Early in the 2010s, while studying at the International Center of Photography in New York, Asmita Parelkar paid a visit to the Bronx Zoo. Although she had been involved in wildlife rescues and NGOs that work with animals in the past, it was this particular visit that would shape her forthcoming work.
When she was there, unaware of what lies behind, she opened the door of a winter enclosure to have a look inside. And there it was — the surreal and striking sight of a giraffe inside a room.
Parelkar talks about how that arresting observation proved to be a turning point for her project, Giraffe Behind the Door, a work about animals in captivity, which also questions the contemporary relationship between humans and animals.
The project was recently on display at the Albert Hall Museum as part of the 2018 edition of the JaipurPhoto festival in India, curated by Aaron Schuman.
Speaking about the project, Parelkar describes how she had always felt a connection to the natural, and how the desire for respite while being in the super-urban environment of New York drew her to the zoos there. But once she started visiting them, things became a little complicated. “When I went [to the zoos]... they had created these perfect habitats and everything looked so beautiful. That made me realise how fake the whole thing actually was. The exhibits are really nicely made and everything is made to look so perfect, but the animals are still in captivity,” she says.
She took pictures during these visits and looking at them retrospectively, realised their potential. The photographs didn’t just tell the story of animals in captivity, but also highlighted and questioned the human desire for possession and our convoluted relationship with nature, which manifests in the desire to build zoos in cities.
The series of photographs, which Parelkar worked on as a visitor (she never got the permission to shoot behind the scenes, for obvious reasons), took about six months (between 2010 and 2011) to be completed, and is based on five zoos in New York. Talking about them, she comments on how zoos — giving the illusion of an animal’s natural habitat with their beautifully painted dioramas — are designed so that the animals are always visible to the public gaze, something which defies their innate wild behavior, which, along with the captivity itself, can lead to abnormal behaviours and even self-mutilation.
But rather than showcasing animals in outright distress, Parelkar chooses to play it subtly. “Initially, I had a lot of images which were portraits, and the animals seemed very sad, with a certain look in their eyes. But a lot of it was taken out, because maybe it was too obvious,” she says.
“Slowly, somewhere in your mind, I would like to think that the viewer starts wondering that this is something that is not okay. So I think there are two ways in which you can show a gruesome image — get someone’s attention immediately or you can do it subtly, get them into the work and let them go deeper.”
With her project, Parelkar hopes to hold you still and take notice. She believes that while visiting zoos, people (especially children) do not really pay attention to the animal’s condition or their surroundings. “It’s always about the fascination of seeing a tiger or a leopard. Nobody is actually there to study the behaviour of the animal, per se.”
The photographs, on the other hand, with their static nature, let you observe the finer details. “The images are not only about animals. They show the environment, the captivity, but in subtle ways. Some places there are fences, and some places they are not. And the whole point is that a lot of times when you see animals in the wild, except a few, they are always hiding. They never stay in sight… In zoos, the way they are made, it's an exhibit. And that causes them stress because people are coming, looking and pointing at them, or saying things,” she says.
“I think that’s what the images are pointing at. I think it’s about questioning. Hopefully, people question [after looking at the photographs]. Because in our daily lives, nobody is thinking about the zoos. No one gets up and says, let's think about animals in captivity. It [the project] is sort of putting that in front of them to make them think about it.”
Going ahead, she believes that she has decided to “work with subjects related to nature and human beings, and the connection between humans and nature”. One of the projects Parelkar has completed is on illegal wildlife trade. Shot once again in New York, it showcases the confiscated animal parts, skins, bones and other related things.
“The fact that we talk about it [humans and animals] separately is problematic. We are also a part of nature. But now, it is ‘us and them’. So I think I’m interested in working on stories related to this,” she says.
The third edition of JaipurPhoto was held across six venues — Hawa Mahal, Former Police Headquarters, City Palace, The Albert Hall Museum, Jantar Mantar and Jawahar Kala Kendra — in the city of Jaipur.
Updated Date: Mar 10, 2018 16:32 PM