Should Photographs Captured in Zoos Be Considered Legitimate ‘Nature’ Pics?


National Geographic has announced the winners of its 2012 Photo Contest, which received over 22,000 entries from photographers around the world. The photograph above, captured by Ashley Vincent and titled “The Explosion!,” was chosen as the Grand Prize winner and the top image in the “Nature” category.

It’s a great capture, but there’s one thing about it that may prove to be somewhat controversial: Vincent captured the photograph in a zoo.

Here’s what the description of the winning image states on the Nat Geo website:

An Indochinese tigress named Busaba shakes herself dry after a swim at Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Chonburi, Thailand. Titled “The Explosion!” the photo was the winning entry in the 2012 National Geographic Photo Contest.

The Indochinese tiger—found in parts of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia—is one of six tiger subspecies, all of which are endangered or critically endangered. It’s estimated that only about 350 Indochinese tigers exist in the wild.

Over on his blog, travel photographer Brendan van Son writes that he feels insulted and disappointed that Nat Geo chose a photo of a captive animal as a winning “nature” photograph:

It’s easy to look at this photo and just say “hey Brendan, it’s a cool photo, get over it.” However, what if the circumstances were slightly different? What if for example, one was to capture a white wolf then release it in a beautiful scene of white snow to photograph it? What if one was to bring in a freshly shot bull elk for that wolf to be photographed eating? Would you feel different about it then? Moreover, National Geographic is saying to its photographers out in the field, we don’t really need you out there, just head to a zoo to get the wildlife shots you need.

If I were a National Geographic photographer, I’d be offended by this. A wildlife photographer spends entire days, from dusk to dawn sometimes, hiding out in the elements of nature, often putting themselves in danger, to get that one shot of true natural beauty. I have more respect for wildlife photographers than any others in the world, and I have to imagine this feels like a slap in the face to them.

What’s next? We start staging conflicts to get really cool war photos?

Back in 2010, a photographer was stripped of his prestigious wildlife photography grand prize win after it came to light that the wolf he had photographed was a captive animal.

The distinction, though, is that the photo above was submitted as a “Nature” photo and the wolf photo from 2010 was supposed to be a “Wildlife” photo.

The Winning Photo from National Geographic’s Annual Contest Is from a Zoo? [Brendan van Son]

Update: Vincent has written up her own thoughts in the description of the photo over on 500px:

As it happens, while I know some photographers feel that pictures of captive animals are inferior to photos captured of animals in the wild, as wonderful as it is to see animals in their natural habitat, I’ve always thought this is a ridiculous way to think. A Tiger, for example, in captivity is every bit as awesome, amazing, and gorgeous as a Tiger in the wild; what I attempt to capture in my images is something of my subject’s character and personality, as I believe it is these sort of engaging images that will have others feeling more of a connection with each individual subject, and perhaps for some people that connection will raise their levels of compassion enough to act on feelings that may eventually play some part in protecting and conserving the most vulnerable of Mother Nature’s gifts.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, as wonderful as “wild” animal photography can be – and if you ever have the opportunity to go, say, on an African safari you really, really should – until such a dream opportunity comes along don’t feel in any way disadvantaged because the only alternative you may have is to photograph captive animals. If you love animals and have a strong desire to capture engaging images of your favourites, find a place that cares well for their animals and invest as much time as you can getting to know your subjects and in honing your photographic skills.

Thanks for sending in the tip, Troy!

Image credit: Photograph by Ashley Vincent

  • Bill Ferris

    It is a cool photo, no question about that. It does beg the question, “What is nature?” Is the tiger a living creature native to this planet? Absolutely. Is the setting in which the tiger was photographed, natural? I’d say, no. A zoo is, at the very least, an artificial enclosure, a holding area into which humans bring animals to live in captivity. Unlike animals living in the wild, zoo animals are not free to come & go.

    Now, suppose we were discussing a photo of a lion boldly walking up the steps of the New York Stock Exchange. If the lion had escaped from the zoo and some lucky somebody just happened to be there to see the lion enter the exchange, that would be an amazing shot. Even if the shot was staged, it would be a great photographic statement about he contrast between wildness and urbanity. But being staged, you couldn’t call it a nature photo or a wilderness photo. It was a construct.

    The tiger photo looks like it could have been taken in the wild. Of course, that isn’t the case. It was taken at a zoo, where people have easy access to see–and photograph– majestic endangered species. The tiger was placed in an enclosure with a swimming area of some sort. These intentional actions by people set the stage for the scene captured in the above photo. Keeping this in mind, could one fairly describe the scene as being staged?

    “National Geographic” does not strike me as an institution that would casually accept a photo taken in a zoo as a legitimate entry without first giving the question significant discussion and thought. It would be interesting to read the judges thoughts on this issue. I’d like to hear and consider their perspective, before passing judgement.

  • Peter Neill

    Is shooting fish in a barrel considered to be “fishing”?

  • Karen Rae Elkins

    National Geographic chose her photo because it was the best photograph. My congratulations to you, Ashley Vincent for your majestic photo. Brendan van Son, who are you to deem this line as the creative line? Art/Photography is about your own lines, not the lines of others. In photography there is freedom until someone comes along and makes a crock of rules. Is photography about the photographer or the subject? I’d say it’s about the subject. How one gets there, it’s up to the individual.

  • Fran Chastain

    Very well said!

  • Phil Horsepool

    Take it for what it is, a great image that most of us would love to have taken….

  • Steve Large

    I was a photo-journalist once upon a time…then it had to represent factual events. However, this is about captruing an image. So, why not just appreciate the artistry?

  • John Mueller

    If entering a photo into a “wildlife” category then the “life” being documented should be “wild”. It’s like submitting a landscape photo and using a sunset from a different place or day. Or a photojournalist submitting a photo of a “candid” shot that was staged.

  • HarryTheDog

    This whole issue/argument stems around whether the animal is a “wild” animal or a captured animal. The rules of the competition clearly allow this, this is not a wildlife category. Not everyone has the opportunity as von Son has to spend two months chasing down one of only 350 Indochine Tigers remaining in the wild to photograph it. I wish I had the time and could do so, but I have a job and cannot simply disappear for two months. As Junyo succinctly describes it below the competition is about the “image” and not the story.

    Good on you Ashley Vincent for capturing such a superb “image” of an incredible animal without boring us to death about how you tracked the animal for two months in the Indochine rain forests living on gnats and nuts!

    As for von Son, Ashley won you didn’t, get over it.

  • Brian Pix

    So photographing people in a studio would be wrong since it’s not capturing them in their natural environment? What’s the difference in capturing a person’s beauty in a studio and capturing an animal’s beauty in a zoo?

  • DJ

    The natural world is not surrounded by wrought iron fences and water trenches. If you want to reveal the soul of the animal, you have to meet the animal in its place of truth—it’s own natural environment. Why not just stuff ‘em and shoot ‘em with 5000 watts of three point strobe lighting? You’d get a “pretty” picture every time.

  • brob

    wildlife doesn’t belong in cages in the first place

  • Andres Trujillo

    I understand your point (and for the most part, I would agree that it is how I feel), but in this case there’s a clear distinction made by the people conducting the contest, NatGeo is not saying that this is a wildlife shot, or that it won best “wildlife” category, so your attack on NatGeo is based on a difference on how you see or understand the word “nature”.

    To be fair, the photographer, nor the magazine, is responsible for your perception bias, so any attack on either seems misguided (at worst).

  • Tom Reichner

    A sanctuary or reserve would be considered “legitimate”, in my opinion, if it’s boundaries were not contained by any type of fence of barrier. If the animals are free-ranging – completely free to come and go wherever and whenever they choose, and go as far as they care to go, without encountering any fence or barrier – then photos of those animals are legitimate “wildlife” or “nature” photos. If they are fenced in – no matter how large the enclosure – then they are captive animals, and “captive” is the opposite of “wild”. How can you call something “wild”live if it is actually captive life?

  • Nathan Franke

    Pilanesberg Game Reserve in South Africa is a rough circle 25km in diameter, with a big electric fence all around it. Is 500km^2 legitimate to see elephants, lions, rhinos, etc? I’m sure some of those animals live their entire lives without coming in sight of the fence.

    Do they still count as “wild” life?

  • Leigh

    Yes. They should.

  • LoveBug

    Let’s be real, not everyone has the funds and privilege to spend days, dusk till dawn, to sit around waiting for the “perfect shot” of wildlife. If she can capture a magnificent photo of a tigress in a zoo, then let her be. Not many people can do that, as obviously exemplified in this article. Regardless of the opinions of “legitimate wildlife photographers,” this is a beautiful shot, captured by Ashley. Congrats to her again for winning the contest, and everyone else complaining needs to step up their game.

  • Tanacotti

    While the tiger photograph is really epic, I don’t think it should be considered “nature”…this is mainly because of my disdain for all the amateur photographers out there. The truth is, we are all getting lazy. We are allowing companies to start accepting photographs like this. This in turn allows so many amateur photographers to crowd this profession, thinking all they have to do is go to a zoo and take a mediocre photograph on their iphone. And WHAMO! They are a pro. No, I hate this idea…I have much more respect for a photographer out in the field. The kind of dedication it takes for someone to spend days in one location to get that perfect shot is worth much more. Once I found out this was in a zoo, it lost it appeal for me, even if its no ordinary zoo.

  • Alexandra’s Corner

    They should have a new category introduced: Zoo pics/captive animals. That shouldn’t be in the “nature” category…Just cause something is outside, doesn’t mean it’s in a “natural environment”.