For centuries, elephants have played a prominent role in Indian society, culture and religion. These exotic mammals are entwined in the traditions of India-woven into the essence of everyday life. Alternately abused and revered, they have been drafted into war, harnessed to work in logging, decorated and paraded in Hindu festivals and worshipped for their connection to Ganesh, an important deity. In a series of striking images portraying India’s elephants in their characteristic magnificence, dignity and individuality, Miami-based photographer Annette Bonnier combines her expertise as a documentary photographer with an artist’s eye for light, composition and emotional subtext.
Bonnier traveled throughout India during a three-year period, photographing elephants both in captivity and the wild. The scope of her images presents a broad and moving narrative of elephants’ lives. While many of the photos document elephants under the control of their mahouts, other images focus on the elephant as individual subject, conveying a profound sense of the animal’s intelligence and emotional depth. Included are gripping portraits from a point of view rarely encountered by humans, as in Close Up Spotted Elephant, Kerala India (2012) in which the frame is consumed by an almost abstract composition of an elephant’s spotted skin and one eye. While traveling on Havelock Island, the photographer documented the daily life of Rajan, a 62 year-old elephant that had been put to work in logging. Bonnier explains that elephants have been taught to swim long distances between islands because it was cheaper than transporting them. Each morning, Rajan would walk to the beach. On two occasions, Bonnier followed him as he entered the water. Among the most captivating photographs in the series are her underwater images of Rajan swimming.
As Bonnier comments, the profound emotional resonance of the images derives from the elephants. “They are highly intelligent and emotional animals,” she says. In Elephant in Forest Sunbeams, Andaman Islands, India (2012) a lone elephant stands at the edge of a landscape dominated by huge trees blocking the sunlight, as if contemplating his place in the world. Bonnier’s images reflect what she describes as the unique dichotomy of Indian culture by which elephants are honored for being related to a Hindu god, while being subjected to terrible cruelty in captivity. This situation, as Bonnier says, “leaves the majestic animal in a unbearable situation that they have endured for too many years.”