We went to St. Louis for the weekend recently, and spent a day and a half at the gargantuan St. Louis Zoo. While there, I took a photo of a silverback gorilla who was engaged in a tense interaction with a younger and less dominant male. I liked the image, but I wasn’t prepared for how much several other people liked it. This kind of thing is always interesting; when you are in the business of putting creative work into the stream, you never know what people will like. It’s always a treat when something touches them that you didn’t expect.
I was in my brother’s office talking about this – he is also a photographer, though he works with completely different subject matter – and I wondered aloud why I didn’t find the image as striking as some others do. “Zoo guilt?” he suggested. I laughed. I knew what he meant: Zoo guilt is the sheepishness a photographer supposedly feels when photographing a silverback gorilla in a Midwestern zoo instead of, say, the mountains of Rwanda. Photographic zoo guilt is separate and apart from whether zoos are a good idea generally, which is a much more complicated subject that I’m still sifting through.
And no, I don’t do photographic zoo guilt. I’m eager to photograph the lives of animals in whatever context I find them: wild, in a preserve, in a refuge, in a zoo, and in the home as pets. Zoo guilt is only appropriate if a photographer has lied about the images produced, presenting them as shot in the wild when in fact they were not. I don’t do that. That would be ridiculous.
Another reason I think zoo guilt is silly is that to some extent, my photography is about individual animals. One of the things I’ve learned from photographing animals in all contexts is how unique each one is. I cannot find this particular gorilla in the wild. I can only find him in St. Louis. So I look for him there.