Cloud / a horrific fantasy

Cody Cloud

Cody Cloud’s photos of the Shanghai zoo shows us what some zoos really are – confinement centers. But that isn’t all. I’ve never bought into the activist argument that zoos are unequivocally bad and the animals in them deprived of their noble natural states. That argument overlooks the fact that captive lifespans are usually longer than lifespans in the wild, not to mention the ridiculousness of presuming to know the preferences of animals without study.

I go back and forth between neutrality that asks questions and direct overt statements of intent when it comes to documentary style projects, but in this case what I like about Cloud’s photos is that some of the habitats seem depressing, but some of them look interesting. He talks briefly about this project in an interview with several photographers about location shooting over at Too Much Chocolate:

In a city 3 times the population of LA, the Shanghai Zoo was very quiet with few visitors other than the workers there. I discovered the zoo because I thought it would be very hi-tech like most of Shanghai. I quickly found out it wasn’t hi-tech at all, in fact the zoo was poorly cared for and very run down. As soon as I got there I knew I had found my location. I was so drawn to the zoo, I went back a lot because I wanted to capture all of it. I created an entire body of work involving the zoo, the state of its animals and the people in it.

Cody Cloud

To carry the tangent, it’s strange that an animal liberation argument would have such anthropomorphic overtones. Largely, the argument seems to be based on what we think animals prefer, without taking into account the enormous, continual stress of an unstable existence in which you must be constantly vigilant for serious and immediate threats to your life. That is the type of stress that shortens lifespans.

That is the sort of stress that, in my more doubting and morbid moments, I fear we will be exposed to if we let our economy, our planet, go to seed in the next fifty years and America becomes more socially unstable. Our peaceful lives are dependent on an unspoken contract – because of the rule of law, most of us can safely assume in most situations that the next stranger we meet will not beat us to a bloody pulp. This is also partly dependent on the majority of the population being able to make a steady living. For most people, if they have the means to live comfortably, there is less incentive to take risks for gain.

All this is what makes the financial crisis scary – we are at the beginning of something good, or on the edge of something really bad. We can either restructure our economic and social systems so that these crashes don’t recur, or we can return to (or try to return to) business as usual and come crashing down again, each time with less in our natural resource bank, until we come to the point where there is not enough for everyone and we will have to come to blows. It’s what’s implied in Michael Haneke’s original version of Funny Games. Did we free ourselves from natural boom/bust cycles with better agricultural technologies only to become ensnared in a different kind of boom/bust cycle? Stability is a rare privilege, isn’t it?

I can call Cormac McCarthy’s The Road apocalyptic because it is improbable, but at the same time, there is enough of a hint of the real that I can’t quite dismiss it from the back of my mind. What would life be like if the social contract were broken and every new social interaction was charged with threat? If you had to assess every stranger for trustworthiness – will they rob me blind or can I let down my guard? People live like this in some places (see Philip Gurevitch’s article, “The Life After,” about Rwanda, in the 5/4 New Yorker), so it’s hardly a horrific fantasy.


~ by Jin on May 4, 2009.

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