Francesca Todde illustrates the empathy and sensitivity between humans and animals

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Bird educator Tristan Plot can tell if a bird is on edge from the position of its wings. Todde’s images explore this symbiotic connection with his animals

Francesca Todde met bird educator Tristan Plot for the first time in Avignon, in south-east France. Plot arrived with his two barn owls and a crow. As the crow flew towards Todde, she noticed a strange smell – one native to the bird – wafting towards her with each beat of its pitch-black wings. “It smelt like the ground, like ink. I fell in love. I took a feather that had fallen to the earth and put it in my wallet. It stayed there for the next three years,” she says. 

For Milan-based photographer and publisher Todde, this marked the first day of her two-and-half-year project, A Sensitive Education. Todde is currently exhibiting the work at Cortona On The Move in Tuscany, Italy. Her images hang under a medieval castle, from the chalky ceilings of a cave. A swarm of bats that have inhabited the space weave around her work, skimming the perimeter of her delicate images. The setting is apt, considering the project’s focus on the symbiotic relationship between animals and humans. “It’s the perfect exchange,” Todde remarks.

From 'A Sensitive Education' © Francesca Todde.
From 'A Sensitive Education' © Francesca Todde.

What compelled Todde to study birds? The Australian ethologist Konrad Lorenz. “He talks about how jackdaws play a game when they fly. When there is a lot of wind, they keep their wings closed until the last moment. Like humans, wild animals don’t just move out of necessity.” In 2011, Todde began searching for people who work with birds, to be the subject of a new project. In 2017, she met Plot, and A Sensitive Education began.

Plot uses “soft methods” to train an array of wild birds – from swans to pigeons – so they can be used in performances. His technique revolves around eliminating stress from the birds’ environment so they better trust humans. “Tristan is really attentive to minuscule signals,” says Todde. He can tell if a bird is on edge from the position of its wings, she says, and taught Todde not to look at the birds directly, as it made them nervous. The barn owl, Boubo, was terrified of Todde’s camera lens, so she showed him the camera for 15 minutes before shooting. Averting her gaze became a mantra for the entire project, she says, even when she selected the images.

From 'A Sensitive Education' © Francesca Todde.

Todde spent up to 15 days at a time living with Plot in his home in the French countryside of Poitiers, watching, waiting. “Normally nothing happens. Just days of looking at the sky waiting for Tristan’s stork to return,” she says. Only one photo in the series is posed – the picture of Plot holding an iridescent starling.

However, Todde treasured removing all time constraints. At the beginning of the shoot, she felt like a “predator”. She was someone with an “intention to take something and leave”, and the birds could sense it. Abandoning those preconceptions enabled her to take photographs that depicted the same feeling she had when she took them – a state of conscious meditation on the bird’s sensibility. “So that’s why it’s called A Sensitive Education”, she says, “The title refers to me too, to the things I learnt about myself during this project”.

A Sensitive Education by Francesca Todde is currently on show at Cortona on the Move in Tuscany, Italy, until 03 October 2021.