Regardless of individual personalities and social affiliations—personalities and affiliations that remain marginally visible in the more or most “close up” photographs—all of them distribute themselves through space and in time in the places shown in similar ways, in particular in relation and response to the properties and movements of the sun and waters. Like plants, they are phototropic and hydrophilic within their own particular range of capacities and comforts: spreading out into the sun when it is not too hot for them, and avoiding the shade when it is too cool, clustering in the shade when it is cool and the sun might be too hot; gathering around any water’s edge even if there is little fluid to drink or in which to clean or swim; when in the water, avoiding the sharpest rocks on soft naked feet and floating easily in the deeper basins; eating, resting, and camping in the recesses of the bushes or under the canopy of trees, but meeting, talking, and playing in the open. If it were not for the occasional visibility of a camera or a car (Vitali must have worked to exclude such items from his photographic field), we could be watching them in the second millennium BC—even in deeper prehistory or at the dawn of human time (gathering by the pools at Olduvai, perhaps). And if it were not for our familiarity—our empathetic identification—with the social biped Homo sapiens, we could be observing terns, seals, gazelles, or wolves.

Indeed, perhaps the most striking feature of their behavior—of what seems to be their natural behavior—is their seeming obliviousness to being watched. Despite the large number of people in many of the scenes and regardless of the photographer’s visibility to them in their own field of view (even if powerful lenses could enable him to settle quite far away from them, he needed a clear sightline), only a handful of people ever seem to be looking at him (that is, at us). If any of them were aware of being observed even without looking at the observer, they do not seem to have posed for him, although their natural behavior in the ecology that is being photographed certainly involves mutual posing and display. Perhaps the setting encouraged them: these are places, of course, to be “natural.” Of course, often the people being photographed were physically oriented to look several or many degrees away from the photographic standpoint and our point of observation, wherever it is located: they often face the sun, into which the camera—our observing eye— cannot look. Still, this constraint of photography cannot fully account for the social phenomenon that we seem to see, and it remains one of the enigmas—as well as a fundamental imagistic parameter—of Vitali’s results. Regardless of the reasons, it contributes to our strong (if fictive) visual and empathetic sense that we are not part of the scene, and have no effect on the behavior of its participants—a crucial condition of Vitali’s carefully managed standpoint. In fact, if we were part of the scene, responding to others within it in terms of their self-recognition and self-presentation for us and allowing them actively to affect the conditions and conclusions of our observation of them, we might overlook what the photographs reveal about its visible social orders and rhythms—namely, that there is, as I’ve noted, “as it were something animal” (as Ludwig Wittgenstein once put it) about the human form of life we can see.

Whitney Davis "Massimo Vitali's Mammals" in Natural Habitats, Göttingen, Steidl, 2010, pp. 131 - 143.