Documentary Releases: Learning to See: The World of Insects (2016) - Reviewed

Dayton, Ohio born resident Robert Oelman initially found his vocation in clinical psychology in Boston, Massachusetts for about sixteen years before the endless chain of experimental therapies and the clientele eventually took its toll on him.  After a chance meeting with the Maharshi in India, Oelman wiped the slate clean and in an unprecedented (and insane to many) step despite the language barriers he moved as a lone permanent resident into the drug/political war-torn country of Colombia.  While serious dangers were all around Oelman with frequent State Department warnings against entering the country, somehow he managed to find tranquility and fulfillment after purchasing a secluded farmland in Cali, restoring a finca (country house) and forming a rapport with the residents. 

It was around his time making a life for himself that Oelman found his true calling when he began to take notice of hummingbirds flying about his home and he began taking high-speed shutter photography of the difficult-to-photograph birds.   After a while, Oelman also couldn’t help but notice the cornucopia of exotic and endangered species of insects all around him.  Quickly redirecting his cameras onto what would become a lifelong mission of photographing and displaying some of the world’s hardest-to-see if not never previously documented species of exotic insects, Robert Oelman found his true calling and purpose in life in this documentary produced and directed by his son Jake Oelman, Learning to See: The World of Exotic Insects.

While brief and mostly comprised of still photos intercut with interviews and preexisting footage of Robert Oelman restoring his finca, Learning to See: The World of Exotic Insects can be an eye opening and even enriching experience.  That Oelman was able to settle and find peace deep within an otherwise dangerous country is miraculous in and of itself.  Then once the film digs into Oelman’s work on exotic insect macro photography, we’re given a smattering of examples of the difficulties encountered with hunting down and photographing the insects themselves. 

Take for instance the katydids which there are many subspecies of, and their uncanny chameleonic ability to blend in with their environments.  Tracking them down and being able to sneak on them with the camera without startling or alerting them to fly away clearly takes a wealth of patience and perseverance, in some cases waiting around for hours for the right moment.  Then there are those pesky but beautiful ones which bite and hiss if you try and photograph them with Oelman recounting more than a few occasions where he sustained some nasty bites.  Not many people are willing to endure such hardships yet Oelman takes them in stride and even appears to be humbled by the experience and all the ups and downs that come with it.

What’s most fascinating about Oelman’s remarkable photography work in addition to the species being revealed to the world through his pictures is how much of it he has done with a small capable crew of assistants.  Some of the most expensive and technically advanced documentary film crews with numerous technicians on hand spend hours and millions of dollars just to hope to get some of the images Oelman and his dedicated team were able to do with a fraction of the bigger team’s resources.  That so many species of insects we never knew existed could be captured on film and shared to the world by one man remains a truly bold and enlightening feat.  Yes Oelman’s photographs are indeed breathtakingly beautiful but almost more beautiful is the spirit which drove the man to bring these stunning photographs into the world in the first place!

- Andrew Kotwicki