In the distance, it’s a familiar scene. The George Washington Bridge stretches across the Hudson River, connecting New York to New Jersey. A single tugboat dots the water.
But look closer at Johnny Milano’s photo and you’ll see a young man standing next to a trash can, hoping to find — of all things — a rat.
Much like bright lights, skyscrapers and public transportation, “rats are a staple of New York City,” said Milano, a photojournalist based on Long Island.
An academic team from Fordham University is on a quest to see whether rats have genetic differences across New York. Milano is there to document its work.
While the team uses data, Milano uses black-and-white photographs to offer a storied look into the evolution of the Rattus norvegicus — the most common rat in America.
At the beginning of every week, two groups of biology students disperse into the east and west sides of Manhattan and set traps.
After a few days, the rats are collected and measured. The Fordham team’s theory is that there are genetic differences in rats specific to the boroughs they inhabit.
“I thought it was ironic, how rat populations relate to socioeconomics,” Milano said.
The project began in the summer of 2013 and will continue for at least two years. For now, the data only suggest there’s a pattern of evolution.
Rats are more populous in lower socioeconomic communities — specifically, places where a lot of trash is present. Playgrounds are deemed as “hot beds” because of the high volumes of people, food scraps and garbage.
Not surprisingly, rats are scarcer in areas of the city that are better maintained. “We didn’t catch many in Central Park,” Milano said.
Photographing dead rats wasn’t the hardest part of the job, he said — it was “getting a sense of New York.”
Because the research team was working in such obscure corners of New York at times, it was difficult for Milano to incorporate the feeling of the city into his photos. Many of the shots are close up, giving little to no room to add a telling background.
So far, the team has tested samples in Central Park and the neighborhood of Inwood. The research team has plans to set traps in other areas of the city, including Times Square, next summer.
Dead rodents are a rare subject for a photographer, but perhaps like the rats themselves, Milano’s interest in the topic has evolved.
“I wanted to focus on a project in the city that I hadn’t seen before,” Milano said.
- Jamie K. White, CNN