Zoo, by Britta Jaschinski

Zoo cvr

German-born Britta Jaschinski makes it clear what she thinks of zoos without any need for words.  They are gloomy depressing places containing bored animals in Spartan conditions.  These 75 black-and-white photographs, published in 1996, are grainy and overexposed, as if snapped surreptitiously by an undercover reporter penetrating to the heart of this exploitation darkness to bring back news of man’s inhumanity to his fellow creatures.  Zoos are not pleasant places, and we are encouraged to see how alienated the inmates are from their wild counterparts as they serve our pleasure on a day out.

Information provided is perfunctory, captions stating place – a selection of zoos in western Europe and the United States – and year taken, plus thumbnails at the back noting species.  A postscript describes Jaschinski’s unease visiting zoos as a child and anthropomorphically sensing ‘hopelessness’ staring back at her from the inhabitants of those unnatural habitats.  Zoos for her are more about human needs than those of the animals, and she regards them in completely negative terms, the enclosures ‘dark and fetid’; no concessions to breeding programmes or educational functions.

A sea lion opens the set, a waterfall behind its head, as if the animal is symbolically tasting freedom.  No bars are present so we might interpret it as an image of liberation, but we quickly realise as we turn the pages that the notion of freedom was illusory.  The predominant materials depicted are concrete and steel, confining creatures who should be roaming untrammelled.  Apparent self-determination is always undercut: a dolphin in the air could be leaping from the ocean, except trees are visible at the bottom of the frame.

We don’t always get a good look at the animal, because the emphasis is on the location rather than what is imprisoned within it.  Sometimes the living being is very small in the image, a mere detail in the distance; or we only see a body part: a hand, fin or leg for example.  Occasionally we don’t see the animal at all, only evidence it is there: a shadow on a wall, footprints in the sand, bubbles in the water; or synecdochally a series of spikes stand in for the entire establishment.  At the extreme there is simply blackness punctuated by white lines, telling us only that whatever is there is in a place devoid of everything which gives life meaning (until we read the caption at the back and find that what seemed meaningful is actually just vaguely outlined steps).

The human mammal features occasionally, for example a man staring at a Malayan tapir’s backside, or one walking outside, free to come and go, while a llama stares at the photographer through the bars of its cage.  At London Zoo’s beautiful Lubetkin-designed penguin enclosure is a family staring through Perspex below a sign informing visitors that feeding time is 2.30, reminding us the animals are there as a spectacle.  People themselves become exhibits, in one instance photographed foggily beyond a reptile’s head through a viewing window, the description a dismissive ‘unidentified’.

Unfortunately the depiction can verge on the dishonest – a giraffe at London Zoo is shown in a tiny pen, but this is only its indoor enclosure, and if the casual reader fails to notice the big door leading to the outdoor area he or she may believe this is all the space it has at its disposal.  Another photograph of a camel taken in London shows it in a small space, and one has to look hard to spot the gap where the animal can freely pass to the outside.  Photographing them in the open would undermine the theme of strict confinement; when we do get to see an elephant with the Mappin Terraces in the distance they have all the appeal of Dracula’s castle in a Hammer film.

That is not to say everything is fine.  An orangutan facing a perforated metal panel does not look happy, though it is entirely possible the animal is observing something on the other side; there is no context to help us understand what is going on.  Keeping a polar bear in a concrete enclosure within a city zoo is wrong under any circumstances, but such cases have now vanished from western zoos (those shown date from Germany in 1993 and New York in 1995, but London Zoo stopped keeping polar bears at Regent’s park in the mid-1980s).  Similarly, the presence of beluga, orca and big cats in restricted spaces is impossible to defend under any circumstances.

It is evident that some of the larger animals are in barren enclosures lacking stimulation even if they do have enough space, assuming we can trust what we see.  For all we know there may be an entire play centre just out of shot, but Jaschinski has done nothing to persuade us she gives us the whole picture; having said which she has anticipated the point by showing an orangutan ‘playground’ as she drily refers to it, in Dublin, a pathetic structure far removed in every sense from the sensory-rich rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.

The zoos Jaschinski visited are some of the better-kept (particularly London and San Diego).  Goodness knows how the worst ones in say China or Russia would have appeared through her lens.  This is definitely not Wildlife Photographer of the Year material; in fact it’s all a bit relentless.  But then doubtless she would say she has succeeded in making her point (she claims her ‘intention is to allow shades of interpretation’ but to my mind she has a singular vision).  Fortunately zoo standards have improved over the last few decades, so much of what is shown here has been abandoned for more enlightened practices.  Whether such improvements would satisfy Jaschinski is doubtful as she seems to have a more existential issue with the institution.

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