The assignment was simple, not particularly original, and crafted by my Photography teacher during my first year of Graphic Design & Visual Communication Studies at U.C.L.A : Freedom. You had to show your interpretation of it, in one single shot, black and white. Your own take on this ever-so-precious concept in America, the land of freedom and dreams. Freedom, I was living it, feeling it everyday by the mere virtue of the fact that I was there.
I can’t remember how I managed to find my way into the Los Angeles Zoo that day – I hate zoos. My initial plan was to do a quick run through Downtown L.A., maybe find a wall with a few “freedom” graffiti or something like that. Nothing earth shaking. A pretty lame idea, actually… But whatever. I’ve never been good at taking pictures. I much prefer illustration. Anyway, I must have got onto the wrong freeway, as was often the case back in those days. I had recently moved to Los Angeles and hadn’t figured out yet that great mystery, the L.A. freeway system that crosses and pierces this gigantic city through and through. I must have cursed, and thought about turning back once I realized my mistake, but it was already 3:00 PM, and I didn’t feel like being stuck in traffic on the 110, the oldest L.A. freeway, the one that takes you through the heart of Downtown. I told myself “now that I’m here…” I parked the car and followed the crowd, camera strapped on my shoulder.
The zoo was swarming with people. The noise, the crowd, all that buzz made me dizzy. It was hot, I was thirsty, all of a sudden I didn’t feel so good. This was a mistake. I took the first alley I came across, thinking I’d better get out of here as soon as possible, go home and never mind if I have to sit in traffic for a while. That’s when I saw him. I froze on the spot. I told myself, don’t come any closer… But I did anyway. He was magnificent. All I could see was him, filling up the space. He didn’t move an inch. It was as if he was waiting for me to walk up to him, or as if he couldn’t care less. As if he did not notice me, or anybody else, for that matter.
He was resting in the shade, lying on a bench by a small tree, but with strong branches, strong enough for example, to bear a man’s weight without braking. He laid perfectly still, you could have mistaken him for a statue, a beautiful shiny black statue, except for a few twitches, a few ripples, silent waves running down his slender body, numb from the heat and boredom. He was sleeping or pretending to.
A black jaguar. I had never seen one before. I was simply mesmerized. I took my camera, adjusted it and pressed the button. In those days, iPhones and smartphones with their autofocus megapixel picture-perfect option didn’t exist yet, or perhaps only in Steve Jobs’s dreams. The noise, that faint click amidst a mass of indistinct sounds, woke him from his slumber.
Ever so slowly, with infinite, languid grace he got up from the bench, made his way towards me with the unmistakable feline swagger that barely raises any dust and leaves no print. All of a sudden here we were, so close to one another that I could distinguish every flat and curve on his face, from the tip of his nose to the top of the forehead and to the ears that I found surprisingly small… Without even touching him, I could feel the softness of the fur, right there between his eyes on that very spot felines of all kinds love to be petted. He was staring at me strangely, I told myself he imagined me as a prey and would take great pleasure devouring me.
There was no danger. I was safe. The bars of the cage stood between him and me, between him and the world. Except that the world, for him, had ceased to exist. It had been taken away from him – as the sign bearing his name indicated (a name he had been given in trade for his freedom)- two years ago when he was captured in his native jungle and brought here to live the rest of his life in 500 square feet of fake habitat where he no longer could run, hunt, jump or anything like that. He had been sentenced to life in prison, no appeal, no hope to ever get out.
He wouldn’t take his gaze off me. I’ll refrain from using any superfluous and pompous adjectives to describe that look. I won’t even describe it at all, it would be an insult. If you need to be told what was in his eyes, then I feel sorry for you.
I pointed once again the camera and carefully set the lens. For once, everything was perfect: the setting, the light, the focus. everything. I took the shot. A close-up shot of the black jaguar behind bars. He then let out a long, very long growl. Looked at me again. Then, slowly turned around to go back to his resting spot in the shade. But he didn’t walk back. Instead, he jumped. An unthinkable jump, precise and powerful,that landed him softly, silently on his bench under the small tree. prancing as he would in his natural habitat. A brief moment, in the space of that jump, he was again alive and free. And then he fell back into listlessness and resumed his endless wait for nothing. The magic of the moment had vanished, disappearing behind the curtain of eyelids closed onto eyes that didn’t want to see or dream anymore, only forget.
A mother and her kid came by, taking away the last traces of a moment of perfect balance. The kid was upset because he wanted to see the jaguar get up, walk and parade around in his cage like the big nice kitty he wasn’t. “Mommy, Mommy” he screamed hysterically, “I want to see him jump ! Make him jump again.” He was having a tantrum fit and was throwing stones at the jaguar’s cage, while the mother looked on with the gaze of a dead cow. I wanted to throw up because it was for the entertainment of such a crowd the Jaguar was left to rot away in his cage. I said out loud, talking to the Jaguar with a clear, distinct voice “I wish you dead soon.” The mother was outraged : “How dare you say something like that? Life is sacred!”. “So is freedom” I said, and I left. Some battles are not worth fighting.
A few days later, I showed the portrait of the jaguar in class. I made it into a poster, with this caption in red letters: “Life without liberty is like a body without spirit.” (Kahlil Gilbran). My teacher studied it carefully, then made this comment: “It’s a beautiful shot… But off-topic. The topic was freedom.” I smiled: “I am showing freedom, by showing the absence of freedom.” Of course that wasn’t exactly what she expected of us. She wanted something more glamorous, soft and shiny like the pages of a magazine, and there I was with my freaking depressing shot, and not exactly a flattering one either. “Of course” she said with a little smirk, before adding “You’re so French…” “Indeed” I replied, tit for tat and she dropped it. Some battles you know you just can’t win.
After class a girl approached me. Rosario was her name, she came from Nicaragua, she was a foreigner like me. “I liked your photo.” she said, “I thought it was the best one.” I told her the whole story… She said “You connected with his spirit. He’s your guardian animal now. Your totem.” I bursted out laughing. I don’t believe in this kind of things, and I told her so. But she persisted, and explained to me that in her culture they didn’t take this type of encounter lightly and that if what I had described was true, then there was no doubt, and went on telling me how we all had a totem-animal and that I had just met mine. I shrugged, telling her if there was such a thing, then mine would be more like a bird or a butterfly, something flighty and airy. We went for coffee, I liked Rosario and even if I didn’t buy her story, I liked the way she was telling it. Those spirit tales, these fabulous legends, you don’t have to believe in them to like them, do you? Rosario insisted “It’s not because you don’t believe in something that it doesn’t exist. You have to accept at least the possibility of it.”
It could have been the end of it. I put the Jaguar portrait away. I didn’t like looking at it, it made me feel uneasy. Totem or not, this was a caged wild animal and that, I truly hate…
A few weeks later, Rosario and I went again for coffee on campus, killing time between two classes. “I went to the Zoo with my aunt and her kids this weekend, they came to visit us. I went to see your Jaguar.”. “It’s not my jaguar” I said. She ignored the interruption. “You got your wish: he died two weeks ago.” “So now he’s free” I said, as I could not help tearing up.
This took place over twenty years ago, and there’s nothing left of my Jaguar except a negative stained by moisture somewhere in a storage box, and the memory of a moment that simply won’t go away.
I stand my ground: I still don’t believe in totems. He was not my spirit-animal, just an unlucky jaguar that had the misfortune of being caught.But still, why does he come so often to haunt me, in my sleep and in waking dreams, when I let my thoughts roam free wherever they please? Why is it that I cry as I am writing these very words? And why, as I just started telling this story, did I come across, by sheer random, on a poem by Rilke that I never read before and that sums up so acutely and accurately what I felt? Why did I choose to write this story, out of all the stories I could tell? Rosario would say “It’s not because you don’t believe in something that it doesn’t exist”. And for once, I’m going to let someone else have the last word.The Panther – Rainer Maria Rilke
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly -. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.