Things to Consider when Photographing at the Zoo

A well-meaning monk feeding a deer at the Tiger Temple in Thailand.

There'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?

Our Memories Help Form Our Feelings

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.

A close up image of an elephant in Thailand.

Photography Elicits Emotions Through Metaphor 

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 you are in fact exploring your 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 of 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.

I Support Zoos And Hope They Support Photographers

Zoos, 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 wildlife with ever better facilities and care. Whether at home or on holiday visiting zoos are ultimately the best way we can support them. And my making photographs that tell a positive story we photographers are able to share the news about the good work done by zoos to educate the public and to house and rehabilitate animals in a safe environment.

What's important is that zoos allow photographers to make photographs without hassling us over copyright of the images made within the confines of the zoo. Personally, I have no issue with paying a reasonable fee to make images with the understanding that payment of said fee would grant me the opportunity to profit from the sale of those images. But most folks, regardless of the size of their lenses, simply want to make great photos that celebrate the beauty, cuteness or majesty of the animal in question. And, surely, there's nothing wrong with that.

Are Your Photos More Than Snapshots?

The image at the top of this post 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. They are wonderful places, but no substitute for life as it was meant to be lived: in the wild.

I'm going to make a special effort to include visits to more zoos as I continue to travel the world. I made a similar effort to include cemeteries in my travels and, before you could say it's the quick or the dead, I'd made an eBook on How to Photograph Cemeteries. At the very least photographing animals in zoos is great practice for that once in a lifetime safari many of us dream of undertaking.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru