Beijing Through Sidney Gamble's Camera 一百年前的北京社会–西德尼·甘博摄影图片展

A Critical Animal Studies Approach to Photography: Camels in the Sidney D. Gamble Collection

by Kelly C. Tang, Camera Asia, December 9, 2014


Camels have both affective and utilitarian significance. As a token of tribute, facilitator of trade along the Silk Road, and a symbol of human toil in Lao She’s novel Rickshaw Boy (Luotuo Xiangzi, 1937) the Bactrian (two-humped) camel exists in the rich terrains of the tangible and the imaginary. When Sidney D. Gamble (1890-1968), American sociologist and Sinologist, photographed the animals between 1917 and 1927, he captured them in various states of work, rest, and movement and stasis. Neither a pet nor an ordinary farm animal, this unusually resilient and capable “beast of burden” is highly valued, admired, and revered for its desert hardiness. But the camel’s strange gait, lumpy body, and large ears have also had it starkly contrast to the perfect balance, logic, and utility of the wheel. The wheel is considered “one of mankind’s cleverest inventions,” while “the camel [is] to be one of God’s clumsiest.”[1] This comparison to the wheel will be revisited later, but for now it suffices as a clue to some of the buried baggage between the human and the animal. With sensitivity toward this multidimensionality, I investigate how Gamble’s dynamic, documentary images of camels proffer more than just the indexed existence of camels during his travels. They also demand the recognition of agency, order, and presence in the animal subject that upends the humanist, Cartesian, and Western scientific underpinnings of photography itself. This recognition unfolds the humanity of the camera, identifies the human as an animal, and positions the camera as an eye of the animal, with the potential for further configurations.

Developing this recognition of agency, order, and presence through Gamble’s camel photographs is an attempt to theorize some of the possible analytical contributions critical animal studies can lend to the history of photography. The purpose of such an investigation is to question the assumptions, universal applicability, and systematic oversights of an anthropocentric history of photography. Reading these images with this purpose constitutes an anthrozoological approach; a method that excavates interactions between humans and other species in the hopes of nuancing the moral, aesthetic, and historical issues embedded in the making, collecting, viewing, and researching of photographic images. By beginning with a non-hierarchical perspective, this mode of analysis restores some degree of agency to the animal.

I position this method in opposition to anthropomorphizing interpretation, which prioritizes human behaviors and qualities, but does not differentiate amongst the animal, vegetal, or mineral. This indiscriminateness is a limitation, when highlighting the specificities push the particularly knotty questions of photographic analysis closer toward satisfactory resolution. Despite the relative novelty (and contested usefulness) of this approach in the humanities, critical animal studies is fundamentally invested in the “philosophical questioning of the contemporary status both of the subject and of ethics [original emphasis],” a concern that is absolutely central to scholarly inquiries on the history of photography.[2] Perhaps the numerous contradictions and contingencies characterizing humans’ relationships with other species can provoke questions about photographs to enrich our understanding of agency, gazes, and history.

My reading of the animal subject is organized around four single images and a pair of images from a larger set of twenty-two images. With each selection, I test different ideas in the critical animal studies toolbox and employ them in careful readings of the photograph. In working through these implications, the numerous arguments about the animal-human-camera triangle begin to map out the field of critical animal studies and its value to the discipline of photography.

The triangular relationship articulated in the photograph titled Camel Head is particularly fascinating. (Figure 1) But before taking into account the camera, the photograph’s anthrozoological content must be established. The dominant foreground of the photograph is a double portrait of a camel and a man in an urban street. Two curious onlookers stand before the slightly blurry background of a large wooden building. One is a child peeking out from behind the camel, while the other is a pensive-looking adult male standing behind some cargo. This hierarchy of background and foreground establishes two distinct anthrozoological interactions: the first between the camel and the man in immediate proximity, and the second between the camel and the group of human figures.

In the first instance, the powerful s-curve of the camel’s head and neck casts a dark shadow across the torso of the man, whose body leans just slightly away from the camel. Between the camel’s protruding neck and muzzle and the man’s withdrawing body exists a space of two presences. Presence is an articulation of agency; more than simple coexistence, the camel’s presence expands into the man’s presence. Gamble’s camera has captured the moment of the man’s presence contracting, a withdrawal that is most visibly paralleled in the man’s left hand sleeve. The curled fingers are in a loose fist that is defensive and not aggressive. This retracting of the hand is especially noticeable when compared to the camel’s teeth. The bottom teeth of the camel, one of the brightest highlights in an overall well-balanced photograph, jut out of its mouth. Starting from this row of teeth, then moving to the camel’s shadow, the retreating hand, and finally to the man’s shadow on the cargo is a diagonal gradient of diminishing presence. The hand and the cast shadow intensify the appearance of the man’s tilt. Further, the direction the man’s feet point away from the camel, as though in preemptive escape. This man is the only figure in the image that wholly exists in the frame. Despite this, the camel’s presence somehow radiates outward from its position just left of center, visibly occupying the majority of the photograph in a way that none of the human figures do, despite their greater number and synchronized, direct gaze outward. How does the camel command its subjectivity?

The anthrozoological relationship between the camel and these human figures as a group is different from the aforementioned one-to-one relationship. In addition to the man directly beside the camel, the group is composed of a child with his body partially obscured by the camel’s body and a man on the far right standing behind the cargo, also partially obscured. Though the camel’s body is also partial and there are more human figures, the muscular neck and chiseled head of the camel is aligned like a caryatid with one of the load-bearing posts in the background architecture. The building in the background extends the reach of the camel and contains each of the human figures; each of their presences is demarcated and enclosed. Containing the human and accentuating the animal in the photograph raises some interesting questions about the loyalties of the camera.

The camera as having multiple loyalties is a central tenet of positions that challenge the unquestionable indexicality of the photograph. But in the critical animal studies context, the handling of these loyalties can produce slightly different conclusions. If Camel Head is a photograph that captures the formation of the animal subject in a way that reveals the animal’s agency and presence, then what is the characterization of the eye of the camera? More specifically, what is the work of the camera, as it is implicated in the image, when an animal’s gaze is involved? Though the camel’s right eye may be looking back at the camera and confronting it directly, the shadowiness around the eye socket does not seems to absorb the camera’s gaze and reciprocate in kind. That the camel could reciprocate however, is an interesting possibility because it positions the camera in a moment where its disembodied existence becomes embodied.

Embodiment, a concept I borrow from phenomenology, is introduced here to convey a sense of the camera having a presence as well. Because bodies (not floating lenses) have presence, the work of the camera is precisely phenomenological in the way that Maurice Merleau-Ponty explains through the metaphor of the blind man’s stick: “The blind man’s stick has ceased to be an object for him, and is no longer perceived for itself; its point has become an area of sensitivity, extending the scope and active radius of touch, and providing a parallel to sight.”[3] Merleau-Ponty’s larger point about perception is that instead of apprehending the world in abstract, infinite, Cartesian space with objects in suspension, perception is the unified mind and body’s constant negotiation of multiple horizons (belonging to viewers, objects, etc.) crossing and uncrossing.

This brief digression into phenomenology is important to Camel Head because the camera’s embodied gazing in photographing the camel, thus producing the image we have, is better conceptualized as a convergence of horizons (the camera’s and the camel’s). At this convergence, the camera, the source of the image, is momentarily confronted with existential uncertainty. Does the camel know it is being photographed? What does it mean for the camera to care whether or not the camel has this knowledge? This questioning and the consequent questioning of the previous question is a curious anthrozoological dilemma that parallels Jacques Derrida’s oft-repeated anecdote about his confrontation with a cat. His humorous narrative prefaces a larger investigation of “Who am I at this moment? Who am I that I should experience myself (and my cat) in this way?”[4] The camera’s self-reflexivity in Camel Head highlights the extent to which the animal’s gaze has the capacity to challenge the human one. Derrida writes in The Animal That Therefore I Am,

The impropriety of a certain animal nude before another animal… the single, incomparable and original experience of the impropriety that would come from appearing in truth naked, in front of the insistent gaze of the animal, a benevolent or pitiless gaze, surprised or cognizant. The gaze of a seer, a visionary or extra-lucid blind one. It is as if I were ashamed, therefore, naked in front of this cat, but also ashamed for being ashamed. A reflected shame, the mirror of a shame ashamed of itself, a shame that is at the same time specular, unjustifiable, and unavowable.[5]


Derrida’s cat “is an other like no other: l’autre absolu—transcendent with respect to his (Derrida’s) superior powers of speech and reason, and above all imposing on Derrida a philosophical and, more strictly, an ethical demand.”[6]

Likewise, the camel in Camel Head imposes a burden on the camera, one that the humans in the photograph do not. The burden is one of recognition, the recognition of being a photographic subject. In this way, the animal-human-camera triangle is modified to align the human closer to the camera. This uneasy alliance deteriorates the objectivity of the camera. Without objectivity, the animal’s gaze may become the locus of truth. What is the gaze of the animal? Derrida writes about its “bottomless gaze,”

as with the eyes of the other, the gaze called animal offers to my [Derrida’s] sight the abyssal limit of the human: the inhuman or the ahuman, the ends of man, that is to say the bordercrossing from which vantage man dares to announce himself to himself, thereby calling himself by the name that he believes he gives himself. And in these moments of nakedness, under the gaze of the animal, everything can happen to me…[7]


This “bordercrossing” becomes the meeting horizons in which each agent has experienced a kind of role transformation. In the animal’s gaze, the human is made ahuman, but in this way it is possibly closer to animal than before. The camera is also made subjective, but with its awareness, it is now possibly closer to humanity. Thus, the animal itself, the eponymous camel in Camel Head, is possibly the most truthful in its presence.

Closer analysis of the camel’s gaze is also fruitful to the discussion of a photograph titled Well Camel. (Figure 2) Bearing some similarities to Camel Head, this photograph has the same vertical format and multiple human figures. The four camels (one’s head is in shadow as it drinks) are clustered around a large water receptacle while it is being filled by a man with a woven basket with a thick rope attached. Pressed tightly together, the camels are largely concentrated on the right side of the photograph. Also stacked compactly on the left are three people, two of whom turn away from the camera. Between the two groups, a slice of the background is visible: an urban street with buildings, more people, and telephone poles that continue behind the camels.

The organizing convention of these numerous elements and groups of figures is the meeting of the woven basket with the larger, circular bucket. The relationship between the human and the animal runs along the coiled rope that bisects the left side of the picture and leads to the basket pouring (most likely) water. But while the rope, the pouring water, and the gaze of the man holding the basket all collect inside the cylindrical bucket, the gazes of the camels with their heads held up are all directed toward an unknown sight outside the frame. Gamble’s camera has captured one gaze in particular, that of the camel closest to the foreground, with a bright glint. Curiously, the white of this glint, like the teeth in Camel Head, is one of the brightest spots in the photograph. Capturing this glint has important implications in man and camel relationships.

For instance, in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1910-1911, the camel is considered “an undomesticated and savage animal rendered serviceable by stupidity alone, without much skill on his master’s part, or any cooperation on his own, save that of extreme passiveness. Neither attachment nor even habit impresses him; never tame, though not wide-awake enough to be exactly wild.”[8] Within this continuous string of denigrating observations, the tipping point for the camel’s awkward indifference is qualified through the criterion of being “awake,” a state of being often conveyed through the eyes. The importance of the eyes in a photograph has already been established at length, but the importance of eyes in the human-animal relationship has a particular kink.

Anthrozoologist Hal Herzog dedicates an entire chapter of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat to “The Importance of Being Cute.” He writes that, “while cuteness may not count in the rarified world of moral philosophy, it matters a lot in how most people think about the treatment of other species. For instance, one of the biggest factors in how much money people say they would donate to help an endangered species is the size of the animal’s eyes.”[9] Furthermore, the instinct to to be “innately drawn to anything that looks like a baby” is called the “cute response,” a reaction to the features young animals share with human infants: “large foreheads and craniums, big eyes, bulging cheeks, and soft contours.”[10] In focusing on instinct, not choice, Herzog presents a rather deterministic view of how the eyes of an animal dictate the human-animal relationship. Sidestepping an assessment of the camel’s cuteness, I do find the idea of instinct as being highly relevant to photography. The camera equally does not have a clear “choice” to capture the reflected light in the camel’s eye, but it does so out of a mechanical instinct in response to conditions of light, shadow, focal length, the unpredictable movements of the camels, etc. The pronounced glint of the camel’s eye suggests that a contradiction of the Encyclopaedia Britannica might be in order, but more interestingly, that a sense of an animal’s consciousness, as articulated through the eyes, can be produced out of something like a “camera’s instinct.”

To continue the discussion of the gaze, we look to the two camels on the right, their heads and necks stacked with very little sense of depth, which have gazes that project upward before moving outward. Without being able to reconcile the target of the camels’ attention, the vacuum is temporarily filled through the viewer’s phenomenological mapping of the horizons of the photograph. This process of replacement juxtaposes the camel’s gaze with the telephone poles in the background, which though faint, are orthogonals that direct vision. Spindly, perpendicular, and rhythmically spaced, the contrast between the telephone poles and the bulky, curvy, and hairy camels is also a contrast between wildness and civilization.

Though the domestication of Bactrian camels utilized for transport purposes was known in China as early as 200 BCE, the propensity to doubt the species’ position on the spectrum of tame/wild is clearly not one limited to the amusing entry in the early twentieth-century edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.[11] Harriet Ritvo writes that perception of an animal’s wildness “included a large measure of wishful thinking,” rather than the reality of the animal’s domestication, and growing interest in zoos and menageries at this time was not merely coincidence.[12] To fill these exhibition spaces, Ritvo writes,“So difficult (or undesirable) had it become to distinguish between wild animals and tame ones that exotic breeds of domestic dogs were exhibited in Victorian zoos, and small wild felines were exhibited in some early cat shows.”[13] The slippery reversal of pets into wild animals through such mindset shifts reveals how the camel’s position at the intersection of utility and affect might still be enveloped in larger frameworks about human civilization. The anthrozoological relationship implicated in Well Camel bears some of this longstanding burden, even though what links the human to the animal in the photograph is literally the mutual dependence on hydration (represented by the woven basket with water) to sustain life.

Establishing some of the connections that reconnect the human to its own animal condition is certainly a part of critical animal studies’ position. This reconnection might conceive of a camera’s “instinct” rather than a camera’s “truth.” Distinguishing between the two in this case lends further support to the prosthesis position. Arguing that in one photograph, the camera behaves as an animal and that in another, the camera apprehends the world as a human, are two aspects of a position attuned to the multiple sensitivities of the prosthesis.

Thus far, the importance of the prosthesis in the camera’s mapping out of the world has been traced through Camel Head and Well Camel. In Camels Resting, the camera produces more of a landscape in which a flock of camels, some standing, some crouching, gather in groups and rows. (Figure 3) A tall thirteen-story pagoda stands prominently amongst other buildings and trees beyond the wall. As with Well Camel, Camels Resting layers the camel bodies so that the merging of limbs, humps, and shadows makes individual differentiation impossible. A direct comparison to Chinese literati landscape painting risks ahistoricity, but the manner in which the camels bodies from the foreground to the middle ground produces a variegated, undulating terrain with peaks and valleys of flesh layering into the horizon. This sense of topography is enhanced through the camera’s focus on the row of camels standing on the right side of the photograph, behind the cluster of crouching camels. Relative clarity farther away or playing with different scales of distance is an optical technique in landscape painting to signify the imagined journey to be undertaken.

The camera’s alignment of that row of camels with the horizon produces a phenomenological space of partial views. In Camels Resting, some camels are visible from the side, while others are visible from the front. The obstructed camels standing behind another body are completely fragmentary and irreconcilable to the whole. The photograph’s partial view of the incomplete camel bodies points to the double impossibility of reconstituting the absolute whole, because neither the camera nor someone standing in the scene at the moment of exposure (and certainly not viewers of photographs today) are capable of viewing anything from every possible perspective at once. This partiality complements the tension between photography and (Cartesian) indexicality that has been discussed through the previous two images.

The assumption of the absolute whole, unified, and rational body is an essential building block to not just Cartesian space but also the space of the modernist, urban city. Despite the lack of actual humans in Camels Resting, the prominent architectural elements of the photograph are the built world of human civilization. Catherine Ingraham contends that “Viewing architecture from the point of view of life—in its full array of manifestations—also suggests how we might now understand… ‘aliveness’ in architectural work…”[14] The animation of the architectural is important to establishing an understanding of how architecture has presence. Acknowledging this presence can modify assumptions about how a photograph of animals and architecture can capture pathways of experiencing space (modern, urban space in this case) that might otherwise be invisible. The stakes of this argument have particular resonance for the camel, an animal whose essential utility in numerous world civilizations for millennia displaced the wheel. Pathways built with the camel in mind are associated with disorder, backwardness, and filth.

By contrast, a modern city, as conceived by Le Corbusier, was not a place for animals in either functional or liminal capacities. He expresses his disdain not through the camel, but through the donkey, another animal continuously associated with dimwittedness. Ingraham explains that

The wandering, mindless donkey, for Le Corbusier, was the instructive foil to the straightness of the lines that humans draw in the world. Thus, ancient cities organized around animal paths are, according to Le Corbusier, sites of congestion and disease, while modern cities exhibit their health by means of straight avenues based on right angles.[15]


In Camels Resting, the undulating “terrain” of camels I have described is at odds with the perpendicularity and strict linearity of Le Corbusier’s city. But Bulliet astutely comments that “Disorder requires explanation only if order is taken to be normative.”[16] Furthermore, the donkey urbanism that Le Corbusier so disparages, produces “narrow, winding streets… [that] easily follow the lay of the land; in hot countries they provide shade; they diminish winds; they permit a higher density of habitation which in turn makes a sizable city accessible to pedestrians; they facilitate social relationships; and they are easily defensible.”[17] In a similar vein, Ingraham’s critique of Le Corbusier is that,“if you are riding a donkey or carrying things by donkey then the much-maligned ‘donkey paths’ that Le Corbusier proposes replacing with more ‘rational’ avenues are, in fact, the more rational of the two pathways.”[18] But Camels Resting is absent of movement, marked paths, or active labor, so what might a “camel urbanism” reading entail?

The camel in the foreground is oriented diagonal and away from the viewer. Its slightly turned away body acts to draw the viewer into the recessive space of the photograph. As this embodied entry occurs and the vector of gaze meets the horizon line, the two forward-facing camels block the path from moving beyond the right-hand edge of the photograph. Instead, the path turns a corner and lingers momentarily at the base of the pagoda. The pause at this waypoint in the photograph is like rounding a bend and having an extensive panorama revealed and the vastly empty sky gives space for exhalation and transcendental, aesthetic appreciation.

From there, the leftward facing camel, whose nose tip aligns with the horizontal wall, defines the rest of the path. These remaining camels point in multiple directions, but they are subsumed under the hierarchy of the previous camel and the wall. As the left edge of the photograph is approached, the last five camels, facing away from the viewer, all direct their heads leftward in a continuous line to an unknown destination outside the frame. The cut-off pile of cargo on the left side contributes to the possibility of more path.

A path constructed through the photograph in this way is not simply another formal reading of the surface. Teasing out the logic of animal bodies in along an invisible path through photographic space implicates the role of the camera in revealing paths that are disguised or obscured in the chaos of ordinary traffic of urban spaces. As Bulliet succinctly puts it, “Camels, donkeys, and pedestrians do not need paved roads.”[19]

Identifying invisible paths is also a part of the strategy for Camels & Mine Mouth. (Figure 4) This photograph is particularly distinctive because Gamble’s camera is a great distance away from the camels, human figures, and the mine encampment. The camera’s vantage point is level with the trio of people standing slightly removed from the buildings, camp activities, and the camels. This relative removal and elevation seems to bear similarity to the conventions of aerial photography. However, the photograph’s organizing scheme of multiple concentric circles restricts sight inward instead of laying out an expanse of land suitable to the meandering eye.

The concentric circles start with the outermost edges of the photograph in which the mountain face completely fills in the top, an unfocused piece of foliage in shadow restricts the right, another leafy branch limits the bottom edge, and the rectangular building and the rest of the mountain walls off the left side. Within this ring, the path that cuts across the mountain, the three human figures, the building in the distance, and the position of the camera across from them completes the secondary circle. Next, the two buildings and the outer edge of the clearing encircle the caravan of camels. In a circular clearing, the camels are divided into two smaller groups. The camel groups further encircle a formation of carrying bags are propped upright to mimic the curvature of the space on a camel’s back. These doubled over carrying bags have a presence that is multiplied through repetition in the clearing, gradually spiraling to the human hunched over in a similar fashion as he works. This rather unusual focus point for a photograph connects the labor of the camel as a beast of burden to the human labor being performed for other humans without resorting to simile or anthropomorphisms.

Looking for these reversals and surprises to furnish an anthrozoological reading is not purposeless avoidance of the “main subject” of the photograph, as if a definitive subject could be straightforwardly gleaned from Gamble’s title Camels & Mine Mouth. The indirect approach that is necessary to consider the many elements of this photograph, which might be very easily disregarded as banal record of Gamble’s trip preparations, can be characterized as “veering.” Dawn McCance describes veering as

‘…kinetic and dynamic,’ offering a ‘mobile arsenal of images and ideas for thinking differently,’ impelling us ‘towards new questions,’ and offering ‘fresh slants.’ …Veering is not human, or not only human. Other animals veer. So do objects, such as stars. The theory of veering is non-anthropocentric. It gets away from the supposition that we human animals are at the centre of ‘our’ environment.[20]


Reflecting on the human experience through a larger, dynamic constellation of animal, object, and environment in the photograph unfreezes the camera from its tripod and is a kind of analysis that flows kinetically within the photograph, just like the perpetual ricocheting of light necessary to produce the image in the first place.

Veering might also take the form of analyzing the camels’ collective gaze, which is directed to the left of the image. In previous examples, such as in Well Camel, the gaze (and the glint) towards something not signified within the photograph could still compose an interesting juxtaposition. In Camel & Mine Mouth, the orientation of the two buildings in the mid-ground of the photograph reinforce the camels’ gaze. Together, the buildings and the camels surveil the mine site that is presumed to stretch before them, in a collaboration that might also speak to Ingraham’s concerns about the “aliveness” of architecture, first discussed in regards to Camels Resting. Ingraham’s ideas might be usefully applied to consider how the nomadic, camel-centric lifestyle produces life cycles of architecture as buildings are seldom permanent and their relationship to each other can have highly fluid divisions of interiority and exteriority. She explains,

These sides [of the body] are both symmetrical—reversed, mirror images of each other—and asymmetrical: one reflection comes from a place outside the body, the other is a three-dimensional “house” in space, a body with an interior… The asymmetry between inside and outside conditions in advance the relation of part to whole—partitioning and resistance to partitioning—that has characterized our understanding of life.[21]


This interplay between the numerous asymmetries of architecture, the human body, and the animal in Camel & Mine Mouth further expands the scope of anthrozoological analysis.

The human and the animal are much more intimate in the two Camel & Rider images. (Figures 5 and 6) Images of an animal with its rider are a genre of their own. However, the well-known equestrian portrait archetype is one of absolute dominance over the animal and is often employed allegorically as a display of state and/or military triumph. These Gamble photographs may present an experiment with the equestrian portrait that shifts the traditional power dynamic into one of symbiotic codependence. Gamble has photographed the same camel and the same rider twice: in Figure 5, the background, with its oblique, craggy mountain, is much more dramatic, but is otherwise nearly identical to Figure 6. In the latter, the camel and rider together cast a clear shadow onto the ground and the stones in the foreground and the stone wall behind them are much more in focus, framing the photograph much more tightly. In both images, the rider looks out to the camera, but the gaze is modulated more differently through the camel’s form.

The camel in Figure 5 has its legs in perfect position for visibility and balance. As though in a freeze frame, each leg is extended and each muscle is flexed. Figure 5 is a photograph that is much more evocative of late nineteenth-century American photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s (1830-1904) scientifically ground-breaking set of images proving that all of a horse’s feet in mid-gallop do leave the ground completely. The camel’s rhythmically placed legs form a triangle in which the rider’s head is at the apex. Compositionally, this internal balance weakens the outward gaze of the human rider which stays within the confines of the stable triangle, emptied of penetrative force. This camel, despite being in motion, is the opposite of Muybridge’s flying horse, having all four feet firmly planted on the ground. The effect of both stasis and inertia has great affective qualities as well. What comes to mind are Scottish photographer John Thomson’s (1837-1921) photographs of subjects captured in immense quietude and stillness. (Figure 7) Thomson’s photograph of a “Pekingese Camel” in his 1874 Illustrations of China and Its People is perhaps the formal extreme of what Gamble has captured in Figure 5, but the comparison demonstrates the interactions between form and subject in photography.

By contrast, the gaze in Figure 6 is given space to radiate. The rocks in the foreground, which are much blurrier in Figure 5, are repeated in perspectival layers receding into the space of the photograph. Two registers of rocks delineate the dirt along which the camel and rider move. Two more registers of stone walls behind them add to the penetrative range of the gaze. As in the previous Camel & Rider photograph, the camel’s legs help along the anthrozoological program of this photograph. The disappearance of the camel’s fourth leg behind the hind leg creates a negative space for shadow to crystallize. In the shadow, there is no perceptible separation between the camel and its rider. It is important to point out that this merging is not the creation of a hybrid form combining elements of the human and the animal. Instead, it is an instance of the human becoming seamlessly incorporated into the animal, like a prosthesis. The shadow retains more of its camel form than the human, and the human becomes the extension of the animal.

The transformed animal form in the shadow is useful for further thinking about the vantage point that produced this image. Somewhere behind the rider’s head, along the row of buildings in the background is the “camera-level” of the photograph; this latitude is also where the rider’s gaze meets the camera’s gaze. In order for this alignment to occur, and to best capture the motion inherent to the subject, it is interesting to entertain the possibility that Gamble must have taken this image while sitting on top of a camel as well. This “camera-on-camel”-level captures the world in a way that is not singularly through the eyes of the camel, through the eyes of the human rider, or through the eye of the camera. It is precisely the three elements working together that have produced the image, even though the excavation of this system required quite a bit of veering. I have made this conclusion without corroborating evidence from the rest of the Gamble collection with hope that the anthrozoological method that produced the conclusion might develop similar research for other groups of Gamble’s photographs.

The “camera-on-camel” idea has inspired new ways of looking at mapping and photography, even in the present day. On October 10, 2014, The Guardian published an article online about a ten-year old one-humped camel named Raffia that

has become the very first animal to help with Google’s mapping missions, using one of the company’s Trekker cameras to capture the landscape of the Liwa Desert in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE)… The resulting film and still photographs show the desert’s rolling sand dunes, an oasis, fellow camels, scuttling sand and some gangly camera-and-camel shadows.[22] (Figures 8 and 9)


A Google spokesperson has stated “With every environment and every location, we try to customise the capture and how we do it for that part of the environment. In the case of Liwa we fashioned it in a way so that it [the Trekker camera] goes on a camel so that it can capture imagery in the best, most authentic and least damaging way.”[23] The anthrozoological strains of this Google mapping project are fascinating for the extrapolation and circling back of the ideas I have contended about Gamble’s photographs, which pre-date this Google project by about a century. In the time that separates these two productions, the most disruptive transition is the impact of the digital on practices of photography. When so many narratives about the digital age emphasize loss, the unusual continuities can also be a reminder of not just what has endured over time, but also the sometimes-overlooked collaborators of our collective human and animal history.

Before concluding this paper, I will briefly present some of the limitations of the critical animal studies approach that has been developed in numerous directions over several photographs. Critical animal studies, like any other methodology, is not infallible. Its selectivity and preference for certain paths through the image over others illustrates a history and addresses a public that overlooks alternative histories and publics.

For example, my anthrozoological reading of the difficult and obscure Camel & Mine Mouth (Figure 4) does not explore the further possibilities of the three figures who stand removed and elevated from the main clearing. Even at an incredible distance away from the camera, the clothing and stances of these figures convincingly identifies them as Westerners. (The casual contropposto of the leftmost figure would be quite well-placed in a Felice Beato tableau.)  I also entertained the possibility that either the rightmost or the leftmost figure, both of whom don bright white (or other light colored) caps, could likely be Sidney Gamble himself. (Figure 10) That Gamble also clearly favored knee-high socks (which are visible in Camel & Mine Mouth) during his travels helps to corroborate inquiries into the authorship of this photograph and others in the collection. At the heart of this sort of investigation is the important concern about the politics of Americans and Europeans like Gamble who go to China, employ local labor, and utilize local resources that produce policies, build infrastructure, and formulate ideas that mediate power in frequently imbalanced gradients. Though power differentials are germane to anthrozoology and critical animal studies more largely, their significance is diverted elsewhere to answer altogether different questions about the same material.

Secondly, the work of critical animal studies in the case of the Gamble collection is intertwined with the incredible capabilities of the digital archive, which has made looking at extreme detail far more possible. As a critical animal studies novice, zooming into details that would be impossible to discern on a negative or a print was essential in building up sufficient momentum to overcome the default tendency to think anthropocentrically. I consider this in the context of limitations because the applicability of a new methodology does depend somewhat on its user-friendliness. For visual material, this technological assistance is not often available. Still, as critical animal studies gains more momentum (which currently appears to be the case) perhaps the anthropocentric foundations of research may become more easily and frequently disturbed.

Finally, a critical animal studies approach, despite its move away from anthropocentrism, does rely on a conception of human-animal relationships that are not universal. In fact, the concerns about power inequalities and exploitation that fuels critical animal studies might be more broadly situated in the anxieties that accompany post-industrial Western experience, as the depletion of natural resources and animal species directly implicates human abuse. Furthermore, the rich symbolism, idiom, and metaphor involving animals in Chinese language alone can begin to reveal the assumptions that critical animal studies makes in leveraging its critique. One need not look very far in the popular imagination for humans that can transform into animals (and vice versa) or instances in which evoking the animal experience is the far more insightful or meaningful expression of the human. Mentioned at the beginning of the paper, the early twentieth-century novel Rickshaw Boy densely weaves the narrative around the idea of the camel and the main character as one. Indeed, the cleavages and fusions between animals and humans are absolutely not ethically burdened in the same way universally.

The camel photographs in the Sidney D. Gamble collection, when read well beyond their documentary or souvenir capacities in a critical animal studies approach, present a surface on which to ruminate an alternate ecosystem of interactions. These interactions can generate surprising interpretive detours that can radically transform assumptions about early twentieth-century photography and the work of the camera. From instances in which the camera is interpellated as an embodied human presence to examples of the camera’s complete integration into the body of the animal, the camera both fabricates and witnesses. Throughout this paper, anthrozoological interpretation has tried to sort out these fragments and shards of relative veracity in Gamble’s camel photographs, to variable success and coherence. In doing so, the hope is to have pushed questions of the gaze, agency, and history towards new horizons.

Figure 1. Sidney Gamble, Camel Head, 1917-27, Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Camel Head, 1917-27

Camel Head, 1917-27


Figure 2. Sidney Gamble, Well Camel, 1917-27, Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Well Camel, 1917-27

Well Camel, 1917-27

Figure 3. Sidney Gamble, Camels Resting, 1917-27, Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

Camels Resting, 1917-27

Camels Resting, 1917-27

Figure 4. Sidney Gamble, Camel & Mine Mouth, 1917-27, Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.


Camel & Mine Mouth, 1917-27


Figures 5 and 6. Sidney Gamble, Camel & Rider, 1917-27, Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David

Camel & Rider, 1917-27

Camel & Rider, 1917-27

Camel & Rider, 1917-27

Camel & Rider, 1917-27

  1. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Figure 7. John Thomson, The Pekingese Camel, before 1898, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Figure 8. “Raffia and her guide walk through the Liwa desert.” 2014. Photograph by Google, caption by The Guardian.


Figure 9. “Camel shadows in the Liwa desert.” 2014. Photograph by Google, caption by The Guardian.


Figure 10. Sidney Gamble, Shanhaiguan Qu (Qinhuangdao Shi), 1917-19, Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Sidney Gamble, Shanhaiguan, 1917-19

Sidney Gamble, Shanhaiguan, 1917-19


Bruns, Gerald. “Derrida’s Cat (Who Am I?).” Research in Phenomenology 38, no. 3 (September 1, 2008): 404–23.

Bulliet, Richard W. The Camel and the Wheel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Animal That I Therefore Am (More to Follow).” Translated by David Wills. Critical Inquiry 28, no. 2 (2002): 369–418.

Herzog, Hal. Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why Its so Hard to Think Straight about Animals. New York: Harper, 2010.

Ingraham, Catherine. Architecture, Animal, Human: The Asymmetrical Condition. London; New York: Routledge, 2006.

Landes, Joan B., Paula Young Lee, and Paul Youngquist, eds. Gorgeous Beasts: Animal Bodies in Historical Perspective. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012.

McCance, Dawne. Critical Animal Studies: An Introduction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. London; New York: Routledge, 2002.

Parkinson, Hannah Jane. “Google Camel View: Trekker Camera Documents Liwa Desert.” The Guardian, October 10, 2014.

[1] Richard W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 7.

[2] Dawne McCance, Critical Animal Studies: An Introduction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013), 122.

[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London; New York: Routledge, 2002), 165.

[4] Gerald L. Bruns, “Derrida’s Cat (Who Am I?),” Research in Phenomenology 38 (2008), 408.

[5] Jacques Derrida, “The Animal That I Therefore Am (More to Follow),” trans. David Wills, Critical Inquiry 28, no. 2 (2002), 372-373.

[6] Bruns, 410.

[7] Derrida, 381.

[8] Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 11th ed., s.v. unknown; cited in Richard W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 217.

[9] Hal Herzog, “The Importance of Being Cute,” Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why Its so Hard to Think Straight about Animals  (New York: Harper, 2010), 37-38.

[10] Ibid., 39.

[11] Bulliet, 156.

[12] Harriet Ritvo, “Calling the Wild,”Gorgeous Beasts: Animal Bodies in Historical Perspective (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012), 111.

[13] Ritvo, 111.

[14] Catherine Ingraham, Architecture, Animal, Human: The Asymmetrical Condition (London: Routledge, 2006), 24.

[15] Ingraham,13.

[16] Bulliet, 225.

[17] Ibid., 224.

[18] Ingraham, 13.

[19] Bulliet, 227.

[20] McCance, 38.

[21] Ingraham, 35.

[22] Hannah Jane Parkinson, “Google Camel View: Trekker Camera Documents Liwa Desert,” The Guardian, October 10, 2014,

[23] Ibid.

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