Art Gallery features amazing photographic exhibit on elephants

large bull elephant and two retreating elephants
Susan McConnell’s “On the Shoulders of Giants” is on display in the Stanford Art Gallery.

“On the Shoulders of Giants,” an exhibition by SUSAN McCONNELL, professor of biology, and starring the largest land-dwelling mammals on Earth, presents an educational journey and call to action through wildlife conservation photography. Now on view at the Stanford Art Gallery, McConnell’s work examines the sweetness of elephants’ social world and confronts the horror of the poaching crisis driven by global lust for their ivory tusks.

On the Shoulders of Giants” runs through April 24 at Stanford Art Gallery, which is located across from History Corner on Lasuen Mall. The exhibition is sponsored by Stanford Arts and the Department of Art & Art History.

Tender moments of friendship between bulls and a mother’s cradling her calf are juxtaposed with a startling image of a carcass, tusks torn from the elephant’s face. A historical photo of former President Theodore Roosevelt with a shotgun, standing beside an elephant killed on a hunting expedition in eastern and central Africa, captures a moment from the centuries-old practice of hunting for material from which to carve sacred objects or mundane ones, such as billiard balls and piano keys. A photo of a storefront in San Francisco’s Chinatown, taken shortly before California’s ban on the importation or sale of ivory and rhinoceros horn was passed in 2015, shows an abundance of ivory trinkets spilling onto the sidewalk.

elephant family in silhouette against a sunset
From “On the Shoulders of Giants”

China leads the world in the ivory market, McConnell said, “But many cultures are complicit in the desire for ivory as sacred or beautiful and have been involved in the slaughter of elephants.” As a wall text explains, despite an international ban on ivory’s international trade, a surge in demand has generated high prices. The increase in poaching that has resulted threatens elephants with extinction.

Drawn from roughly 25 trips to southern and eastern Africa, McConnell’s photos have appeared in National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines. She teaches conservation photography for an introductory seminar in human biology and will lead a class in the Bing Overseas Seminar in South Africa this summer.

When not following her passion for wildlife, McConnell studies the formation of precisely wired neuronal circuits that underlie complex behaviors in humans.

McConnell sees her interests as a developmental neurobiologist and conservation photographer as “two trees that are grown out of the same root system” – she studies animals and their behavior – but separates the science of her molecular biology work from the message-oriented storytelling and advocacy of her photography.

At the tail end of “On the Shoulders of Giants,” viewers are invited to pledge not to buy products made from elephant and take photos holding signs protesting ivory sales. The exhibition closes with a question: “Do we want to live in a world with wild elephants, or one with only elephant ghosts?”