Photography in the Metaverse

In Focus: #JAPES – James Mollison and the Great Apes

View Gallery 54 Photos
Reading Time: 6 minutes
All the 52 individual works included in #JAPES are now available to purchase as unique NFT editions on OpenSea. NFTs include an archive quality certificated print for the initial buyer, and 10% of net proceeds will be donated to the sanctuaries who rescued the apes and invited James in with his camera.   

At some point in our planet’s history, an ape raised from all fours and stood on two. Bit by bit, the ape started to move around on just two feet. Now the ape could walk, so it could use tools in a different way; better tools that accomplished more things. These new tools helped the ape’s brain to grow. And the ape’s larger brain helped it to share with other apes. At some point, the ape started to form ways of describing the things it was doing. The ape found a way to speak. And so the walking apes stopped being walking apes, and instead, through Darwinian evolution, became humans.

When this happened, how and why this happened – no-one knows. But this single species of animal became the dominant force of the planet, the master over all.

For a long time, humans didn’t recognise much of themselves in apes. They’re seen as distant animals in remote jungles. Or caged in zoos, begging for food.

But the British photographer James Mollison didn’t see it that way. He once captured, in a chance photograph, an ape looking straight down the camera at him. And, even though the ape “could pound and pulp me in a moment”, he felt the ape “was looking right at me, almost into me.”

#JAPES #48 Lisala

Bonobo; Republic of Congo; Female; 3 years

“If you look into their [chimpanzees] eyes, you know you’re looking into a thinking mindJane Goodall

Dr. Jane Goodall, one of the world’s most respected primatologists, collaborated with Mollison for the project. Writing about Mollison’s work, Dr. Goodall recalls the central role apes played in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

“In 1859, Darwin shocked much of the world with his theory of evolution,” Goodall writes. “It ran contrary to the teachings of the Bible that stated clearly: the world and everything in it was especially created by God. And, worse heresy, Darwin even maintained that Man himself had evolved from apes.”

We now know, Goodall notes, that we differ from chimpanzees by only one per cent.  They are more similar to us than we could possibly understand.

The Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT project continues to excite millions of people throughout the world; people who have never shown a lot of interest in fine art before. Yet many beyond the NFT world still don’t get it. “But I think it’s a good thing to want to identify with an ape,” Mollison says. “The great apes ask us questions about ourselves, because they are so close to us.”

#JAPES #4 Gregoire

Chimpanzee; Republic of Congo; Male; 60 years (oldest Chimpanzee in Africa)

#JAPES #13 LaVieille

Chimpanzee; Republic of Congo; Female; 29 years
James Mollison

Here, Mollison talks us through his Great Ape project:

What was your first experience of meeting apes in the wild?

It was on a trip to the Congo. It was just me and a local guide. And we walked for two days looking for gorillas. I hadn’t taken nearly enough water. I was really dehydrated. And I was a bit desperate because I’d gone all the way to Congo. I was on my own. And we couldn’t find them. 

It was getting dark, and we had to head back to the camp – because you don’t want to be out there in the dark. And then we suddenly found a troop of gorillas. I think there were about nine of them. And they were much much bigger than any of the ones I’d ever seen in an orphanage.

What did you do in their presence?

You can’t march in there to take pictures. I had to sit there, my shoulders quite hunched down, and kind of nodding to them, trying to make it clear I’m not a threat. You have to be very submissive in your movements. I remember slowly moving around the group and taking a Polaroid picture of each of them, so I could remember who each one was later.

Did you feel in danger?

Yes, of course. Even a young gorilla is many, many times the strength of a grown man. I once photographed a young orangutan who managed to get hold of a piece of my equipment and just shredded it in seconds. There’s an incredible strength to these animals.

“I remember being so excited, but also so aware of the risk. If one of the group sees me as a threat, they could pound and pulp me in a moment.”

How did you feel afterwards?

By the time we left, the sun was really going down. I still had no water so I remember just drinking straight from a river. My adrenaline was so high. I felt like my head was going to explode. I was so tired when I got back to Europe, and then I came down with cerebral malaria, and was hospitalised for a week and then couldn’t stand up for another two weeks. But it was worth it.

How would you describe the presence of the gorillas?

I could remember looking at their faces and just thinking how similar they are to us. We think of them as different species. But they each have their own individual traits and characters, which are very familiarly human.

Genetically, they are very similar to us. We are different from a lot of animals, But the great apes ask us questions about ourselves, because they are so close to us. They are the grey space between man and animal.

How did you begin this project?

I had begun to wonder if I could try and take passport photographs of apes. I didn’t want to do something with a long lens. I wanted to kind of be in with them, to be close. 

One of the first places I wrote to was Monkey World, which is an ape rescue centre in Dorset. I  asked if I could make some portraits of the apes there. And I actually got a really negative, hostile letter back from them saying what I wanted to do was cruel.

I really hesitated at that point. But I contacted a Berlin zoo and received a letter saying they had a young gorilla who had to be raised by humans, because his mother had rejected him. They welcomed me to take a picture of him. Taking that picture showed me how fast and how chaotic the moment of taking pictures is. 

But I got this portrait of him. It was the last frame of the film. The picture was closer than the others, even more cropped than a passport picture. But it was very direct. The gorilla was looking right through the lens. It seemed like the gorilla was looking right at me, almost into me.

Many of the apes you photograph are quite young. How did that change the project?

It took me back to my childhood. There’s a naughtiness to young apes that took me back to some of the memories I had of being a young boy.

I remember trying to take a picture of one ape, and finding another one trying to tie my shoelaces. They would rummage through my pockets and take anything I had in there. I loved it actually; being around these gorillas who just loved being young.

Many ape species are critically endangered around the world, did that inform the project?

Yes, I wanted the work to help us think about that relationship between man and animal.

Nearly all of the apes photographed are orphans, except for two of them. For some of them, their parents had been killed for bushmeat. There’s a masculinity belief amongst some groups; they think eating gorilla meat can make you virile.

For some of the orangutans I photographed for the project, their parents were killed so they could be taken as pets, but were then rescued.

Have you had any reactions to the work which surprised you?

I remember working on another project in the Appalachian Mountains in the American midwest. I was photographing an Evangelical Christian family and remember showing the apes to the mother of the family. It was quite profound for her I think, but it was also quite difficult. Many Americans believe we were created by God. The idea we have evolved from animals is disturbing to them, so it was quite interesting to watch her reaction to the book, and admit that they are so similar to us. 

What do you make of the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT project? it seems to have really captured a lot of people’s imagination.

“I think it’s dangerous to believe we’re far from the animal world. I’ve often seen children look through the project and then look at their own face and say, oh, this ape looks a bit like me. Adults very rarely say that. But I think it’s a good thing to want to identify with an ape and show yourself as an ape. I can understand wanting to express yourself through an ape, because they’re so close to us.”

#JAPES #51 Kitwiti

Bonobo; Republic of Congo; Male; 4 years

James and Other Apes (#JAPES), created by James Mollison, is now available as an exclusive collection of NFTs, including an archive quality print.

Secure your favourite avatar live on OpenSea!

Related #JAPES stories

Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is a Correspondent for The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper*, BBC, The Telegraph, CNN, Independent, Foam, New Statesman, Wired, Vice and The Royal Photographic Society Journal, for whom he won Writer of the Year at the PPA Awards 2020.