(Another day, another blog post about glitch art. I’m beginning to sense a theme here.)
Earlier tonight I was sorting through some old photos I keep in my desk and rediscovered a small stack of highly unusual images: pictures of the jungles of Madagascar, though you wouldn’t know where they were taken at a glance. They’re blurry, oddly-colored, and poorly-composed, but it’s not the fault of the photographer: these pictures were taken by a motion-activated trail camera used to document wildlife passing through the forest.
I have these photographs because I used to do undergrad research with the team of wildlife scientists who set up these camera traps. They were looking for endangered animals native to the region, and to do that they had to sort through thousands upon thousands of trail cam pictures, manually identifying any creatures they saw and collecting that information in a spreadsheet. My job was entering that data, and I’d sit for hours at a time flipping through stacks of photographs, looking for the telltale signs of glowing eyes or the tip of a tail that meant an animal had passed that way.
The problem with leaving cameras in the jungle is that the jungle really doesn’t like cameras. If you take any electronic device out in hot, wet weather and strap it to a tree and abandon it for a month, chances are some things are probably going to go wrong, as evidenced in these photos. While many pictures turned out just fine, some did not. These particular images would usually have been trashed, but they looked so unique that I decided to hang onto them instead.
Here’s a double-exposed photo. The spokes that wind the film forwards and backwards in the roll must have gotten jammed somehow, leading to two shots of the same treeline. It’s also clear that this photo itself was a mistake — found at the beginning of the roll, it was probably a misfire from when the researchers were setting the camera up and must have accidentally pressed the button while the lens pointed skyward.
The red patches you see here are from a light leak. Somehow the housing of this camera was damaged, allowing a little light to get in and burn the unexposed film. It’s possible this camera took a bad fall from a researcher’s backpack, or was hit by a falling branch, but either way the red patches made many of the details hard to resolve.
Ah, yes, and my favorite kind of error — you see those colorful patches that look like little fireworks? Do you know what that is? Mold. It’s mold, growing directly on the film inside the camera. The rainforest is not a good place for electronics to begin with, and the damp, hot climate means that mold will grow on absolutely anything — including the gelatin in a roll of film — with great enthusiasm.
I love these photos. While they’re useless from a scientific point of view, they’re eerily beautiful, and they actively demonstrate just how hostile an environment the jungles of Madagascar can be. The cameras we used became waterlogged and misfired and were overtaken by fungus, and they were state of the art research equipment. A picture’s worth a thousand words, but a damaged picture that demonstrates the hazards of the environment in which it was taken could be, I think, worth even more.
It’s easy to forget that there’s more to a photograph than the subject it depicts — there was a machine present that brought the image into being. Glitches are a reminder of the presence of the machine, and then of the humans behind it. These errors showcase the nature of the medium and environment that produced them: they are, in their own peculiar way, an exercise in mindfulness. By displaying evidence of what went wrong in their creation, these broken images call direct attention to the devices that produced them and how those devices operate, making the process of their composition inescapably visible.