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January 16th, 2009
Spark Blog: Video: North Carolina Through the Looking Glass

Alan looks on as Larry gets some closeup shots of chimps through the glass. Photo: Maggie Villiger

We hit the ground running. Alan had a quick press conference at the zoo, just by the chimpanzee area, and as soon as it was over, and before I was ready with the camera (I wanted to add a polarizing filter and matte box to cut down on reflections in the glass barrier), Alan and Brian Hare were immediately engaged in conversation. As in all of our shoots, this was a genuine discussion between Alan and the scientist and there’s no going back once their exchange gets rolling!

Reflections from the sun, smudges from the chimps – shooting at the glass enclosure had its challenges for Larry Engel. Photo: Maggie Villiger

So, we went to work. I had to be careful of our reflections but it was not an easy task and we picked up Graham, Maggie, John and me every so often. Further, with a small viewfinder, it was extremely hard to notice reflections in the background — unless there was movement. Nonetheless, Alan and Brian were talking about what we think chimps are thinking and how could we come to understand their minds better in order to understand ours better. And this was a great conversation.

Since Brian and Alan were talking to one another before the glass, they couldn’t quite see the chimps behind them. It was fascinating to listen to the conversation concerning our nearest living relatives and their framework for perceiving the world and communicating with us and one another — all the while watching them through the viewfinder observing Alan and Brian conversing. Every so often a chimp would sit down and simply stare at them. It was a wonderful image and a great moment. A few times one would come running down the path and bang against the glass, startling the two deep in discussion and making them laugh.

I must admit that I find zoos generally depressing. This is a feeling that I’ve had since I was a boy and my parents took our family to the Bronx Zoo many years ago, well before zoos changed much of the way they housed animals. But here, I better understand that in many ways zoos are critical to survival for many species and are also critically important to our quest to understand better who we are and how we are connected to other animals with whom we share the planet. I only wish I could meet our relatives face-to-face without the barrier of the glass. We have a chance for that if we get to Africa.

- Larry Engel
Director and Director of Photography

Check out a tiny excerpt from Alan’s remarks at the press conference:

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  • Victoria Cooke

    I am an Assist. Prof. in Psychology @ a community College in Buffalo. I have used many of Alda’s online videos from Scientific American in class. I am very excited about this new effort on the part of PBS. You could have not picked a better person to host “Human Spark.” Mr. Alda has a passion for science;would have been a wonderful science teacher (or still could be!) Good Luck. Bet this will be an award winner!

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