By chance, I started with Hulda. The chameleon. A predator. The first time I see her she is in thick foliage, her face partially covered but her body bright green, flecked with blue and orange and shown in all her brilliant scaly detail. This is Hulda, the opening text reads. Hello Hulda, I think. And, almost immediately, in that small marker of a singular and named identity, I formed a connection.
Maija Tammi’s photobook Hulda/Lilli was published as part of her current solo exhibition Empathy Machine at the Finnish Museum of Photography. Like the photobook, Empathy Machine offered visitors a chance to pick their own adventure through two separate but related stories. Blending questions of anthropomorphism with human interrelatedness, there are echoes here of not only Tammi’s 2017 portrait series of androids (One of them is a Human) but also her research dissertation SICK photography: Representations of Sickness in Art Photography (2017), in which Tammi examined our relationship to illness through image. It builds on her longstanding interest in how we think and feel, and the impact both have on us and society more widely. If I had turned the book over, and begun from the other side, I would have met Lilli first. The locust. A prey animal. I would have begun with her story, rather than Hulda’s, and my experience of Tammi’s photobook, and perhaps my interpretation of it, could have been very different.
When writing or visualising stories about animals we learn just as much about ourselves.
Hulda/Lilli is reminiscent of a children’s picture book. The text is clear and the sentences short. Often, text and image are separated, so that one double spread contains a paragraph giving context to Hulda’s existence. Hulda is pregnant and has an insatiable appetite. She cannot help but eat the crickets, the beetles, the caterpillars and the flies that enter her sight path. Her aunt and two of her cousins died of exhaustion after overeating and producing too many eggs. The same, eventually, will happen to her. Told without any sentimentality, her story is nonetheless coloured by behaviours that we would recognise as ‘human’. At one point, Hulda sees another chameleon approaching, and she wonders whether it saw her “gobbling up bugs like a little pig”. Shame, it seems, is the main condition of her existence.
Studies vary, but it’s widely held that it isn’t until we are around 4 or 5 years old that we are able to begin associating our own emotions with the feelings of others. Tammi’s book is about how we learn this capability and how it can be manipulated. “In this work I wanted to consciously take apart the way feelings are constructed…Or the phenomenon of how easy it is to get sucked into a story and empathise with the protagonist” she writes. Here, empathy is built through storytelling. Elsewhere, as we move into adulthood, it’s formed through the news cycle, targeted advertising campaigns, and the ongoing fascination we have with documentaries, from true crime to nature shows.
Unsurprisingly, in a British context at least, it’s David Attenborough that I’m reminded of. The nearly-century-old broadcaster dominates a field of BBC programming about the natural world both abroad and in the UK. Back in 2017, when Blue Planet II aired, a scene of a mother Pilot Whale and her pod grieving her dead newborn calf, potentially killed by chemical contamination through their mother’s (microplastic filled) milk led to a spike in public interest around plastic consumption. At the time, a friend who works in sustainability consultancy remarked on a rise, after this episode aired, in the number of businesses requesting their help in making their offices plastic free. It is not only that empathy allows us to understand and share the feelings of another, non-human species, but that such feelings can lead to action. Hulda/Lilli doesn’t explicitly argue for a way forward, but draws back the curtain to reveal the mechanisms that go into creating a particular directional narrative.
Studies vary, but it’s widely held that it isn’t until we are around 4 or 5 years old that we are able to begin associating our own emotions with the feelings of others. Tammi’s book is about how we learn this capability and how it can be manipulated.
But, also, Hulda/Lilli is fun. It’s playful in both form and content. Tammi’s photographs are of clearly constructed scenes. She worked with multiple chameleons to make her photographs. Most appear to have been shot in the studio. Effective lighting allows for accurate representation of texture and colour, making each image seem at once hyperreal and strangely uncanny in their stillness. In one, a flash of stomach, padded feet and tail as Hulda climbs down a gnarled branch topped with waxy leaves. In another, the dense tangle of the cherry tree almost hides Hulda completely, so that you’re forced to find her. There’s one where Hulda looks positively cute, clinging to the stalk of a leaf and looking out into the distance with her huge eyes. What I mean is, this isn’t a psychological experiment that feels manipulative, and that’s exactly why it works so well to demonstrate how insidious such manipulation can be.
Hulda and Lilli do not meet until the central pages of the book, in what represents the finale for both protagonists. Here, the layout becomes almost filmic, with images and text combining to create a storyboard. There are close up shots of the Hulda’s claw-like toes. Another of her swivelling eye. Then, the final moments in action, wherein macro shots of Lilli the locust and Hulda’s tongue are seen side-by-side, until, sticky with mucus, the tongue makes contact and the next image is Lilli getting swallowed up. That Hulda will catch Lilli seems inevitable, and yet, when it does happen, it feels anticlimactic. The story culminates with both protagonists dying. Lilli is eaten by Hulda. Hulda dies after producing and laying too many eggs than her body is able to take. At the end of the story Tammi takes us back to a world that is unfamiliar in its everyday brutality and its apparent lack of purpose. There is no good and bad, no clear winner or loser.
Like Blue Planet II, I’d describe Hulda/Lilli as political. At a time when identities have become notably entrenched (you are either with, or against), a book like Hulda/Lilli has never felt more timely. Blue Planet II was never just about sealife. Hulda/Lilli is not just about a pregnant chameleon and a doomed locust. When writing or visualising stories about animals we learn just as much about ourselves. In the case of Hulda/Lilli, Tammi argues that it’s worth considering the stories that have influenced our own thinking around why we think certain groups are deserving of empathy, while others are not.