Captive: A Hard Look at the Lives of Zoo Animals

By Kirsten Rian

© Gaston Lacombe
Gaston Lacombe's "Captive" series includes photos from zoos in several countries around the world, presenting a difficult look at the conditions in which some animals are kept captive. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

Zoos (referred to as menageries prior to the nineteenth century) were originally collections of exotic animals kept by kings and queens for their own entertainment, or as a display of wealth and power, and date as far back as 3500 BC in ancient Egypt. Canadian photographer Gaston Lacombe’s “Captive” series depicting animals in modern-day zoos asks questions about hierarchies of power, and the demarcation line represented by a sheet of glass, where one looks in at another looking out.

Lacombe’s photographs do not aim to condescend or to condemn zoos. He points out that zoos originated on the assumption that humans should have dominance over nature; only in recent history have zoos added conservation, preservation and education to their missions, which he applauds. But quality of life, he adds, is still a factor not fully considered by zoos most of the time. 

“Not all zoos are equal,” Lacombe explains. “Some make great efforts to provide their animals with adequate and comfortable habitats, and some others can only be described as animal torture chambers. However, in all zoos, there are always some animals wedged in habitats that are inappropriate, inadequate and uncomfortable. I still haven’t seen any exceptions to this.”

Taken in nine countries as diverse as Latvia, Sri Lanka and the United States, and spanning five continents, Lacombe’s photographs articulate the complexities surrounding the physical and emotional boundaries humans create to keep animals in confined spaces. Lacombe’s images generally depict one animal, situating it in the geometry of walls and the texture of concrete. His expressive, careful compositions cause the habitat to seem utterly realistic. With deeper reflection, the images take on a diorama effect, the moment and animal stopped.

Growing up in rural Canada, Lacombe spent countless hours playing with, running after and taking care of the animals on his grandparent’s dairy farm. A member of a family of hunters, he realized his love for animals when at age 14 he was given his first gun and taken by his father and uncles on his first hunt. The experience of killing a partridge and maiming a hare, listening to the hare’s distress calls, caused remorse and grief instead of a sense of accomplishment. “That evening I gave [my father] the gun back, and told him I would never go hunting, or fishing, again. Somehow the hare’s scream changed a lot of things for me. It wasn’t just an edible object running through the forest anymore, it felt pain, it felt fear … it felt,” Lacombe shares. 

In “Captive” Lacombe uses beauty as a tool to engage viewers and encourage a similar awareness. His arrangement of line and space, and his lush, warm color washes combine to deliver darker and more poignant messages about the environment and human nature.

“I think professional photographers today have to reach beyond the visible, beyond the obvious and, especially, beyond the technique, to capture the attention of an audience that has become a bit immune to visual stimulus,” he says. “It’s a very daunting challenge. However, it’s a challenge that, I feel, is pushing professional photographers to be better and more original in their expression.” 

Also a video artist, Lacombe chose to use photography for this body of work, focusing on one of the medium’s greatest strengths. “I want the photos to have a sense of quiet, serenity and stillness—I want them to inspire reflection—and I don’t think this could be achieved with video,” he says. Unencumbered by moving images and a soundtrack, the still photo allows for full consideration of the content layers. “Human vision is selective,” he continues. “We need photography to permit us to see things from a different point a view, to notice things we usually glance over. To permit us to see ourselves from a different perspective.”

“I am the space where I am,” French writer Noël Arnaud famously stated. Environment is attached to experience, for any living being, and while animals fill the frames of Lacombe’s images, it is the motivations of humans that viewers are asked to consider. The problem with enclosed spaces is there’s always more light and room on the other side. Imposed boundaries—even if brightly painted with murals of the savanna, or ringed with scraggly acacia trees—still reflect barriers to experience, a vanishing point resolving at a concrete wall or wire enclosure, the horizon line rendered a quote of the sky.

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