My look of consternation deepens as I train my camera’s focus on yet another pacing animal. Shooting a moving animal through thick, scratched plexiglass, and fencing as well, is just plain challenging, and I’ve got few options for good vantage points here. I’ve come all this way. I have so little time. I need to do the best possible job while maintaining the guise of benign tourist. Zoo staff cast sidelong glances, especially when I am there alone again for a third consecutive day. I try to stay inconspicuous, and I usually do.
Click click click.
I close my eyes in a long blink, giving me a moment of repose. Compose yourself, Jo. Breathe. Resume bearing witness. Resume pushing yourself as far as you can possibly go, to get the images that people will see and understand. To capture the moments that will help show captivity for what it really is, without the window dressing. If I don’t do my job well, I’ve done it for nothing.
Click click click goes the camera.
Since I started photographing captive animals over a decade ago, I’ve visited more than 50 zoos and aquaria on five continents. Like a lot of tourists, when I land in a new city, I go to the zoo. But I do it because I take pictures I can publish; I want people to see places of captivity the way I do. These places are designed to trick us, please us and entertain us. Look at the nice pathways, the lovely buildings, jungle-themed painted walls, the bamboo walkways! All this trompe l’oeil for us, but those things don't mean much to the animals.
At an animal conference in Belgium last year I met Daniel Turner, who is an associate director at the Born Free Foundation. It didn’t take us long to get down to brass tacks: Let’s work together. What’s needed? Where? When? And so we did.
And that’s what I’ve spent so many months quietly doing this year. Days and days of travel: planes, trains and car rentals. Hostels, hotels and funny little European rooms in small towns and big cities. Long hours in the unpleasant heat of the exhausting mid-day Mediterranean sun, or endless downpours farther north as I try to keep my camera dry. What was nice, though, was stopping in at the many vegan restaurants and cafes along the way. You have to eat well to work well! I also enjoyed walking through new places and meeting the dogs, cats and birds, who brought a smile to my face and kept me company.
The Born Free Foundation now has a large archive of images from me. France. Germany. Denmark. Estonia. Latvia. Lithuania. Croatia. Slovenia. Born Free also hired the incredible Britta Jaschinski, a German/UK documentary photographer who has also spent a great deal of her professional life photographing animals who are captive, animals who need our help. Britta photographed in the UK, Italy and Malta for this project.
With our work combined, Born Free has launched their 2016 EU Zoo Inquiry. An exhibit of our work opened this week in the EU Parliament in Brussels, the very same city that Daniel and I first met a year ago. "Powerful photo exhibition captures poor conditions for animals in European Zoos," states the press release that went out on Monday. Daniel states that, "Despite the advances in knowledge about individual species and their biological needs, many animals are still kept in sub-standard conditions in EU zoos. Born Free is convinced this is unacceptable and hopes this collection of photographs will help influence a greater commitment to improving standards in animal welfare in Europe's zoos".
Now, this is important: A public consultation has opened to the public (yes, that means you!), to better understand the opinion on the role and performance of zoos. The EU provides this link so that any ordinary citizen can speak up about what they have seen and what they would like changed at zoos. I hope you'll take a few minutes to voice your opinions and concerns.
Seeing intelligent animals in barren, small enclosures is unbearable. Seeing them again the next day, and the day after that is even worse. While I’ve had the luxury of leaving, choosing what I will eat for dinner, socializing with whom I please, I return to these godforsaken places the following day and the animals are doing the same thing. I see and understand why the dirt paths under their feet are packed down from wear. I see all sorts of things.
The monkey who weaves a beautiful display of swinging and climbing on the ropes in his enclosure. How beautiful! How fun for him! If you stay for one minute to watch, which is what people do, that’s what you’ll leave thinking. But if you stay five minutes, perhaps ten, or heaven forbid, a full hour, your heart will sink. His path is no different from that of the elephant at the zoo who wears down a circular path in the dust. This monkey moves in the exact. Same. Way. With. Every. Single. Movement. His hands placed on the exact, precise piece of rope; a series of repetitive motions that have been rehearsed and choreographed into something hopeless and psychotic.
After the years of work that I’ve done, I have seen that too many animals live with inadequate or no enrichment. They live without family. They live without choice. Often they are enclosed with others with whom they don’t get along. I keep using the word “live” here but it’s not living; it’s existing, fully under someone else’s rules and space. Ours. Often, the captives are too bored and depressed to move. My heart hurts. My anger seethes. I hope to change this. The documents I leave with are my contribution to that change.
I decided I wanted to do as much as possible with these images, so I asked Martin Rowe at Lantern Books if he’d consider doing a second book with me. I’m thrilled that he agreed. The book is entitled, simply, Captive. I think it’s important to do this book now, as a contribution to the growing international dialogue about zoos and aquaria, zoo reform, and the ethics of keeping animals in captivity for our amusement. Captive is my contribution to this conversation. It will have some really interesting written contributions from Born Free co-founder Virginia McKenna, philosopher Lori Gruen, Detroit Zoo CEO and leader in zoo reform Ron Kagan, and some words from me as well. I’m very eager to make this project, and my years of photographing captivity, visible.
Here are some photos of my photo editor, Vanessa Garrison, and I, going over hundreds of images and making the final selects in the last few months. Thanks to the Hamilton Central Library for their fantastic space! We've now handed over the final selects to Paul Shoebridge, lead designer at The Goggles, with whom I also worked on the We Animals book.
And so, Lantern Books and I launch a crowdfunding campaign for Captive today! The book will be available in April 2017 but a companion project, entitled A Year in Captivity, will launch January 1st 2017. It'll be 365 photos, one posted each day, showing the experiences of captive animals, and why these places need to either close or evolve.
Captive, and A Year in Captivity, include images of zoos and aquaria from over 20 countries. As always, my work aims to get people to look, and to not turn away, so they can really see. The captive animals speak to us through these images. I think we are ready to listen. I think we’re beginning to finally realize that they deserve better. And that we can do much, much better than this.
I'm really looking forward to seeing and being a part of the changes that will follow the Born Free EU Zoo inquiry, this book, the exhibits and all that will ensue. These captive animals urgently need our help. Again, please take part by filling out the public opinion survey here!
Thanks for reading my blog and for caring about this issue. And I hope you'll check out our crowdfunding for Captive. As with the We Animals book, you'll be supporting its production by pre-ordering it. Easy!