hugo teixeira – china zoo

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Hugo Teixeira

China Zoo

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In the essay “Why look at animals?” John Berger establishes a link between the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (and the resulting disappearance of animals from everyday life) and the emergence of zoos. So in China today, a rapidly urbanizing and industrializing country, zoos have become ubiquitous from Beijing to the innumerable smaller cities of the interior. “China Zoo” is an ongoing attempt to document this phenomenon and here features zoos, safari parks and aquariums in Beijing, Badaling, Chengdu, Kunming and Xi’an.  The resulting images tackle the complexity of humankind’s relationship with animals.

The target audience of zoos have always been children who delight in getting to know the original versions of their favorite cartoons and cuddly stuffed animals.  But the adults who accompany them, when faced with the mascots of their childhood, wonder at the disparity between their memories and the creatures before them. The animals are displayed as if in a picture frame. The elements of their natural environment – space, air, water – are reduced to mere puddles, artificial stones and brushstrokes on a simulated background. Far removed from their habitats, the animal becomes sometimes dormant, often times restless, but always far from the ideal we cherished in childhood. Inevitably, we begin to ask ourselves if it is ethical to keep an elephant in a cage.  With so many empty seats under the circus tent, is animal spectacle still a viable business model? Are zoos indispensable in a world where travel and access to information have become so easy?  Is there a place for these so-called “gardens” in today’s world?



Hugo Teixeira is a photographer and linguist based in Macau. He was born in Lisbon in 1981, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He received a BA in linguistics in 2006 and began working as an itinerant English teacher to fund his projects and travels. He has taught in France, Portugal, the United States and China and photographed numerous places in between.


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Hugo Teixeira


39 Responses to “hugo teixeira – china zoo”

  • this is an eye opening group of photographs… I’ve seen similar projects but without the consistency shown here. I’m glad you chose to include images with people rather than just the animals. all these images are very thought provoking, numbers 3 and 13 especially. thank you for the great work and congratulations on being published here =)

  • While I do not like zoos themselves, I do like photographies about them, esp. of the kind of the ones in this (way too short) essay.. thank you!

    I see you also have a quite interesting book here:

    I’d be interested to know what camera you use, if you don’t mind sharing, Hugo..

  • Zoos and Circuses should have been banned long ago.

    Can’t say that I think the photos are anything special, though.

  • very interesting subject! the first photo almost says it all.

  • interesting pictures. but hugo, i grew up in Macau. i lived for fourteen years just below the Monte fort. havent been back since 1999.

  • Eva, thanks for sharing the link to Hugo’s book at blurb. I find the pictures there more interesting than this collection of pictures from the zoo. Nice work Hugo!

  • Hugo, these photos express what I see and feel when I am inexplicably drawn to visit zoos wherever I travel. Zoos are a huge moral issue with me: within myself for viewing them and my “judgment” of those that continue to collect them “as though in a picture frame.” I want to see more. The people definitely make the shots. Without the people it would be another snapshot series of a trip to the zoo. You are telling a story, a good beginning of one, of the dilemma of zoos and those that only get to see God’s creatures in settings that are harmful to the animals.

  • I find the pictures quite dull and depressing which I imagine is what you are trying to do. I always feel a little depressed my self after I’ve been to a zoo. A lot of zoos do good work but even the best only spend a very small percentage on conservation. I think China has a great future for conservation in the wild but as every where they have a long way to go.

    Hugo have you thought of doing something with Born free or similar?

  • Hi Hugo!

    My feeling is you’re entered this essay too soon but I’m really excited by the subject and will look forward to seeing your on-going work on it. Any essay that focuses on this injustice against animals gets a thumbs up from me – especially in China.

    I agree with Nancy that the first image sums the whole concept of the essay up, but it is far from my favourite image. It IS depressing – especially for the hippo – to spend a lifetime like that. And when you have seen many of these animals you are showing in the wild, it is heart-breaking to see them in such confined spaces.

    To my way of seeing, there are two stellar images in here – image 2 and image 5 – and I like them for different reasons. I also like image 7 but feel you missed the opportunity with that shot – I somehow see a frame within a frame with the people peering into it – their reflections on the glass. Something like that…

    It might also be nice to have some images from the animal’s perspective – looking out at the humans peering in at them? To convey the feeling of ‘being caged’ – a curiosity to be gazed at by passing humans… ugh!
    Or to convey the two worlds at the same time? To capture the inhumanity of keeping animals in this way from the animals perspective and at the same time, the enjoyment of those with absolutely no concern or understanding of the suffering they are enduring.

    Image 2 is different from all the others to my mind, it gives an impression of being ‘surreal’. It is amazing! And as there is something both surreal and sinister about the whole idea of zoos – it would blow my mind sky high to see more images taken in this way – conveying ‘surreal’ and ‘sinister’ at the same time!

    So looking forward to seeing this essay progress! Number 5 is absolutely fantastic, a real gem!

    Congratulations on being published on BURN magazine!

  • This all reminds me of me as a child – I used to love keeping turtles and fish in different tanks and terrariums. I always tried to make it as close to the “real thing” for them, actually going out to where I caught the animals and taking a big chunk of the shore line or rocks from the lake to decorate their new homes… Then it dawned on me – these animals were never meant to be locked up for viewing – the earth cleans their homes way better than I ever could keep a tank clean and if a pond smells no one cares but if your bedroom smells like a pond, your parents yell at you.

    A zoo to me is that same childish need to have a pet taken to a larger scale… how can that Hippo really feel safe and free to be a hippo? That sun bear climbing on a bus and the lion moving out of the way Animals like this are not supposed to be “tame.” I feel bad that humans have taken over so much of the habitat these animals need.

    I miss flipping open a Nat Geo to read about animals I couldn’t actually go see for myself. Perhaps relocating the animals to a new habitat is needed, or better yet – a relocation program for the people – move them somewhere that space is abundant? like… Outerspace maybe?

    That poor hippo…

  • Thanks all for your insightful comments. I’ve just moved back to Asia after being away for about a year and plan to take up the this project again. Your comments will inform the project as it continues.

    In answer to some of the questions posed so far…

    Eva: I shot this project with a Mamiya 6 rangefinder.

    Harry: Sitting back and people watching at the zoos, or bouncing along through what seemed more a construction site at the safari parks, quickly became dull and quite depressing. The first zoo I visited in Kunming had a friend who was with me in tears. The photos reflect this. I am not familiar with Born Free, but I will check them out. Thanks.

    JLW: For me, the flamingo shot is the signature image. Time and time again I tried capture the thin barrier between “us” and “them.” The chainlink fence made it much easier! I’ll keep looking.

  • Kenneth, you’re welcome..

    Hugo, thanks, you put it to good use! Looking forward to see more..

  • Zoos are great for some animals it is either that or the dinner plate/medicine box……… nothing depressing here people live in worse conditions. Part and partial of life on earth

  • Hugo,
    My guess would be that the series of questions you pose in your description are meant to be rhetorical. It’s very difficult for me to look at any body of work depicting the exploitation of animals without an accompanying gut-searing feeling that keeps me up at night. But I clicked the Play button and I appreciate the restraint and subtlety you show in these pictures, all the while answering the barrage of rhetorical questions that our self-indulgent kind is often too obtuse to consider. This looks like a book project to me, and as such, I don’t understand why some Burn critics get so hung up on individual images – what’s there, what isn’t, what works as a stand-alone image. To me, these images DO work together. Photo books are like symphonies – like musical compositions containing varying notes that compliment or contradict, according to the intent. The flamingo photo is brilliant but in a specific way that would be off point if all the images were simply surreal in their beauty. At first, the hippo photo looked like a floater shot. When I finally figured it out, it transitioned in my mind from creepy to depressing. But then you ease up, introduce the human spectators, make them complicit – almost cartoon-like. And you did it gently.


    Michelle, very very well put..thank you

  • Hugo, I am in a deep funk right now and this only put me deeper into it. The last time I visited a zoo was in Mysore, Karnataka, India, in May ’09 and it was my late muse, Soundarya, who took me there. I enjoyed it, but I felt very badly for some of those animals, especially the white tigers and the old ape that looked like a forlorn old man walking around naked. I took some pictures that I think would fit right in with yours, but I have never had the time to even go back and take a first look at them.

    That said, I am sitting between three aquariums that I keep in my office. Sometimes, I wonder if it is right of me to keep these beautiful tropical fish penned up like this, in a sub-Arctic environment.

    Congratulations on a thought-provoking essay!

  • Hugo:

    First of all congratulations on a thoughtful, lyrical and heart-breaking song on the captive life of animals: their loneliness, our own often blind awareness to their suffering and entrapment in a world of noxious, putrid surrounding pinching their life’s importance in favor of our vapid pleasure curiosity…..your opening image is about as heart breaking an image of captivity and muck-struck yearing as can imagine…this poor, impoversihed beautiful behemouth lurking in the muck, drawn to the light beyond the pitch-mess of his revolting black pool…..

    Indeed, the essay is one of melancholic anguish…..a quiet, subtle description of the isolation, ennui and reeking conditions of these zoos. Yes, there are some beautiful and deeply striking photographs in this short and succinct set. The picture of the Flamingos is a heart-dialer….beautiful in it’s framing and mimicry: these magnificent birds billed and bucking, stiff like their plastic brethren that litter so many Florida lawns…their stiff, Vogue-deathing, artificiality that exact stiff and stage of all those plastic flamingos people gobble up to sick on their laws like Audubon ornaments. These vital, engine-driven creatures are magnificent in their wilding gate and flight, that their creepy plasticity is a keen metaphor for the life in captivity: the fetid foul water, the moldy, bruised-blue sky walls….an extraordinary image….I also love the first image, the hippo as if a swollen crocodile stalking and snapping after the light, longing, a rising from the putrescence of his ‘home’… the murky, slime caked water, swallowing up this gorgeous creature, whose ‘yearning’ for the outside/beyond the windows is such a heart-breaking moment: it is hard not to be disturbed and sickened by this creature’s loneliness, bulwarked into a den of clausterphobic filth and defilement…i freaking want to hug him with everything I have….

    the lion’s ache turning out of the way of the bus, the polar bear as a soiled throw rug, the sun bear precariously above the spinning wheels, teased and lured by sweet, impossibly-abled sweet, the white fevered thin tiger….the plastic ending reminding that these great and beautiful creatures, our garden ornaments again…..

    You know Hugo, it is impossible for me to look at images of Zoos from China, without being heart-broken. Are you familiar with Sean Gallagher’s powerful and poignant work on zoos in china? It is impossible for me to look at any work from china (or elsewhere) with out thinking of sean’s photograph of the Giant Salamander…or the Hippopotamus…or most heart-breaking and searing, the image of the injured dog in the lion’s cage (where Chinese zookeepers feed living dogs to the lions and tigers as their game/meal)….

    the photograph of the injured dog, staid and bleeding, in front of the resting lion, is one of the most indicting images i’ve seen from china…just leaves the viewer sickened with sadness and I wish I could show you the photograph but unfortunately Sean no longer has the story on his website (Inside Chinese Zoos) but, it is hard for me to look at essay on this subject without thinking of Sean’s beautiful, arresting pictures…..same too with the series from M.Scott Bauer….i’d recommending taking a look at both of their work on the China as they both tackle this subject in thoughtful, restrained ways that use reflection and shadow and emptiness to great affect….the same way, i love your use of the weight of silence in your images: watching the lion show, the audience virtually depleted…the lone creatures…the zoos virtually empty but for the obvious conditioned suffering….

    But what makes your story more than just a quick, angered expose on the conditions for these animals is its lyricism…it’s conflicted moments…the Hippo and Flamingo images remind me, albeit in color, of Sara Moon’s imagery with Paris zoo…her own lyrical, dream like take on the beauty and loneliness of animals under captivity…and of course, my favorite book on zoos, baring none, Gary Winogrand’s The Animals….what makes Winogrand’s book so beautiful and so powerful (for me, his greatest, along with 1961), is not only Winogrand’s key and subtle eye, but its understanding of who the real animals were, those really captive by their own madness, and needs (yep, us)….with humor, great humor and also compassion, Winogrand’s work is essential viewing…

    of course, the famed cover image

    But what I like about your beginning Hugo is not only the compassion you show these animals in your photographs, but also the tender and metaphoric indictment….i too see this as a beginning, a way to arrive at not only the horrendous conditions of these creatures, but for a larger survey of what they stand for, especially in the changing China….have not these animals not already become like effigies of real animals? and yet their suffering is real….this isn’t disney and that is what really enrages and causes so much bewilderment……

    and As Michelle wrote, i too do not understand why some critics can’t fathom the idea that essays/sequence/narrative with pictures cannot be greater than the make up of single images…but rather work together, live in relationship and in opposition to one another, that a sequence of pictures to tell a story or to refine a moment or depict an act, can and often do gather more in their collection and their union than just the individual merits as pictures….essays are not composites of Singles, strung together like wash on a line…but have their own internal logic and necessities….a movement, a way to carry the viewer along and to run…to run from this at first odd, menacing first image to the strange final image….riverrun…..that when one returns again to the first hippo, the photograph becomes soulfully sad and powerful…and that odd statuary at the end, maddening…even the girl becomes a stature…and THAT IS THE POWER of narrative, of putting together images….

    editing, sequencing….

    I look forward to seeing this story expand….as for the explosion of the zoos….


    what have we learned?….seemingly nothing….

    thank you for your powerful, thoughtful and sensitive story…:))

    Michelle :))…that is it exactly!…


  • Bill. I visited mysore zoo in 2007. Sad sad place, like all zoos. My abiding memory though is of a sadhu I was making portraits of at a chai stop outside the zoo hitting me over the head with a lump of wood, much to the amusement of all the taxi drivers, who assured me that it was actually a blessing.

    Love the flamingo shot.

  • I think it to be a marvelous essay in the making. Depressing for sure but what really comes through is the Chinese search for some kind of connection to these creatures, which is perhaps a futile effort.

    Number 7 really is a stand alone image.

    I agree with Kenneth and Eva that Huho’s book is a gem. I have added it to my wish list. Hope to fetch me a copy soon.

  • the people, that is really where this whole idea started. i was listening to an npr piece a few years back where the journalist was on one of these safari busses. he capture a conversation between a mother and child who were watching a lion eat a live chicken. all the while the mother was telling her son that if he studied he would be like the lion. if he didn’t, he would be like the chicken. i just had to see this place.

    while i could never condone what i saw, i also didn’t want to attack or accuse. what i learned in one year in china is that it is more like the wild west than an orwellian novel. people can and will get away with as much as they can before the sheriff comes in and shuts down their operation. and while the zoos in western china were deplorable, the zoo in beijing was pleasant by comparison. the one constant was the presence of people who were genuinely curious and interested in seeing these animals and who were in no way immune to their plight. students repeatedly advised that i not go to the zoos. “they are very bad,” they would tell me. but at the same time, when travel and even information are such a luxury, people are drawn to zoos. there is a conflict there.

    related to imant’s comment, i remember asking my students what their grandparents said about china 40 years ago. they responded with stories of eating stones and grasses to stay alive while so many died of famine all around. in that context, the animal rights discourse makes little sense. but, china is evolving very rapidly, and there is an evolving discourse about zoos and animal rights in china, as there has been elsewhere. i’m curious to document this evolution in this limited context.

    winogrand’s “animals” definitely informed my visually. i poured over that book for over a year before every taking a shot. i’m not familiar with gallagher, bauer or moon’s work but i will look them up. thanks all.

  • Hugo. I particularly like the outsider vision in this photos. When you include tourists with cameras in hand you gave depth, better yet, you gave texture to the photos. It seems to me that you didn´t tried to be anything but a tourist, and when I say this, I say it as a compliment.
    I also like the way you put things to begin with this project: industrial revolution grows, less wild animals, more zoos.
    Simple point to show your vision. Very effective to understand the aesthetics in this work.
    It feels very good to see a Portuguese photographer here on Burn Magazine.
    I wait for the continuation of this project.


    Ricardo Vasconcelos, PT

  • HUGO…

    while i did enjoy on some level your China travel book , i think this zoo work will make a way better book in the long run imo , should you decide to do one…so much more focused, so much more much more a BOOK….how much more do you want to work on this? anyway, you are off to a good start…i would add Rebecca Norris Webb as someone whose work you should view…not in the context of China , but in the context of animals in captivity etc….Sean Gallagher received our first grant here on Burn to continue his China work…if you meet him he will be helpful and you will relate to much of his work i would imagine…many thanks for submitting this work….and please visit when you are in new york or north carolina or somewhere out on the road…

    cheers, david

  • david, i agree wholeheartedly. the blurb book i put together as a sort of travelogue to share with family and friends. but this zoo project is what i really want to work on. the book idea has come up before, but as i had to leave asia for a year, it was put on the back burner. i worked on this project off an and on for 6 months, and there are many more images than those seen here. in fact, the edit i submitted was completed for an exhibition in lisbon last september. but now that i’m back in asia (and once i can get my hands back on some 6×6 gear again) i’ll get back to work on the project very soon. my next targets are zhuhai, guangzhou and shenzhen just over the border.

    of course, sean gallagher and the project on desertifcation. i wasn’t putting the name together with the work. and i’ll look up rebecca norris webb too. fwiw, my initial photographic “education” was working in the photography/art section at a borders store. i would pour over those books for hours every day. thanks for the suggestions.

    e ricardo, sim, foi mais ou menos isso. ir ao zoo como outra pessoa qualquer e observar o que lá se passava. antes de ir para a china quiz fazer o mesmo no zoo de lisboa, mas como os bilhetes a €16 não podia ser. grande abraço.

  • HUGO :))

    yea, the Winogrand book is extraordinary….brilliant, funny and so truthful!…sean’s pictures are something else…and heart breaking….as for Sarah Moon (one of my hero’s), take a look:

    quick google list of some of her imagery, i didn’t specific her Circus or ‘zoo’ pics..

    and I agree with David:

    the China travel book is ‘nice’…but, you know, i’ve seen SO MANY books about china, and i have good friends in china (chinese photographers) having exhibited in HK and with some chinese phtographers (my work’s been shown at Lee Ka-Sing gallery in toronto), that i want something more personal…and this series is set up to go, explode in book form, book story…

    best of luck!


  • wow, thanks for the links, bob. yeah, there is so much good photography happening out here in china. the work done by foreigners more often than not rehashes the same old cliches. and i’ve shot my share of them :) anyone who comes to china should march down to a book shop and to buy two or ten very affordable books of work by chinese photographers before they leave.

  • Hugo :)))

    indeed! :))

    cheers :))

  • Hugo,

    I enjoyed looking at this series as, as some mentioned above, I photographed this same issue a couple of years ago. I agree with other commenters that your images have a subtle sensibility about the interaction between the visitor and the animals. I was quite discouraged, and still am, by the attitude by the general public in China to animals in captivity. Zoos are seen as places of entertainment, rather than centers for education.

    My focus was a little more on the harsh conditions which the animals live in. I studied Zoology at University, which isn’t the the study of zoos, but animal physiology, biology, conservation etc. and I am actually pro-Zoos, but only if they are very very good. I was quite disgusted by the conditions some animals were living in in the zoos I visited. My take therefore, was more focused on these conditions. A different take to yourself maybe but overlapping similarities I think in places.

    Bob B, as you see, has an encyclopedic knowledge of images. The image of mine he was referring to was this one I don’t have the entire series online anymore, as I did a streamline of my portfolio site this year and it didn’t make my cut. I live in Beijing though, so perhaps if you ever make it here, we can grab a coffee and talk zoos.


  • So sad, chains, cages … poor animals :( well done Hugo

  • sean, in fact i have seen that salamander images. and i must have seen others from the same series, probably at around the time your desertification essay was making the blorg grounds. the «exhibits» can be simply unimaginative, let alone terrible.

    i’m sure i’ll be through beijing sooner or later to visit friends. i’ll definitely take you up on your offer of coffee and talk. and look me up too if you drift down to the pearl river delta.

  • There’s also Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt, Zoologies, by delpire..

  • Harry, indeed.. pity the book is so small..

  • I agree with David and others, Hugo, a very good start. For something similar but different may I recommend ‘We Animals’ here:

    (…I’m just dying to recommend Jo-Anne’s work…)

  • hugo–

    love the flamingos photo and that first photo really twisted my mind at first.
    thought it was some deformed naked woman floating on her back… eerie..
    very sad for these animals.


    thank you for the link to jo-anne mcarthur’s work at
    absolutely love this woman. heartbreaking stuff.
    she’s a true warrior of the heart, for sure.

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