Human Zoo


A white person relaxing, a person of color working. Tale as old as time. A non-white person in the service of a white person. This photo cements stereotypes, perpetuates an imbalance in the power dynamic, is reminiscent of centuries of colonialism (and indentured servitude) and serves as a good example of both creating a centrality of whiteness and using “exotic” people as fashion props.

Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart


The criticisms of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition are completely valid. At the same time, I can’t help but be amused by them. This type of imagery is nothing new. And it’s not just in advertising or fashion shoots. When most people go traveling, these are the kinds of images they end up taking.

When we travel, we fall into the trap of exoticizing our explorations. Everything is different and not like home. “Look at this weird food.” “See how differently people dress.” “Check out this crazy landscape.” We all do this. And we take photos of ourselves* next to the exotic items. When we travel, we treat the world as our freak show.

*Or our good-sport traveling partner.

There’s a reason why you have to pay to photograph people at many Indian reservations. It may feel like nickel-and-diming to you. But it’s also a reminder to think about who you’re photographing as well as a statement that too many photographers have treated the Indians as exotic props.

As much as National Geographic has been a fantastic proponent of good photography to everyone, its photojournalistic travel photos have inspired too many travelers who think that travel photography is all about taking photos of the locals without regard to them as humans.

—My aside to Un surtido de fotos mexicanos

Travel photography is not about pretty pictures which show that the rest of the world is different than your home. If you’re going to take photos like this, you need to tell us more about the situation. Tell me a story about the trip besides “I saw this.”

This is what separates National Geographic from travel porn. One uses pretty pictures to tell a story and educate. The other is just interested in appearances and exoticizing. The difference between the two is often context* although photos such as the Sports Illustrated ones, or many of the travel photos I see on Facebook, have very little alternative context available.

*The Tech Awards used National Geographic images as wallpaper and, as a result, reduced them to travel porn.

Many of the images without alternative context involve photos of people. It’s easy to take a photo. It’s much more difficult to interact with someone. And the resulting images are always tough to look at because of the resulting power dynamic.


Don’t treat people as if they were zoo animals.

This applies even if you’re not traveling.


*From the [internet photographer] brainstorm.

This is not an “only take photos of people who look like you” thing but is instead a “how are you presenting this person” thing.

This is not about only taking photos when  you’re an insider either. This is about telling us what’s truly interesting about something and why we should care. If you’re an insider, enlighten us. If you’re an outsider, reframe the situation using your new perspective.

Context matters. Don’t be another annoying tourist who crosses must-see-items off of a checklist without caring about what you’re seeing. Don’t reduce your city to being gritty just because there are homeless there. Show us, and tell us, what interests you. Have an opinion. Especially nowadays when we can probably find “better” photos of what you’re showing us online.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

22 thoughts on “Human Zoo”

  1. Pingback: Postdate | n j w v

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: