I can’t imagine getting tangled in the stingers of a Portuguese Man O’ War. I’ve seen the photos, pink human flesh covered with whip-like lashings, and I know the culprit: Their tentacles reach up to 165 feet, nearly every inch coated with spring-loaded venom injectors.
Still, if only we could get close, safely, maybe we could appreciate the Man O’ War’s effervescent beauty.
Aaron Ansarov’s series Zooids allows us to do just that. The name comes from biology–a Man O’ War is not a single organism, but a colony of individual “zooids” working in collaboration. And the subjects? They come from his wife, the “Man O’ War hunter.” Ansarov’s family will play on the beach while his wife collects living subjects in a cooler.
“We use thick rubber gloves which protects us, but I can’t say it is 100% protective,” Ansarov tells me. “The tentacles have microscopic needles that sometimes make their way through the gloves. We definitely have been stung a few times.”
Back in his studio, Ansarov places the Bluebottles directly onto a light table. This method creates an even illumination through the translucent tissues, highlighting the organic filigree of these amazing creatures. Ansarov then creates identical mirror-image reversals, highlighting the abstract patterns he finds.
“Most of these images look incredible by themselves, but soon after the first shots I began to notice how air bubbles looked like eyes, and tentacles started looking like facial expressions. So once I began to mirror them, it was as if I revealed faces as clear as day,” Ansarov writes. “The more images that I mirrored, the more I started noticing more resemblances. The best part was when I started posting them on my Facebook page and everybody would see something different. From faces of monsters to alien vaginas, it’s the new Rorschach test.”
I can’t speak to the topic of alien vaginas, but some really do seem to resemble other creatures (anyone else see Krang in that pink, brainy face?). But it’s not just the abstract anthropomorphism that makes Ansarov’s work so humanizing–half-artistic, half-scientific, he (alongside his brave wife!) mitigates the risk of close inspection. So we’re able to appreciate the Man O’ War’s diaphanous clockwork in all its splendor before giving them back to the sea.
“Once finished shooting, I pack them back in the cooler and bring them back to the beach. I put them at the shoreline and depending on what time the tide comes in, either they get swept back out to sea or die there,” Ansarov explains. “But it is a principle that I always adhere to that I am simply borrowing these creatures and giving them a voice. It would be wrong of me to treat them with any less value as any other creature in the world. Dying already or not.”