A Lens on DC’s Underworld

A Lens on DC’s Underworld

Jordan Brown


Jordan Brown sees a side of D.C. not everyone does. He points his camera lens in places many of us are afraid to look. His D.C. is the dark underbelly of Washington, a gritty realm of deception and subterfuge, of predators and prey.

Jordan Brown shoots video of bugs.

Early mornings, and sometimes late at night, he slips into Rock Creek Park, shuffles through leaf litter, peels back bark, and peeks under fungus to capture the overlooked wildlife of the District, a world that slithers, slides, creeps, and flies. The images he captures land on his blog and become footage in a still unfinished, self-funded documentary called Microdistrict (watch a clip at the bottom of the page). If few have appreciated what he’s posted online at microdistrict.wordpress.com, the lack of popularity hasn’t stopped him from going out again and again, crawling on the ground and slogging through mud to take his photos. He’s been at it since last summer.

“I’d like to get paid to do this,” Brown says, “because I’d be out here doing it anyway.”

I meet Brown before sunrise on a Saturday morning in October. Joggers and dog walkers pass us as he pauses at one of the exercise stations in Rock Creek Park and unpacks his gear: a Canon digital camera that shoots videos and stills, a big macro lens that lets him get within inches of his tiny subjects, a studio light (he used to have two, but he dropped one in the mud while filming in a drainage ditch), and a butterfly net.

“I’m the only one out here with a butterfly net,” Brown says. “I get a lot of weird looks.”

We set off down the jogging path, onto a dirt trail, and into corners of the woods where no trails cross. His long legs can cover ground quickly, but he slows often, his eyes flitting among leaves and branches, roots and logs, seeking out life forms—a fly on a leaf, an egg sac, a weird bit of fungus—that I don’t see, sometimes even after he points them out. It’s a habit he says annoys his hiking companions.

Brown, a 23-year-old native of Wauwatosa, Wisc., graduated last year from American University with a degree in film and media arts and a minor in natural history, a program he created himself by cobbling together the fuzzier bits of biology and cutting out the math and chemistry parts. Brown wanted to focus on wildlife filmmaking, but that left him in a bind.

“There’s not a lot of lions in D.C.,” Brown says.

So Brown focused on the wildlife he found. If there were no lions, there were antlions. There were no leopards, but there were leopard slugs.

Photograph by Jordan Brown

“I’ve seen enough of lions,” Brown says. “I think most people have. There’s too much focus on charismatic animals. Lions and tigers and bears. It’s the easy way out. It’s estimated that 97, 98 percent of all the species on the planet Earth are invertebrates, but nobody is making any films about them because they’re so fucking hard to shoot.”

Well, some people are. Brown’s heroes include French filmmakers Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, whose 1996 film Microcosmosrevolutionized the kind of insect filmmaking that Brown has taken up, and David Attenborough, the 86-year-old British broadcaster best known for his documentaries about charismatic species like chimpanzees and cheetahs, but who also shined a spotlight on invertebrates and plants.

Brown says he has traversed most of Rock Creek Park, and he has favorite spots, places that have nothing to do with pretty views. He heads for a tiny trickle of a creek hidden from the jogging trails where he’d previously spotted what he describes as “a writhing mass of planaria,” the roundworms high school students study in science class because of the way they regenerate. Cut them in half and they grow into two.

“You could probably cut them into a million pieces and each one would regenerate,” says Brown.

Brown wants to gather a bunch of planaria in one of the espresso jars he’s brought, and port them back to his Columbia Heights apartment, where he rigs his camera up to a microscope and captures a tiny circle of minute life on video. He’s out of luck, though. The writhing masses are gone. It’s getting a little cold for bugs, he says. Soon they’ll be laying eggs and vanishing for the winter, an act of nature he seems to take personally. “I don’t know what I’ll do when they leave me,” he says. He figures he’ll photograph fungus instead.

Photograph by Jordan Brown

In the absence of worms, Brown settles for slugs. He spots one stuck to a fallen tree that hangs over the little trickle of water. It’s practically invisible—barely an inch long and hidden under an overhanging bit of bark. He sets his camera on a tripod and shines his light. The slug sparkles like an oiled bikini model. On Brown’s camera screen, the tiny creature fills most of the frame. Its minuscule antennae rise like big antlers. Its slow slither along the tree seems like a triumphant pilgrimage on screen.

Brown’s subjects are not just the underbelly of nature. They’re the underdogs. His subjects are mantises, which may spend an entire lifetime attached to a single branch, and spiders that spin silk stronger pound-for-pound than steel. His slug is so small it could hide in a thimble. It will probably never see the dead tree it lives on end to end. And that tree is just one of countless fallen trees in the park that is only a narrow crease through a city of 68 square miles, more than half a million people and untold millions of insects.

“Let’s go,” Brown says, directing us to another section of the woods. “I’m getting antsy.”

Like many film-school grads, Brown isn’t a filmmaker by day. He works for Saving Seafood, a nonprofit that does PR for the fishing industry. He wants to get a job somewhere like National Geographic or the Discovery Channel, but he’s skeptical about the current state of wildlife documentaries.

“They always have some host like Steve Irwin tracking wild animals,” he says, referring to the crocodile-hunting Animal Planet host who died in 2006 after an unfortunate encounter with a stingray. “I think half the reason people watch is to see if they’ll get killed.”

Brown isn’t at much risk of that. Although he’s been stung by a swarm of bees, his subjects tend to be harmless, at least to humans. As he takes lanky strides through the forest, he looks more like an eccentric butterfly collector than an alligator wrestler. He wears faded cargo shorts, a thrift-store T-shirt with a drawing of animals being crowded off the planet (“They were here first,” it says), and a pair of purple and blue hiking boots he bought on eBay. They’re identical to a pair I bought 23 years ago. He hates clothes, he says, and he hates shopping.

As we walk along paths peppered with crushed beer cans and condom wrappers, his eyes settle on a narrow stick of a creature with long, jointed legs perched on a leaf. It looks to me like an insect version of Brown. It’s an assassin bug, he says, a notorious creature that flays its victim with its hidden proboscis, liquefies their insides with acid, and sucks them dry. It’s too high up for him to shoot video without shaking the lens, so he fires off a few stills.

Brown is disappointed by the day’s take, though. The cold weather is chasing away the insects. “This is probably the worst day I’ve had out here,” he says. He sets off for one more creek that was filled with planaria the last time he visited. We find the stream covered with lovely yellow maple leaves fallen from the trees above. He straddles the rivulet, brushes aside the leaves, and peers into the water. No planaria.

“That’s too bad,” Brown says. “I was really looking forward to cutting up some worms.”

A few feet away Brown spots a silvery strand of spider web rising from a branch. He traces it to a big, round spider web, then to another strand that leads to a tree, to a branch, to a leaf. The leaf has been carefully folded into a tunnel and sealed shut with a bit of silk. Inside lurks a spider, red and yellow and black, like a tiny orchid, awaiting the vibrations of prey.

Brown steps gingerly around the web. “She’s worked so hard on it,” he says. He presses the camera against the leaf and fires off a few shots. She’s hiding in the back of her leaf tunnel, but he manages to grab some decent photos.

Brown pulls his Audubon field guide from his back and consults it. She’s a marbled orb weaver, he determines.

We leave the park and walk to the Woodley Park Metro stop where he’s parked his ride: his mother’s old mountain bike. A few feet away, a Washington Walks group gathers to begin its tour. “Let’s go down and see the bridge,” the guide says, and the gaggle strolls off behind him.

The tour group takes note of the pair of concrete lions that guard the Taft Bridge over Rock Creek Park. Unlike lions, spiders and slugs aren’t usually the stuff of sculptures. Their kind creeps, crawls, fights, kills, eats, procreates, and dies, in short lives on tiny scales unseen by the world that passes above.