In 1865, the Zoological Society of London commissioned the photographer Frank Haes to produce stereoscopic views of animals in its zoo [FIG 1]. He obliged with at least a dozen pictures. They include a lion, tiger, zebra, oryx and some Barbary sheep. The animals are shown in cages or gated stalls, with the enclosures sometimes shown and sometimes hidden. These are the first photographs I could find of animals in zoos, though there must be earlier ones. Like sex and death, animals – at least non-domesticated ones — are mostly hidden from view, so we like seeing their pictures.
Since the mid 19th Century, thousands of professional photographers and millions of amateurs, have taken pictures of animals in zoos. These images contain three things in greater or lesser proportion: 1) the animal or animals; 2) the enclosure; and 3) the zoo visitor. Of these, the first is obviously the most important, though Gary Winogrand’s photographs for his book The Zoo (1962), [FIG 2] and Art Shay’s zoo pictures in Animals (2002) [FIG. 3] emphasize the latter two. Animals however are the ostensive reason folks come to zoos (child care, physical recreation, and trysting are also important) and most photographers try to depict them without people. They are usually shown in lively poses, interacting with each other or gazing outward. Google Images are dispositive in this regard – the first hundred or so mostly depict single animals or pairs in active poses. Professional zoo photographers, for example Joel Sartore (for National Geographic) [FIG. 4] and Richard Brodveller (for the Milwaukee Zoo) depict the same things, only better.
More rarely, a photograph will include animal custodians, but most photographers – professional and amateur — are complicit with management in concealing them. (Once again, Winogrand is exceptional.) Staff must be kept off stage so as not to break the zoological fourth wall, the imagined division between audience (zoo visitors) and performers (the animals). The fiction of the zoo, heightened by the creation of pseudo-habitats – is that visitors are given special access to the wild animal’s unique world and unfathomable nature. Indeed, precisely because visitors wish to maintain this theatrical fiction, they often press closely against cages in order to exclude from their frames of vision any distracting zoo apparatus such as enclosures, other visitors and staff. (Zoo photographers often deploy a wide aperture lens to reduce depth of field in order to make bars or cages invisible.) The New York Institute of Photography offers the following tip to aspiring zoo photographers;
You are usually trying to create the illusion of the animal in the wild. Anything in your picture that shouts “ZOO” has to be eliminated. So try to avoid showing cage bars, zoo visitors, or signs.
Like the theatre or cinema therefore, the zoo is first of all a place of entertainment. It offers performances of wildness and animality. The former is the ideology that humans alone occupy the space of culture, and animals the realm of nature; and the latter that an unbridgeable moral and intellectual chasm divides humans and animals, and that the first has the right to determine the fate of the second.
But the metaphor of the zoo as an illusionistic stage isn’t exactly right. When actors in a play disrupt the theatrical narrative by directly addressing the audience, the effect is unsettling or alienating — purposely so in the case of the epic theatre of Bertolt Brecht. But when animals turn away from each other and lock gazes with visitors, the experience is generally pleasurable and even exhilarating. The animals are anthropomorphized and humans animalized. In that moment, the zoo visitor recognizes that self is like other — that a human “I” has joined into a relationship with an animal “thou,” to use the formulation of theologian Martin Buber. Cross-species empathy is thus aroused and the idea of generalized animal liberation is mooted.
But only briefly. Once the mutual stare is broken, human authority is restored. The animal again becomes a subject fated to be imprisoned, and the human a master who exercises control. In retrospect, the moment of identification — the I/Thou – is changed from empathy into pity or even domination. The animal is thereby revealed to be essentially powerless and any expression of politics – the struggle over rights and obligations – is drained away. The zoo, like Roland Barthes’ myth, is a form of de-politicized speech.
Efforts by activists, photographers and fine artists to politicize zoos, question their premises, or at least highlight the rapid rate of animal extinction have grown in recent years. Britta Jaschinski’s book Zoo (1996), Elias Hassos’ “Zoo – What For?” (Greenpeace Magazine, 2013), and Joel Sartore’s ongoing project for National Geographic, are three examples. Jaschinski’s grainy, black and white photographs [FIG. 5] show isolated creatures in close confinement – veritable animal supermax penitentiaries. She has said her goal is “spreading the truth about zoos and their atrocious acts,” and clearly believes her photographs help accomplish that. She may be right, though the extraordinary beauty of her pictures – each is composed like a painting by Degas – tends to vitiate outrage. Hassos [FIG. 6] pursued a similar project using finely focused, color and black and white photography. He emphasizes the clinical character of many zoo enclosures – sealed glass cells and steel pens – as well as the loneliness and despair of the animals caught inside. The culinary character of his pictures too however, may undercut their criticality; when horror is filtered by the aesthetic, it’s impact is diminished.
Sartore is different from the other two in that he is an unabashed zoo supporter. His “Photo Ark” is an effort to document the “12,500 species in human care” in order to highlight the global plight of animals. “How can I get people to care,” he writes: “that we could lose half of all species by the turn of the next century?” His photographs depict single animals or small groups of animals (often juveniles) in vivid color against plain black or white backgrounds. Each is thus depicted as an example of their species alienated from habitat, life history, and even current zoological address. Sartore often succeeds in capturing his animal models in a moment of direct address – the I/Thou moment – but the point of view, lighting, and expression invokes a sentimentality that speaks far more articulately about human self-regard than animal being. As a result, any reference to loss of habitat, poaching and the politics of extinction is obscured.
The photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, whose Captive is the most recent contribution to the zoo book bibliography, [FIG. 7] cannot be accused of sentimentality. She rarely focuses her lens on the faces of her subjects and there are only a few images of adorable, animal babies. More frequently, she depicts mature animals in close-up, straining against their bars or glass cells, as in Malayan Sun Bear, Thailand (2008) [FIG. 8]; in medium shots, contained in small pens, as with Eurasian Lynx, Estonia, 2015; or in in long shots, isolated in bleak or featureless enclosures, such as Plains Buffalo, France, 2016 and Hamadryas Baboon, Germany, 2016.
Nor does McArthur ignore the politics of the zoo. Most of her photographs focus as much on the cages as their occupants. Indeed, the fundamental political issue of freedom vs captivity — the master/slave relationship — is her abiding concern. We see it in pictures like Polar Bear, Denmark (2016), Western Lowland Gorilla, Poland (2012), and Barbary Macaque, Germany (2016) [Fig. 9]. In each case, humans and animals are separated by a physical threshold in such a way as to highlight both the difference in power between the two, and their mutual desire for recognition. In the third photo, a child and a Macaque reach across the divide to exchange a leafy branch. We assume it was the little girl, a moment before, who broke off a bit of the shrubbery in front of her and handed it to the primate, but in the picture, the animal appears to be trying to hand it back. Either way, the image is one of mutual recognition, a necessary step toward the final overcoming or “sublation” (in Hegelian terms) of difference. The master understands she is dependent upon the work of the slave (and thus not entirely free), and the slave that she possesses skills and self-understanding lacking in the master, thus discovering freedom. The two thereby exchange places, as the slave becomes master, and the master, slave. At least in theory.
At the zoo, the authority of the master is nearly complete and the dialectic is undercut. Zoo keepers feed and house the animals, provide (or don’t provide) companions or mates, control reproduction, and transfer or euthanize animals based upon the needs of the institution. Animals in zoos perform no work except simply remaining alive and within sight, though recent research into animal suicide suggests some animals resist even this labor. (Animal agency in this case, is exercised by a death-drive.) Zoo animals, like domesticated animals, are little more than chattels, according to Gary Francione’s formulation, who may be used, abused or discarded as needed. Indeed, animals are not kept in zoos for their own protection or for the preservation of species, zoo claims to the contrary. Little education about habitat loss, global warming, and poaching is provided to zoo visitors. And almost no animals in zoos are ever returned to the wild. McArthur’s photographs make this failure clear; the animals appear to be simply warehoused.
Captive contains short, introductory essays by Virginia McKenna, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation and Lori Gruen, a professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University. These are passionate encomia that speak, however, more to the concerns of the authors – the success of the Born Free Foundation and the philosophical concept of embodiment — than the photographs themselves. McArthur also punctuated the book with six, short essays of her own that function both as introduction and autobiography, though the last two texts also include useful discussions of zoos as potential refuges for orphaned or injured animals. (At a recent conference at the Detroit Zoo, a number of speakers – mostly from outside the professional zoo community – argued that zoos should adopt the model of animal refuges and sanctuaries.) But taken as a whole, the essays in Captive provide little more information about zoos than we see in the pictures – and that’s not enough to provide an effective examination and critique of the institution.
The words and images in Captive capture the three essential elements of zoos – animals, cages and audience – but occlude their history and development. We witness the loneliness and boredom of zoo animals, but learn nothing about the practices of particular zoos, their audiences, staff or leadership. We are given the location and year of the photograph, but have no way of knowing whether the zoo in question is typical in its confinement and treatment of a particular species, or if the facility has deteriorated (or improved) over time. We see zoo visitors – mostly children and parents – but don’t know if the demographics are typical. (During a recent, midweek visit to the Atlanta Zoo, I saw children and parents, older couples, and a few teens with cameras.) Though many of McArthur’s photographs show animals in close confinement, there is no information in the book about whether small, metal cages have become rare in zoos, or if they still remain the rule. Many of the zoos photographed in Captive were in Germany, Denmark and Eastern Europe. Are these zoos large or small? Are bigger zoos — San Diego, Bronx, Pretoria, Toronto, Columbus, St. Louis, and Berlin — better than smaller ones? Is there such a thing as a good zoo at all?
Jo-Ann MacArthur, like Jaschinki and Hassos, understands zoos to be prisons where non-human animals suffer from isolation, sensory deprivation, hopelessness and sometimes violence. But unlike the best, human prison photographers – Danny Lyons [FIG. 10], Richard Ross, Sean Kernan, and Mikhael Subotzky – MacArthur reveals very little about the character of the inmates: their needs, habits and personalities. Lyon’s photograph of a Meal Line (1968) at the notorious Huntsville, Texas “Walls Unit”, shows a line of identically dressed men leading from the foreground at lower right, to background, upper left. We see black, white and brown men in close formation as they cross the yard and climb a brick stairs with tubular metal railing. The extraordinary, formal precision of the picture conveys the prisoners’ subordination to institutional rules and routines. MacArthur’s project doesn’t permit that level of interrogation because she has limited herself in the book to a single frame per animal and focuses upon inactive and isolated animals. Nor is there any sense in her book that the animals she represents have the capacity for agency, even of a limited kind. Her photographic perspective – often from behind, at an oblique angle, through the bars, or from a distance – doesn’t allow for that. Also absent is any examination – visual or textual — of the institutional culture of the zoo/penitentiary, or the lives of the staff and keepers. It is often said that the only thing dividing prisoners from corrections officers is the bars. What about zoo custodians? What are their lives like? How are they affected by the sight, sound, and smell of incarcerated animals?
And finally, what about that glimpse into the eyes of the zoo animal, and the possibility of achieving communication, relationship, reflection, and the I/Thou? Can a camera ever capture animals’ gaze in such a way as to enable a glimpse into their souls? Many photographers of humans have achieved that feat – think Walker Evans and Paul Strand in addition to prison photographers like Lyons and Kernan. McArthur’s photographic compositions are often both disturbing and visually arresting, but her animals, with just a few exceptions, [FIG. 11] appear to avert their eyes. Or is it the photographer who has averted hers?
McArthur’s Captive is a powerful, visual survey of zoo animals and their physical conditions of captivity. But precisely because it examines so many different zoos and animals, its cannot provide significant insight either into the subjectivity of captive animals, or the ideological and economic function of zoological gardens. The merging of close and sustained photographic observation and detailed institutional history and critique is what is most lacking in the current generation of zoo books. That’s a worthwhile project for McArthur and her peers in the future.
Jo-Anne McArthur, Captive, New York: Lantern Books, 2017
208 pp, 10″ x 8.4″
Includes contributions by Virginia McKenna & Lori Gruen.