Religious Art: Marine Iguana by Sebastião Salgado

Sebastião Salgado (1944 – ), Marine iguana. Galápagos. Ecuador., 2004. Photographs, Gelatin silver print.

Marine iguana. Galápagos. Ecuador., 2004

Humanity. Serenity. Tenderness. These are the first three words I associate with Salgado’s photograph of a marine Iguana. But the association is a little uncomfortable. Observing human-like (anthropomorphic) qualities in mammals is common but finding them in reptiles feels somewhat strange. The form of the hand is surprisingly familiar, even the scales have a skin-like quality. Perhaps most unsettling is the casual way the hand lies over the rocks. It is this destabilizing feeling that keeps me returning to this photograph.

By removing the teleological, evolution’s story refuses to acknowledge humanity’s desire to be a protagonist. After Darwin, humans are no longer the center of the universe. Yet, despite this radical shift in our place in the tree of life, we still tend to see other life forms in relation to ourselves. This tendency to anthropomorphize other creatures is a remnant of this anthropocentric worldview.

Salgado’s photograph, then, is surprising because it seems to resist this impulse to anthropomorphize other creatures by moving beyond the traditional taxonomies of which we divide the species. The branches of the tree of life are not clear here. This is not a simian, not even a mammal. This is a whole other part of the tree, unrelated to human life for millions of years.

Rather than inviting us to see the human in other creatures, Salgado wants us to see the animal in ourselves. From this vantage point, the distinctions between the species become more porous and they bleed into each other. Moving beyond these traditional taxonomies allows us to experience a connection with other living things that is not predicted on visual similarities at all. Instead this connection is grounded in an awareness that all living things are products of the same process.

A few years ago, Steve Peck wrote an essay on Mormons and evolution in which he concluded with these words: ‘I am a Mormon, and an ape’. Salgado – and I suspect Steve would agree – wants us to extend this association to every living thing.

I am a Mormon, an ape, and a reptile; not because each of these is exactly the same but because each is involved in a process of becoming the transcends visual similarities. While we may not share our being, the process of becoming is common to all forms of life.


  1. thanks Aaron,
    Great photo. I would love to read Steve’s essay on Mormons and evolution – is it available online?

  2. After talking with entomologists and pre-interview in one this afternoon, I see this in the ways that butterfly behavior describes human behavior.

  3. I’ve come back to read this several times to day. I am mesmerized by the image.

  4. Tracy M., Salgado’s genius, imo, is that he captures the unfamiliar in the familiar but in a way that you still need to work to figure out why it feels a little strange.

    Jenny, here is the post I was referring to although Steve has written lots of great stuff on this topic.

  5. This photo is hauntingly good.

  6. Love the photo. It’s almost as good as my favorite head-turner: Jesus holding a Velociraptor (google it!). Anyone interested in a good overview of macro human evolution should check out the documentary series Your Inner Fish (currently on Netflix). It’s outstanding. And at the risk of nitpicking, the evolutionary theory posits that humans are descended from a common ancestor that is shared with apes and reptiles; it does not claim that we are directly descended from either apes or reptiles.

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