which I see every day.



All images and text © Ellen Mitchell



See also:

After Dark

By Ellen Mitchell




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