Piotr Naskrecki and "The Smaller Majority"

Written by Sarah Lawson
Photography by Charlie Mostoller

Onstage at The Paramount Theater, photographer Piotr Naskrecki cooed, “it’s cute, right?” during his TREES Talk, which kicked off LOOK3 on Wednesday night. It sounded as if he were if admiring a snapshot of a new son, but it was actually a photograph of his botfly. It’s “his botfly” since it grew up in Piotr’s arm, following a trip to Belize where he was bitten by a mosquito carrying botfly larvae. He recounted, “most people get freaked out and have it removed,” but he let his botfly linger, living in his arm for two months until it reached adulthood. For Naskrecki, it was a “golden opportunity” to see a rare adult male botfly. 

Given that Piotr is an entomologist in addition to being a conservation photographer, this story makes perfect sense. It’s also representative of his nuanced balance between his sense of humor and respect for life on this planet. He primarily works in the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, which was largely destroyed by the Mozambican Civil War between 1977 and 1992. Today, he and a team of other scientists and rangers are working to restore the park’s biodiversity, from large animals like water buffalo to smaller beasts like beetles and pygmy chameleons. His photographs show these species as well as others around the world, from the rainforests of Papua New Guinea to the African savanna, and even Piotr’s backyard garden. In all of his work, the stars of the show are invertebrates and microscopic organisms – “the smaller majority” – such as pink subterranean lizards in Africa or pseudoscorpions that live on beetles and eat microscopic parasites.

Piotr is the ninth photographer to present his work in the Festival’s annual TREES exhibition. His photographs seek to remove the sense of scale that tricks us all into thinking of small creatures as insignificant, and to encourage us to see these organisms as worthy of protection. Many of his images remove the background, forcing the viewer to abandon points of reference while gazing at the organism against a bright white field. In other work, he uses short, wide-angle lenses to create depth of field and capture the insect in its natural habitat. Piotr summed this up by saying, “rather than enlarging my subjects, I try to shrink the viewer.”

"Rather than enlarging my subjects, I try to shrink the viewer."

One commonality in his photographs is a spectacular vibrancy of color, which makes even the least cuddly of his subjects appear whimsical and appealing. He sees his work as “re-branding the disliked, smaller organisms” like mosquitoes or cockroaches, stressing the symbiotic relationships that abound and the domino effect that extinction of even a single species can have on our planet. He joked, “invertebrates are like your plumber” – they’re don’t capture your attention until they’re critically needed. But beyond the utilitarian purposes of these organisms – pollinating plants that provide our food, spurring medical advances and treatments, or scavenging to remove dead organic material, among others – Piotr insists that we have a “moral responsibility to preserve this planet as we found it,” to give our grandchildren the opportunity to decide if they like spiders or not, rather than leaving them a world absent those creatures. And so he photographs the invertebrates and other oft-unnoticed organisms in an attempt to make us care about saving them. Wrapping up his talk, Piotr clicked to a final image of a single bat with a parasite firmly attached to its forehead. “It may not be pretty, but it has exactly the same right to live as you and I and everything else on this planet.” 

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