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Zoos are supposed to be a source of education, a way of learning about and getting in touch with creatures we may never see. Yet, zoos are also places of captivity, where animals are held in small enclosures that rarely provide the enrichment that their wild homes could.

Professional photographer Gaston Lacombe of Canada, who now lives in Washington, D.C., has set out on a project to explore the inner world of zoos in “Captive.”

Gaston is a long-time animal lover who aims to explore the relationships between humans and nature in his work as well as the preservation of human memory.

“I heard a line in a film a long time ago that said something like: ‘The most violent thing is that everything can be forgotten,’ and that idea has stuck in my mind, and influences me as a photographer,” Gaston tells OGP.

His project has been ongoing since 2009, and he one day hopes to collect all his photographs from “Captive” in a book. Currently, he has taken photos representing 21 zoos in nine countries on five continents including facilities from the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Latvia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

While he has been going to zoos for years, he first started to see things differently when he photographed a small owl perched on a cactus (photo below).

“I had a strong feeling looking at this owl that something was wrong.  That is when I looked beyond the animal, to see that it was placed essentially in an office environment.  The fluorescent lights, the plastic grid over them, the green painted wall, everything about it said ‘office’ and not ‘animal habitat.’  From that moment on, I started to pay attention to animal habitats, and photograph them for this series,” says Gaston.

Initially, Gaston was saddened by what he was observing in zoos. He says that he was particularly shocked by what he saw in his native country, Canada, where he found some of the “most pitiful zoos … even worse than in some of the lesser developed countries.”

The most heartbreaking moment of his project came when he was in Argentina and witnessed a polar bear suffering in extremely hot weather.

“The polar bear was visibly uncomfortable, rolling on its back and making wailing sounds. It was very hard to watch,” says Gaston.

Now, Gaston feels more empowered than sad and hopes that his project will trigger a discussion of zoos in society and promote a “rethink and a reform” of them.

Gaston says, “I want people to stop using animals as objects of display and entertainment, and start understanding that they are as important and as integral to the planet as we are.”

While he does not think all zoos should be closed, as this might not be completely feasible, he does believe that we need to reflect on what is going on with animals and their habitat behind the glass walls of their enclosures and ask ourselves, “How can we strike a better balance?”

View photos of Gaston’s ongoing collection “Captive” below.

Check out additional photos on Gaston’s website.

Image source: Gaston Lacombe