Filled with tightly cropped photographs of a mysterious pachyderm’s skin, a slim photobook by Giovanna Silva delivers its aching blow only when you reach the very end. Printed on the back cover is the book’s only lines of text: “Sudan, the only remaining male northern white rhinoceros. Ol Pejata Conservancy, Kenya.”
Good Boy 0372, published last fall by Motto Books, is a result of the Milan-based photographer’s 10 day-visit to the high-security conservancy last year, where she observed and documented the 43-year-old rhino from a distance. The title’s four digits are a nod to Sudan’s breeding number, and its expression of praise — which we typically associate with canines — a trace of the affection the hefty mammal receives from his rangers as they keep alert for the poachers who are largely responsible for having decimated his kin.
None of these humans, friend or foe, appear within the book’s pages, which feature dozens of close-up images from Silva’s visit, each printed without comment. Perusing them in order constitutes a quiet, mysterious journey through which you encounter grays of all shades and alluring textures. Sudan’s skin appears as a dusty, abstract landscape of crevices, folds, and ridges, its topography craggy and flaking, like bark slowly peeling from a tree. The images are beautiful, but they’re simultaneously awash with heavy gloom.
At times, these visual fragments offers clues to our subject’s identity: the wedge of a large toe; the blunt shadow of a horn — which was cut off, to deter poachers — that resembles a vast crater; a single ear, cupped like the blossom of a calla lily. Most revealing are photographs of Sudan’s eyes, circled by wrinkles, which punctuate the series with a hint of life. Dark and slightly wet, they resemble oases embedded within a dry, barren terrain, where mosquitos come to rest.
But we never get a full-body shot of Sudan, whose presence fades as the book progresses. Silva altered the opacity of her photographs so they become exponentially hazier, until the final shot seems caught in the middle of a disappearing act — a pointed but not heavy-handed nod to the probable fate of the northern white rhinoceros. The washed-out images drive home the stinging sentiment that the pages we’re holding in our hands may one day comprise a historical document.
It can be easy to get caught up in the language of Sudan’s reputation as the only remaining male of his subspecies. Reiterating such a distinction is necessary to highlight the gravity of the rhinos’ plight and, more broadly, of poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, but concentrating on that label also risks reducing Sudan to an abstract charity case, rather than a highly threatened individual living under very specific conditions, with very specific needs.
His case is grossly simplified, for instance, in a project a pair of artists recently crowdfunded. Promoted as the “biggest rhino sculpture in the world,” the envisioned life-size bronze sculptures of three stacked rhinos — representing Sudan and his companions, the females known as Najin and Fatu — is a gaudy showstopper, and nothing more. It’s an attempt to honor the northern white rhino and raise awareness, but its rhetoric is vague, clumsy, and exploitative, even advocating the use of the dramatic hashtag #GoodbyeRhinos, as if we absolutely need this grand memorial because science has simply given up. (It hasn’t.)
Far from relying on flashy visuals, Silva’s photobook appeals precisely because of its muteness. Her images bring us as close to Sudan as possible, inviting us to study every part of him. They make the individual behind the label not only very visible but also almost tangible; they effectively make us feel the weight of his individual plight. Yet, by sheathing her photographs in a little mystery, Silva also prods our curiosity: Good Boy 0372, beyond a striking photobook, is an unexpected entryway into education. It compels you to hop online and research this enigmatic creature, and that is the first step to contributing to his cause.
Good Boy 0372 is available through Motto Books.
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