CNN Photos

Pigeons: The ‘wounded messengers’

Pigeons – love them or hate them, everyone has an opinion about them. In big cities, they are often regarded as filthy or diseased and referred to as “flying rats.”

But these birds share a long history with humans. As far back as 2900 B.C. in Egypt, arriving ships announced important visitors by releasing pigeons, and the army delivered messages with them.

In 1870, Julius Reuter filled a gap in telegraph lines during the Franco-Prussian war using pigeons, and later used the profits to create the company now known as Reuters.

Brooklyn-based photographer Mansura Khanam feels these avian underdogs deserve a closer look.

Her project began with a behind-the-scenes look at the Wild Bird Fund, New York City’s only rehabilitation center for wild birds.

After a short tour, Khanam was left alone to blend into the background during the daily work at the center.

She didn’t expect to end up shooting pictures of pigeons.

She thought she would be photographing the more exotic species in the center – hawks, swans, or cormorants – but the convalescing pigeons captivated her instead.

Her “Wounded Messengers” series depicts pigeons affected by a host of ailments, including pollution, poisoning and mistreatment by humans.

One of the pigeons, found on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, had been dyed pink and then abandoned.

In the Fund’s basement infirmary, Khanam spent time simply watching. She got to know the birds and observed their individual behaviors.

Because birds are sensitive to light changes, she used the available fluorescent light rather than a flash.

She never positioned the birds, and getting the perfect moment she was hoping for, the “portrait,” required patience.

She would wait and wait, with her lens up against the cage, as the staff and other birds moved around the room.

Khanam was born in Bangladesh and moved as a child to the U.S., where she experienced the contrast between a strict Muslim upbringing inside her house and the urban, American world outside.

She learned early on how to navigate between worlds.

After studying international affairs and working with refugees in Hong Kong, she avoided the more expected path of heading to law school and instead enrolled in photography classes.

She began taking pictures using what was closest at hand, her iPhone – until she was given an old Canon.

Documentary photography was a natural extension of her interest in human rights and storytelling, and it allowed her to be creative.

She found it puts her in the zone. While shooting she becomes completely absorbed, and everything else falls away.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m cold, hungry or tired, if I just had an argument with someone, or if I had a really big disappointment that day, or if the weather is horrible” – problem-solving on the scene occupies all her attention.

“The only thing that matters at that moment is what’s in front of me and the equation I have to solve to get the picture that I want.”

She says that photography allows her access to new people and gives her the opportunity to make connections with her subjects, even when they’re animals.

“You have to connect with your subject, form relationships and make associations that are uniquely yours, even if it’s a landscape or space such as a cage that is the subject matter,” she says. “You also have to connect with yourself and the deeper, intuitive parts that make the self.”

Through Khanam’s patient lens, the birds stare directly back at the human viewers. Eye to eye, it is harder to see them as “flying rats.”

They challenge us to acknowledge them.

These are monogamous birds whose mating rituals include aerial wing claps and special calls. These are birds that collaborate – males and females share nest-building and incubating time.

We are reminded that these adaptable creatures are in fact wild, and that we share a habitat.

- Rebecca Horne, Special to CNN