Maciek Pożoga captures the human-like qualities of Japanese macaques

The photographer captures the cultural behaviours and habits of the native snow monkey across three regions of Japan.

22 March 2021

Maciek Pożoga is known for his human-centric photography. We last heard from Maciek two years ago, regarding his series Paris Nord, a documentation of his neighbourhood and its diverse mix of inhabitants. With each image, you learnt more about his subjects, noticing the subtleties of the place they live and the things they appear to like doing. This time around, however, his subjects have changed just a little; Maciek has turned his lens on the life and mannerisms of the Japanese macaques.

The series, created for The Smithsonian Institution, sheds light on the extremely humanlike qualities found in the species of monkey. “The initial idea I believe came from journalist Ben Crair, who specialises in nature and animal-related subjects, especially the idea of cultural transmission among them,” Maciek tells It’s Nice That. “The article is about what some would call the ‘cultural behaviours’ of Japanese macaques and the sites where scientists first studied those.” Investigating this topic further, Maciek followed a group of researchers to three regions of Japan, “whose work focuses on the notion that snow monkeys (Japanese macaque) can transmit ritual-like habits from one generation to another,” he adds.

One of the places they visited was an uninhabited Japanese island named Kojima, located southwest of the mainland town of Matsumae. Here, he tells us, the macaques know how to wash sweet potatoes in the ocean before eating them. Further north in Jigokudani, he notes how a “better-known behaviour” has become a tourist attraction: they enjoy taking baths, de-stressing and soaking in the natural onsen (hot mineral water). In Yakushima island, located in the southern end of Japan, the macaques have learnt to recognise and avoid poisonous mushrooms, which is especially useful since they eat 60 different species. “And more surprising, you know that Herzog movie where he wonders why a sophisticated animal like a chimp doesn’t straddle a goat to ride into the sunset? Well, that kind of happened in Yakushima, where some monkeys mount deers. I think they’re just trying to mate though, but it’s quite surprising when you see it happening in the forest.”


Maciek Pożoga: Smithsonian (Copyright © Maciek Pożoga, 2021)

Monkeys have long been associated with human-like qualities. The macaque, in particular, has developed many similar habits to ours; they live in large social groups known as troops, adhere to a hierarchy and jump in the bath to warm up from the cold. And this is precisely why Maciek shoots his subjects as if he were shooting a person walking the street. “I wanted to depict the monkeys in a way that made them look as close to us as possible,” he adds. “So I flirted with anthropomorphism, something I believe to be considered rather derogatory by naturalists and nature photographers. But I wanted my monkey pictures to look like street photography.”

Indeed reaching his goal with this series, Maciek’s snaps of the primates are an absolute joy to observe. While photographing this unusual subject, he tells us how not only were they somewhat tricky to find, he also had to practice “mouth pouting” – a submissive gesture that he learnt on YouTube, used to calm any menacing monkeys if needed. “It seemed to work when they started to become aggressive and wearing sunglasses so they didn’t see our eyes was also a trick we learnt.”

Maciek takes us back to a Sunday morning after rainfall. They’d managed to spot a group of monkeys sunbathing on the road in Yakushima. It was the first encounter of the trip, “after hearing them here and there in the forest, but never being able to approach them,” and so they decided to slowly and gradually advance.

“We became part of the group. They allowed us in and allowed us to take pictures,” he recalls. “At some point, I decided to go to a slightly more isolated group on the side of the road, always trying to get closer as I didn’t want to use a long lens. But when they noticed me, they got a bit scared and surprised. Me too. It translated into this emotionally charged image that I like, even though it’s probably a totally unethical approach to wild animal photography.” The picture he’s referring to is one of the monkeys holding a rope on a ledge. The one closest to the camera looks bewildered, meanwhile, its companion looks downright shocked. It’s hard to imagine a more human-like photograph of a species that isn’t human.

GalleryMaciek Pożoga: Smithsonian (Copyright © Maciek Pożoga, 2021)

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Maciek Pożoga: Smithsonian. (Copyright © Maciek Pożoga, 2021)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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