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

  • Jon Knobelock

    I have to agree that this would seem like a slap in the face if I were a wildlife/nature photographer, I mean the tiger shot is indeed beautiful but I would not put that in the category of nature photography. I also found the comment “What’s next? We start staging conflicts to get really cool war photos?” to be kind of funny as there have been times where photojournalists have altered the view of a conflict for story purposes.

  • Josh Zytkiewicz

    As long as the circumstances of the photo are made clear I don’t care where it’s made.

    Just don’t lie.

  • buchananimagery

    Props for the photo, but when I hear “nature,” I don’t think “zoo.”

  • watermelonpunch

    I’m no authority on the subject… just clicked on an interesting question & wound up here. But frankly, in a “Nature” category, I would have been under the impression a photo labeled “Nature Photo” would mean a photograph taken in a natural setting setting of some type… IN NATURE.
    But I suppose if the contest didn’t specify in the rules, it’s a gray area with room to argue… Even if the category was “wildlife”… Well, it is a wild animal (as opposed to domesticated).
    I do think this is unfortunate considering what one has come to expect from National Geographic, however.

    Irrelevant, but I feel compelled to say… Again, no expert here on the quality of them, which seems to be quite good if that’s what you’re concerned about… But I personally don’t really care much for either of these photos. I couldn’t say why I just don’t like them. But now it’s got me thinking it has something to do with the context. I really don’t know.

  • Earl Williamson

    I think it’s fine if people make not-so-wild animals appear wild in breathtaking photographs. What matters to me is that the photographers are honest about their own work. There shouldn’t be any shame in saying “this is my trained wolf, and I staged this photo”. What I hate is when they lie or omit the truth about the photo. It’s like hey – it’s a good photo even if it’s staged or photoshopped or whatever… just don’t take your audience for a bunch of suckers.

  • Nomadic Samuel

    I think the story behind a photo should be equally as compelling as the photo itself. Brendan brings up some great points about photos being staged.

  • Gavlister

    I think this would be a perfect winner in a category called ‘animals’

    It certainly isn’t the photographers fault but to me it indicates National Geographic needs to stop selling itself out. My impression of National Geographic has always been as an outstanding publication brought about by passionate photographers who go to such great lengths to make a story. Things that you don’t see in everyday publications.

    It feels a bit watered down now!

  • JosephRT

    I can see why some hardcore brave the elements to get the shot nature/wildlife photographers may be upset/jealous. To me though, this image is every bit as legitimate as any other. Especially considering the photographer gave a full disclosure on the circumstances in the description

  • junyo

    “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.”

    Say it with me kids; “No one cares how hard you worked.” van Son’s argument boils down to the photographer should be rewarded for his effort, and not his output. And while risking your life and eating bugs or whatever makes for some cool stories those things aren’t, at the end of the day, photography. A lot of people appreciate the story, and maybe even are wiling to pay you for it, but if your efforts aren’t integral to what you put on the film/captured with the sensor, then you’re selling the narrative not the image. Bottom line, if it’s within the rules and accurately represented, you judge the image as an image, not as a cool/uncool story.

  • Gavlister

    Great article. This is so true. I have seen scenes where journalists have brought alcohol along to encourage action so they get a better story! I think there are many cases similar to this!

  • Burnin Biomass

    Its the image, that’s it. I don’t care if you took it in a zoo, if you took it from the roof of your car, or if you stalked a Tiger for 5 days. The story of how you got the image doesn’t change the image to me.

  • Andrew Kandel

    A few years ago an image of a snow leopard taken at a game farm in Montana won the contest so it doesn’t appear that National Geographic puts too much value in the “wild” of wildlife, at least for their contests.

    Shooting in zoos, or more often game farms, is fairly controversial amongst wildlife photographers. Some are steadfast against it (Tom Mangelsen) while other prominent nature photographers shoot at game farms. However, I think everyone agrees that at a minimum the photographer should disclose the image was made of a captive animal in a controlled situation, which appears to be the case in this situation.

    As a wildlife photographer, zoos and game farms are not for me. There is something very hollow about the experience and about the resulting photo. I can understand commercial photographers rolling their eyes at the idea but I think most people who shoot primarily nature do so in part for the experience of being in nature and observing nature. Likewise, there are some major ethical concerns with game farms as many are puppy mills, requiring newborns every year to bring in clients.

  • Thomas Hawk

    Garry Winogrand took some really cool photos in zoos.

  • Alejandro Martinez

    The quality of an image does not hinge on the difficulty of taking the image. Context is important for the image and being forthcoming about it matters. For instance if this photograph were presented within an article about how tigers live in their natural habitat, then we have a problem. The image is compelling and it certainly fits a category as vague as “Nature.”

    As an aside, I think zoos are really interesting spaces and many interesting work has been shot there like Winogrand or Jeong MeeYoon. But then again, I find spaces were nature and humans come together rather interesting subjects to photograph.

  • William Kolb

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

    Yes, people already do this. It’s a sad, sad world.

  • William Kolb

    Makes me sick.

  • Sterling

    Doesn’t bother me that it is taken in a zoo. It may have if it was portrayed as something else. While It definitely makes for a weaker story to go along with the photo, I don’t think the Nat Geo recognition was based on the quality of the story.

  • eraserhead12

    seems they already separated “wildlife” from a general “nature” shot; I’m fine with that distinction.

    If you disqualify a zoo, what about SD’s 1800-acre ‘safari park’? or a wildlife park/reserve?

  • eraserhead12

    to be fair, it was an Indochinese tiger in a 2000-acre open zoo in Thailand, not a “hey kids, don’t bang on the glass!” zoo in the states lol. if they don’t count, you’d have to draw the line somewhere with wildlife parks and sanctuaries.

  • p.rock

    IMHO, if submitted to the “Nature” category, it’s totally acceptable. If it was “Wildlife,” it would be less so. There’s no implication of, well, wildness in the term nature. Just like an orchid in a pot on my front step is just as much a part of “nature” as is the same type of orchid in an open field in Bangladesh. But, a bird in an aviary is not a part of “wildlife” as much as the same bird flying unencumbered through a forest.

    So, semantically, I see nothing wrong whatsoever with the award. That said, I *am* surprised that NatGeo didn’t just look for a more “wild” photo to crown anyway.

  • Nathan Caulford

    Nature, yes. Wildlife, no. Simple.

  • Dick

    Amazing photo accompanied by a very silly discussion. I hate photographers.

  • Mansgame

    Not even close.

  • Rooney

    OK so portraits taken in a studio with introduced (“Fake”) lighting are not legitimate; macro shots set up should be ruled out; sports shots set up (and there are heaps of those) not acceptable. Come on – it’s the final photograph that is viewed . Heaven forbid – don’t make us look at photographs of real food instead of the falsified stuff that portrays food in pics – even the humble Maccas burger on the wall ad- nothing genuine there. Photography is creating a link to your imagination by introducing a suggestion via the image. If you see a photograph of a wild animal, and you feel the cold, hear the wind, and picture the shot as coming from the wilderness – then even if it is shot in a zoo then it is a successful shot. Anyone who stands on the purists soapbox should then apply the same principles to people / portraiture, sports, still life / advertising, food, architecture and everything else. It will never happen…..

  • spongebob nopants

    On the one hand it’s the final image that matters.
    On the other hand- If this was a pet dog or cat doing the exact same thing, it would never have won. And that’s an important point because what we are looking at is essentially a form of pet.
    And no it’s not a nature photograph at all. Animals in zoos or domestic circumstances do not have the same life that those in the wild do. They don’t have the same concearns about food or predators and get medical treatment.
    Such an animal won’t have the same personaity as one in the wild.
    One might as well shoot a photo of a person and call it a nature photograph.
    It’s a lovely picture but not a nature photograph.

  • Wuz nt Me

    I think most people, when they first saw that image, were a little moved by it in some way. If it wasn’t lied about, and it fit the rules, if not some peoples version of the “spirit” of the rules, then why should it matter.
    -Hey, look at this picture.
    -Oh wow, that’s awesome
    -No it’s not! There’s a fence a couple miles away!
    Less than a decade ago it would have been because it was digital..
    Or how about, ‘That doesn’t follow the rule of 3rds. NatGeo must be run by monkeys.’
    We all know a person like that. One that seeks to ruin everything for everyone else. Consider the motivations of someone like that and then move on…

  • Brendan van Son

    wow, hadn’t seen that article…. incredible!

  • Brendan van Son

    very well put Andrew!

  • Brendan van Son

    agreed Gavlister… the term wildlife or nature kill it for me.

  • 323232nugut

    portrait photography in a studio is the same as a zoo….

  • watermelonpunch

    Did everyone see the “honorable mention” photo of the red fox? Now that’s a moment in nature caught! Very entertaining.

    I thought the Matterhorn picture was pretty nice.

    The rest of them I looked at… I now realize the reason I don’t like them is because, well, they look kinda fake or just not like being there. Not all of them, but several. I guess it just rubs me the wrong way. I like pictures that emulate me actually being there & seeing for myself. That’s been my draw to National Geographic since I was little.
    For me personally, the overprocessing kind of thing and set up photography seems best suited, in my personal preference, to things you can’t see with natural vision… such as space photos or things that are very very small or things in darkness.

    So I think in the end it’s a matter of the difference between art and nature photojournalism maybe. Which is I think where this kind of thing about the zoo could rub some people the wrong way. It’s not about picture so much as what people are expecting to be presented with to view… Are you just interested in an artistic picture that you can appreciate as a picture? Or are you interested in a photojournalism aspect? Thus the comment comparing it to staged war photos… which some might find irrelevant.

    I like that people are actually discussing this topic & I can see that a lot of people are coming at it from a lot of different viewpoints.

  • tyrohne

    Superbly put. The photo deserves the accolades. Van Son’s rant came across as passive agressive sour grapes.

  • watermelonpunch

    I don’t know… I’d have to think about that but it’s an interesting question… Seems like a tough call.
    I enjoyed my time some years ago staying at a resort in Mexico’s Xpu-ha that was a nature eco park turned into a resort. It was something between a park and a zoo. Most of the captive animals there were like turtles alligators & deer. Or insects & lizards It’s not like they had big cats that would naturally be running across savannahs… where that’s where I see a difference.

    This makes me think of the San Diego animal park as opposed to the San Diego Zoo – which I visited both some years ago and found a distinct difference!!
    Animal parks & eco parks allowing enough room for the species that are kept, are NOT like the zoo I visited in the 70s where a chimpanzee reached through the BARS OF ITS CAGE and ripped out some of my hair! An open wildlife sanctuary is not like seeing a wild big cat pacing in a cage because it’s gone insane from captivity in too small a space.

  • Andres Trujillo

    I would be 100% in agreement with you, but to be fair nobody said “wildlife” anywhere. It was in the “Nature” category, had he won the “Wildlife” category, I would agree that it would be a little bit harder to justify

  • Kris J Boorman

    Its funny, I think its a beautiful photo, and I can’t deny it’s appeal, but I strongly disagree with this quote:

    “A Tiger, for example, in captivity is every bit as awesome, amazing, and gorgeous as a Tiger in the wild”

    Sorta shot himself in the foot, there.

  • Andrew Sherman

    I don’t really think this image is that great though? A centered image with no quality of light woohoo you nailed it…

  • Lew Lorton

    As long as the rules allow it and the photographer is straightforward about the conditions, then the photo should be valued as it is.

    Valuing process over content by saying that an animal image must be taken in a certain way is no different than saying pictures taken with 4 x 5 slide film should be evaluated differently and given more credit than images made with a digital slr because the photographer shooting the image had to work harder.

    For a different reason, I avoid contests because the terms are often onerous, that the organization owns rights in perpetuity to that image. For the costs of a few prizes the organization builds its photo library and the photo profession suffers.

  • Ray…

    Don’t call it nature or wildlife photography call it what it is animal photography!!!


  • Brendan van Son

    mate, 1) no one said this photo was “fake”
    2) no photographed MacDonald’s Burger won the natioanl geographic photo contest.

  • Brendan van Son

    for me, when I hear nature I think natural, not just something that’s alive. But I guess that’s partly where the controversy lies.

  • Brendan van Son

    my thoughts exactly.

  • Rob Miracle

    1. The photo was incredible. Where it was taken doesn’t take away from the “moment” the photographer captured. 2. There was no attempt to deceive the viewer. 3. It was not a domesticated animal but a wild animal and that’s still nature (and one could argue that even domesticated animals count).

    Many mortals can’t run the jungles with 800mm/F4 lenses for days hunting a moment that will likely not happen. Having plenty of time and money should not be a criteria to determine a great photo.

  • buchananimagery

    That makes a lot more sense. I was thinking the tiger was just standing in a kiddie pool. :)

  • tryharder

    First – For me the key distinction is that the tiger’s behavior photographed wasn’t staged and is an instinctive grooming behavior indedepent of the tiger’s captivity and the photo suggests no context other than a tiger face in a snowstorm. The wolf photo is staged to appear to be a triggered photo that captured a wild wolf clearing a shepherd’s gate in pursuit of prey while the actual behavior was a trained response by a penned animal, and so the close-up view of the wolf’s “body language” may be incorrect and misleading with its context misattributed.
    Second – There’s a certain disingenuous quality to this discussion. With the exception of triggered photos of animals entering and leaving their nest, burrow, den, or other trail – “nature” photographs taken at close range are necessarily staged to one extent or another. It simply isn’t possible to wander around in the snow 10 feet from a wild tiger waiting for it to shake without becoming tiger food. With notable but rare exceptions, behaviors photographed or filmed are facilitated to one degree or another – large cats are generally filmed hunting prey that was released where it was likely to be run down within camera range for example. Natural hunts are recorded with long lenses, and in fragments that are pieced together. As long as the close up behaviors match undisturbed behaviors in telephoto shots, its pointless to complain about images that couldn’t be recorded any other way.

    Finally – The publication is from The National Geographic Society – you know – the people who make maps. That fact that their devotion to high quality printing and images from exotic locations suggests “wild nature journal” at times doesn’t make that their charter.

  • Billie-Jo

    I think its great and does not matter if its in a zoo or in the wild… these are still wild animals any way you look at it.

  • Patrick Downs

    There’s another issue even more alarming: Many nature photos are passed off as shot in the wild when in fact the animals are from game farms, and used as basically hired “actors” used to pose for the photog, faking a wild image. It happens all the time, they get published, and shame on the photographers who pass those images off as taken in the wild. One magazine editor said he began checking to see if game farm animals were being used in shots before he would publish them, after he began seeing tigers photographed on the beach in CA and he knew they weren’t wild animals. It’s bogus on many levels.

  • Alan Dove

    The distinction is entirely artificial. Wildlife photographers commonly take their photos in parks or preserves, and nobody’s saying that’s illegitimate. As we continue overpopulating the planet with humans, those parks and preserves are getting smaller, to the point where it’s hard to draw a bright line between a large zoo and a small preserve. Do we now need to set some arbitrary standard for minimum acreage in order to call it “nature photography,” or can we just stipulate that if it shows a wild animal displaying a natural behavior, it counts?

  • Andrew Kandel

    I think the amount of acreage is less important than how they live in that acreage. Animals have biological imperatives such as food, physical security and reproduction. Animals in zoos either have these imperatives satisfied with little or minimal effort by the animal (food and security) or have other imperatives completely eliminated or drastically limited (reproduction). This situation changes behavior and greatly separates animals living in captivity and animals living largely wild lives, even urban animals living amongst human society.

    To me the “wild” in wildlife has value and therefore should be differentiated from those living in captivity. I respect that this particular contest didn’t differentiate it and fair enough to the photographer. However, I’ve read several times in these comments as well as from the artist’s statement that there is really no difference between animals and by consequence the photography of both groups should be categorized the same. I totally reject that assertion.

  • Peng Tuck Kwok

    I read the complaints that the dude had. Was like so? She took a picture and entered it into Nat Geo. What did he do? Didn’t take anything and bitched about it on his blog and how poor his work life is. What’s the problem there ?

  • Дмитрий Блудов

    Göbbels style. Both Germans and Soviets were doing their hot radio reportages from battelfront in the same way.