Sunday, June 10, 2018

So You Know "They Exist"

Were you to ask me why I do what I do, why I constantly talk and write about insects, why I share images of them, I would have had trouble articulating an answer....until now. I just finished watching a 60 Minutes segment about the French artist JR. His shift from a youthful desire to assert "I exist" to a more altruistic mission of showing "they exist," meaning the everyday person we overlook and neglect, resonated with me immediately. It was an epiphany that brought me to tears. That is exactly why I do what I do. Just substitute "insects" for people.

The shy smile of a dragonfly

There is great power in art, especially at the scale that JR works at. His greatly enlarged images of people, even just their eyes, does more than impact the viewer. It empowers the subjects. Literally depicted larger than life, they suddenly realize they have been important all along. They may live in a slum in Rio, but circumstance, or habitat, if you will, does not diminish their identity. They are human, too, deserving of respect and even celebration.

Collectively, it is easy for us to ignore the struggle, the toil, the daily lives of others who we view as different from us, or even beneath us in some way, be it economically or politically or in lifestyle, or merely because they live on the other side of the globe (or border). Art can be the great equalizer by transcending those artificial, segregating concepts. We are united in our common anatomy, self-expression, dignity. Art in fact recognizes only those similarities, if it is done in the way it should be.

Now look at insects. What other members of the kingdom Animalia could look so radically different from us? The union of art and science can inform us here. Portraits of insects can reveal hidden personalities and expressions startlingly akin to our own, even if we interpret them only as caricatures of humanity. There is still a common thread that cannot be ignored. Videography reveals behaviors that reflect instincts and lifestyles utterly aligned with our own lives as parents, providers, and contributors to society.

Ants with treehoppers

The average person either ignores most insects, or takes notice only of the mosquito biting them, or the hornworm eating "their" tomato plant. Insects are viewed as destructive to our economy, person, or personal property, or at best a nuisance. Science knows better, and in tandem with art can convert the most entomophobic of people to at least an arm's-length appreciation of these animals.

The flip side of our schizophrenic relationship to insects is our perception of them as potentially decorative. There are now many an insect-inspired motif for interior decor, and many preserved specimens are framed and sold as wall art. The reduction of insects to "product" is not art in the truest sense, but mere commercialization capitalizing on our personal desires for something unique. We put a premium on differences that way. It is an unbecoming tendency of our species.

Such things as this checkered beetle exist!

Ironically, my attraction to insects as a child had something to do with my inability to assert my own self-worth, much as the subjects of JR's photos. Insects became a surrogate that I could tout as "cool" because I could research interesting facts about them. I did not know any interesting facts about myself that seemed relevant to social interactions with my peers. The playground was a fearful place, so I went out on the fringes and looked for "bugs." As an only child, such on-my-own pursuits felt more comfortable anyway.

Eventually, a few of my peers became sufficiently intrigued as to join me now and then. As one boy put it after we uncovered a particularly large spider from under loose bark on a tree, "I always thought looking for bugs was sissy stuff, but that spider changed my mind!" Meanwhile, one of my most masculine, hockey-playing friends showed me his butterfly collection at home, though I was sworn to secrecy in the schoolyard.

Portrait of a horse fly: Mesmer-eyes-ing

Today, I am more comfortable with my own identity and can share what I know about entomology with less personal baggage. I care less about what others think of me than what they now think of insects, hopefully enlightened by whatever I have to say or show. The artist JR has shown me what is possible if I start to think bigger still.


  1. Very nicely put! This is also "why I do what I do". Thank you Eric.

  2. HERE! HERE! Well done Eric! I thank you for being a voice for the insects. You have helped me enormously since I began my bug hobby in my retirement years about 10 years ago. Your book is my "go-to" guide to get a start on the identity. As the years progressed and I learned more and more I put together a talk entitled "embrace your bugs" which has changed a lot of attitudes about the importance of our creepy crawly friends in the circle of life. If they didn't exist, well, neither would we :)

  3. Yes, I too spent much time alone at the fringes of the schoolyard, poking around under the edge of the lawn to find the critters there. I am hard-wired for appreciating tiny details, as I'm sure you are. Like you I learned a lot of the taxa in childhood, although I let my bug interest get pushed aside and it was later subsumed into a hobby/freelance art interest.
    To this day, (almost) nothing gives me a jolt of pure pleasure quite like animal diversity. These are the things that appear in my dreams and leave me basking in joy when I awake. Insects are the kings of diversity and reward any curiosity with a treasure of beauty and detail, and never-ending novelty. For me this is what is so enthralling about insects.

  4. It was young me getting to leave Manhattan for a few weeks in the summer, discovering the Adirondack mountains, and then a book by J Henri Fabre that did it for me.


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