How these two photographers got inside the minds of animals
Jasper Doest and Paolo Verzone were among the photographers who captured the rich inner lives of animals for National Geographic‘s October cover story.
Published September 15, 2022
6 min read
We know that dogs and cats can feel happy, stressed, grumpy, or scared–and dogs can even “catch” their owners’ emotions. What about rats that have empathy? The team behind National Geographic‘s October feature story explores how a wide array of animals exhibit complex emotions similar to ours.
In addition to Vincent Lagrange’s cover image of a Canadian sphynx cat, National Geographic recruited several talented photographers to capture animal minds across the globe. Jasper Doest, Paolo Verzone were our interviewees to learn more about their ability to capture the “animal minds” of their subjects.
What’s the story behind the cover?
This month’s cover story explores the many ways animals are capable of displaying sophisticated emotions, such as empathy and kindness. Behavioral studies have helped us to understand that animals can also display emotional abilities.
Doest photographed the Japanese macaque staring at its reflection in the mirror, as well as the Australian shepherd getting scanned in a magnetic resonance imaging machine. He said that both images presented him with different challenges, and required him to think on his feet.
Photographing the Australian shepherd was technically difficult because Doest couldn’t use lighting in the sterile white room where the image was taken. This could scare the dog as well as ruin the MRI output.
“I found a way to keep my distance but still get up close and personal, so people feel like they’re still there with the dog,” he says.
For the Japanese macaque, Doest photographed the animal in a park where wild monkeys come and go as they please. He says that many distractions surrounded him which forced him to wait and be patient, rather than running around with the monkeys.
Although each worked on their own, Doest and Verzone share similar sentiments when it comes to the impact of this story.
Doest hopes readers will look at animals differently and gain a new sense of empathy for their experience. He says that humans and animals are not so different. “We look different and maybe behave differently, but it doesn’t mean we’re complete opposites or are more important than they are.”
Verzone agrees that animals can teach us so much if we pay attention to them. He was asked to photograph a Tel Aviv University behavioral study that examined consolation behavior in rats. In particular, Verzone was asked to see if the rats would release a trapped rat from a tube. Researchers discovered that rats were compassionate towards the trapped rats and would release them if they belonged to their social group.
“I learned so much from photographing them,” Verzone says. “Their capabilities to empathize surprised me completely.”
The photo shoot came with its own set of challenges–including the smell of rat excrement in the lab–but Verzone approached it with an open mind. Verzone allowed himself an extra hour to watch the rats and listen as the scientists explained their work.
“This was not in my field of work. Verzone, a portrait photographer, says that he rarely interacts with animals so it was an interesting challenge. “I immediately went into this mindset of portraits … I had to understand them.”
In setting up the perfect image, Verzone also played around with the lighting, asking the scientists to let him know if the rats were showing signs of discomfort, until he felt a connection with his subject.
By the end of the shoot, the Italian photographer gained a life lesson: Empathy can come naturally for people, but others can develop their own emotional capacities by learning more about the inner lives of animals.
“Learning from them is an important thing for us,” he says. “For a better dialogue with nature, this story is the key to the future.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.