I find zoos and aquariums fascinating for their utter strangeness. Encountering a polar bear in Central Park or a deep-water fish above sea level can simultaneously provoke delight as well as feelings of disorientation. With the support of the McKee Photography Grant, I spent my summer exploring the complex nature of these environments and investigating the dynamics of human-animal interactions within them. Do we feel closer to nature in these spaces or do we become more aware of our removal from it? Are zoos and aquariums arenas for education or exotification? Historically, animals have been vitally important to human existence, for sustenance and labor as well as in terms of the symbolic, spiritual and psychological. I would argue that the exhibition of animals in zoos and aquariums is an affirmation of their multifaceted importance to us. The creation of these spaces reflects our urge to dominate and possess what is wild as well as our profound attraction to it.
I first began exploring this theme while studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. The photographs I took there—in an aquarium and an abandoned zoo—were comments on containment, and the dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality of the boundaries that divide humans from animals. While I initially thought the McKee Project (which I shot in New York City at four zoos and an aquarium) would continue where the Cape Town series left off, I found myself increasingly drawn to the instances of humans and animals merging than those when they appeared most separate. Through reflection and distortion, I attempted to disorient the viewer, blurring what is contained and what is free. In the most successful photographs, it is may appear as though the human visitors have been plunged behind the glass and the animals are emerging out of it. As their environments become confused, they humans and animals begin to mirror each other—transforming into twins, either through their poses or the superimposition of their images. The glass and dramatic lighting often found in zoos and aquariums was instrumental in creating the optical illusions—the reflections and distortions—that render the relation of our species to others visually ambiguous in these spaces.