Tales By Light is devoted to the kind of nature photography that appears on the pages of Nat Geo, but it exposes viewers to fascinating vistas that have only partly to do with photography, says Vikram Johri.
Tales By Light, a joint venture of Canon and National Geographic, is a photography show that has just debuted its second season on Netflix.
The first season -- all of six episodes -- was devoted to the kind of nature photography that appears on the pages of Nat Geo: High-quality pictures from some of the most unreachable corners of the planet.
Season 2, by contrast, takes a more anthropological approach.
Jonathan and Angela Scott get episodes 1 and 2.
For many decades now, the husband-wife duo have been capturing the sights and soaking in the sounds of Kenya's Maasai Mara, a game reserve contiguous with the Serengeti in Tanzania. Called Sacred Nature, these episodes present the dual nature of their mission: To photograph for the world the magnificent beauty of the African outdoors and, emerging from this, to get people to care about the continent's rapidly depleting wildlife.
The Scotts are big cat people, since their journeys into the Maasai have given them rich pickings, shooting for the camera Masai lions, African leopards and Tanzanian cheetahs.
Nature programming of this sort -- deriving its vicarious thrill from the very real job the Scotts are up to -- adds a frisson to the already majestic task at hand.
With civilisation closing in on the Maasai, the battle between man and beast has heated up. Local tribes raise cattle that frequently become the target of predators, unleashing a cycle of retribution that, if not checked, is in danger of eliminating the big cats.
While keenly aware of this conflict, the Scotts know it is not their place to evangelise. The tribes, who have lived in harmony with the wildlife for centuries, share a sacred relationship with it.
Episodes 3 and 4 are focused on Eric Cheng, whose goal is to, if not humanise, correct misperceptions about supposedly dangerous wildlife.
He goes looking for the green anaconda in Brazil and tiger sharks in the Bahamas, mythical creatures that have attracted opprobrium because of Hollywood's portrayal of them as mindless killing machines. Steven Spielberg's Jaws, for instance, single-handedly turned an entire generation of Americans off sharks.
The reality is altogether different.
Both the green anaconda and the tiger shark come across as gentle, almost benign creatures that could not care less about an ungainly man in full underwater gear lugging heavy photographic equipment in their vicinity. The graceful motion of the anaconda is in stark contrast to its image as a voluptuous beast intent on crushing anything in its sight. But it is the shark that truly surprises.
Cheng is aided in his effort by Jim Abernethy, a local who has worked with the marine creatures for many years. His crew shares an intimacy with the shark that is both unbelievable and endearing. Sharks allow Mr Abernethy's crew to pat, rub, and even nuzzle them as if they were a pliable pet. Apart from showering them with affection, the crew also administers to their needs such as by removing hooks from their teeth or plastic stuck around body parts.
It is impossible to remain untouched by the sheer scale of these ecosystems, on land or under water, imparting a measure of urgency to an exercise that must have essentially begun, for the Scotts and Cheng, as an aesthetic experience.
These episodes end with pleas to reach out and support their efforts to stop rampant fishing and encroachment upon the living spaces of the wild -- an aim that their evocative photographs abundantly aid.
The last two episodes are dedicated to another kind of photography.
In his own words, Stephen Dupont is a photographer of death. He has covered conflicts throughout his career and Episode 5 begins with a montage of his photographs of the Rwandan genocide. This is stomach-churning stuff; one wonders about the effects such proximity to bloodshed would have had on him.
Even so, Dupont approaches the subject with remarkable equanimity. His quest to capture death in its natural habitat, as a celebration of a life lived well, brings him to Varanasi. He wanders the ghats where dead bodies arrive in quick succession to go through the paces enshrined in Hindu belief: A quick dip in the Ganga, a final photograph, and then the march to the heavens on a bed of burning wood.
Dupont merges into the background as scenes of the final journey fill the screen, its clockwork efficiency both fascinating and disturbing.
On the one hand, here are rituals that tie every Hindu to his religion, an inescapable part of his destiny in these secular times. On the other, the almost mechanised stirring, the to-ing and fro-ing bespeaks a troubling lack of individual detail, as if death were just another cog in the ever-churning wheel of life.
The final episode takes Dupont to the Kalahari in Namibia whose inhabitants, like the Masai in Kenya, maintain a way of life that is both pre-modern and rousingly self-sufficient.
Dipping into cultures far removed from his own gives Dupont a measure of reconciliation: Death might be benumbing, but it is not unwelcome.
Over its two seasons, Tales By Light has exposed viewers to fascinating vistas that have only partly to do with photography.
The show's real achievement is its distillation of the greater truths and lessons that an engagement with the camera can afford us.
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