Things to Consider when Photographing at the Zoo

Western Buddhist monk feeding young deer in open zoo in Thailand Canon 5D Mark II camera and Canon 24-105mm f4 L series lens @ 40mm. Exposure Details: 1/500 second @ f5 ISO 400There's an ongoing dialogue as to the appropriateness of zoos in our modern world. How good a job do they do protecting endangered species and educating young and old alike as to the need to protect wildlife and environments worldwide?

How do you feel about photographing animals in the zoo? Do you feel like you're cheating photographing an otherwise wild animal within the artificial confines of a zoo? Is your local zoo the closest you or your kids are likely to get to see these exotic animals in the wild? Do you find your visits to the zoo to be joyous, educational or otherwise?

I'm no expert and have, thus far, only visited zoo's in Australia, China, Thailand and Bali (Indonesia). I've always enjoyed myself yet feel a little sad at what I've seen. I still have memories from childhood of seeing lions and tigers behind iron bars, in the back of trucks, when visiting circuses came to town. On occasions I've made photos that re-visit those childhood memories and, at the same time, act as metaphors for contemporary events. Consider how you could use the bars of a cage to tell a story or express a point of view. I'd suggest that by photographing animals will are in fact exploring our own place in this world and that we are both examining our relationship with ourselves as much as with other members of the animal kingdom.

I should also say that I have been uplifted by the rehabilitation to injured wildlife I've witnessed at various birds of prey displays. Perhaps it's the fact that the birds get to fly that makes these displays so pleasing to witness and photograph.

Zoo's, by their very nature, are a compromise. But they are filled with hard working people with a passion for what they do. Our admission fees and donations both enable them to continue their work and help provide the wildlife with ever better facilities and care. Whether at home or on holiday visiting zoos are ultimately the best way we can support them.

The above image was made at an open range zoo in rural Thailand. The monk, a North American convert to Buddhism, was happy to pose for a photo with the deer. He even offered to make the process easier for me by feeding the deer honey. I was particularly interested in the monks eyes which seemed even more doe-like than those of the dear. It's a very simple image, not much more than a snapshot. But, for me, its that irony within the monk's sad eyes that make it worthwhile. The monochromatic orange hues of his robe and surrounding earth seem to add to the melancholy nature of the image and seem to sum up for me the feelings I often experience when visiting zoos.

I look forward to zoos in France and Iceland during the middle of the year. I'm looking forward to the experience, which I hope will be positive, and the opportunity to make some great photos. 

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Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru