Something happened with the second season of Tales by Light, which I am not very fond of. The first season consisted of six episodes, about thirty minutes each, in which a photographer would explain their specific perspective and approach to the medium of photography, state what shot they wanted to get, and then we would have a front row seat to their craft. The cinematography was clearly an important draw, reminiscent of the BBC documentaries in its beauty and majesty, but we knew what was happening. The short episodes and the variety of artists, allowed for us to get lost in what they were doing while admiring their jobs.
Most of this is gone in the second season. While on Netflix (the international distributor for this Australian docuseries) we still have “six” episodes, in reality there are only three. The streaming service simply chose to split each hour long outing into two parts, in a totally arbitrary way. Additionally the show has suddenly shifted more to the Planet Earth approach rather than on photography. We still sort of have what the photographers wish to convey in their images, but mostly its just a whole lot of wanderlusty travel porn and not much else. Even the type of photographers is not very diverse: two of the episodes focus on people who photograph animals and wildlife, which is literally like watching the aforementioned animal show, just the analog version.
The first episode focuses on husband and wife team Jonathan and Angela Scott. They like the big cats of Africa. They take pictures of lions, leopards, and cheetahs. That’s about it. Their passion is obvious, but there isn’t much to them. All they do is sigh lovingly in the direction of these majestic felines. Sometimes they take pictures of members of tribes, but those images are staged and somewhat stale – a side fact when the culture is actually very riveting.
The second episode centers on Eric Cheng. He wants to prove to the world that sharks aren’t scary, but in fact are just misunderstood puppy dogs waiting to be pet. So he dives and takes beautiful pictures of sharks and other dangerous and/or scary aquatic animals (like the anaconda). I get that movies like Jaws, Anaconda, Sharknado, Piranha, Lake Placid and the like have used these animals as villains or as natural monsters, but to say they’ve been given a bad rap is a bit of a stretch. Also, The Blue Planet has done a fine job at showing us underwater sceneries. I was hoping for something with a bit more substance.
The last episode is also the one that is more interesting. Stephen Dupont is fascinated by death, and tries to show different sides of something all people and beings on Earth have in common. While he has worked in the past as a war photographer, this episode focuses initially on the treatment and cremation of dead bodies in India. While a bit gruesome and hard to watch, it was also highly educational and intriguing, to see customs so different from our own and alien to us, and yet the emotion and passion so familiar and human. The second part of the episode is much more forgettable.
I don’t know if there will be more episodes of this show, but if the focus is supposed to be on photography, then something must change. We should be exposed (haha, get it?) to different approaches, styles, and forms of taking pictures. Not all amazing photography takes place in the great outdoors, it’s not all sociological, botanical, or zoological in nature. Sometimes it’s stages, other times it’s intimate, but it’s always fascinating. Tales by Light must come to this same conclusion and course correct, because it cannot compete with Planet Earth. Nothing can, so it shouldn’t even try.