When I presented my project on rewilding at the recent San Diego NANPA Summit, it was a Lightning Talk, so I only had six minutes to address the audience. I did not have time to explain a bit more about why I started a photo project about releasing animals back into the wild. It stems in part from spending years working on another project, which deals with less fortunate animals living in captivity. After photographing animals who had lost all freedom, I felt the need to experience animals returning to nature. But still, the project I call “Captive” is a quest I feel passionate about, especially as I have seen my photos play an integral role in the current public discourse over reforming and rethinking zoos.
Since 2009, through “Captive,” I have been taking a critical look at the living conditions of animals in zoos all around the world. At the moment, I have gathered photos from about 60 zoos (I have lost count), in 11 countries, on 5 continents, and I keep adding to the collection whenever I get the chance. The main goal is to invite the viewer to reflect on what happens when we use animals as objects of display and entertainment. It’s something that we often forget when visiting zoos. We get distracted by the cuteness, the fuzziness, or the search for the elusive hidden animal, and we fail to stop and take a look at the habitat in which we keep these beings for our pleasure. Human vision is selective, so freezing a scene through photography allows the viewer to notice things in these animal enclosures that we would usually glance over.
No matter if I am visiting some of the “best” zoos in the world, or rusty old road-side attractions, and no matter if I am in the so-called developed world, or in developing countries, I always find animals living in deplorable conditions. Everywhere, cement enclosures are the norm, with little or no access to vegetation, fresh water or even daylight. Most animals never see any signs of nature unless it is through the idyllic scenes painted on the walls. Recently, many zoos have added conservation, preservation and education to their missions, which I applaud. But still, these are the rare exceptions, and quality of life is still something that eludes the vast majority of captive animals worldwide.
I’ve been very fortunate to see this series take off and get noticed by a wide public. It has lead to 28 legitimate publications (and many more illegitimate ones), TV appearances, as well as a few exhibits. My high point up to now has been seeing one of my photos being used as a rallying call to save a highly distressed polar bear in Mendoza, Argentina. There also have been talks of creating a book from my “Captive” series, but I still need to do a bit more work before that can happen.
Currently, maybe because of a slight fatigue caused by the negativism often depicted in these images, I am hoping to supplement this series with a “Beyond Captive” addendum. It’s clear to me that zoos and aquariums will always exist. There is a demand for them, they make money, and like it or not, for many people, it’s the only exposure they will ever get to animals beyond the barnyard. So what can be the 21st century solution for captive animals? What are the innovative ways to reform and rethink zoos? These are questions I am interesting in exploring, and using my camera to find answers. I feel that conservation photography at its best is not just about exposing the problems, but also seeking and documenting solutions that can better the situation.
I am currently looking for funding and support to undertake this “Beyond Captive” project. If you have ideas or suggestions, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
Gaston Lacombe is a photographer based in Washington, D.C., specializing in documentary and conservation projects. Most of his work deals with the relationships between humans and animals, and humans and nature.
Gaston has worked on six continents, including a residency in Antarctica. His photos and articles have appeared in numerous publications in North America and Europe, and he is the recipient of multiple international photography prizes. His photos have been shown in galleries and museums in Europe, South America and North America, including at the Smithsonian Institute. He regularly lectures on photography, and on his projects, around the world.
Gaston is also the Communications Coordinator for the International League of Conservation Photographers, where he helps coordinate conservation expeditions with some of the world’s top photographers.