Two and a half years ago, the photographer Balarama Heller began venturing into the Florida Everglades at night, shining his flashlight and pushing through underbrush, in the hope of photographing an invasive predator that has disrupted the local ecology: the Burmese python.He got help from a network of herpetologists, snake hunters, and local wildlife obsessives—a crew that, Heller told me, reminded him of the orchid hunters in Susan Orlean’s New Yorker story “Orchid Fever,” from 1995, which later served as the basis (more or less) for the film “Adaptation.”
On his quest, Heller routinely served himself up as late-night mosquito fodder (“You can’t even open your mouth without a lot going in,” he said), and yet, despite the troublingly rampant presence of the python in the Everglades, he has still never seen one in the flesh. “I just had a streak of bad luck in not finding one,” he confessed. Gradually, he began turning his lens on the ecosystem that the pythons threaten to dismantle, while waiting for them to turn up. After repeated bouts of sleep deprivation, which led to hallucinatory run-ins with the local fauna, his images departed the realm of reportage and entered a visual world only loosely tied to reality. He named the series “Zero at the Bone,” after a line from an Emily Dickinson poem about meeting a “narrow fellow in the grass.” We do meet some narrow fellows in these pictures, but no Burmese python. The images are chilling nonetheless: water turns blood red, reptiles become mythic totems, and an undercurrent of fear fuels the imagination.