Taiwanese photographer Sheng Wen Lo has photographed polar bears in captivity around the world in an attempt to “shed light on dilemmas concerning captive animals”. Through 26 sites across Europe and China, his ongoing series White Bear focuses on only polar bears in order to give direction to the project and explore the bigger themes Sheng’s proposing. “I am interested in human-animal relationships in different aspects, and captive animal programmes is one them,” he says. “However, this is a complex issue and I wouldn’t want to lean towards saying ’zoos should not exist’, but rather some animals are questionable for captive programmes.”
Travelling around the world to document polars bears in their unnatural habitats, Sheng chose which zoos to visit through by what they looked like. “Visually they have to differ from each other, so I used Google images to preview them,” says the photographer. “Overall composition is important, but I would not want to look for the ‘sad looking’ traits since that is anthropomorphism. But [the bears] do present some awkwardness simply by existing in artificial space.”
Sheng’s documentary-style photographs highlight the stacks of environmental contrasts found in zoos, and capture the bears eating grass, living next to roads and faux glacier-like rocks. “As natural habitats are being destroyed, it may be reasonable to keep certain species in controlled environments,” explains Sheng. “However, promoted as exotic tourist-magnets, the bears stand at the points at which institutions’ contemporary justifications fall into question – the mission of conservation, research and education seem challenged by the interest of entertainment.”
The photographer has been working on the series since 2014 and continues to work on the project, also observing the bears’ behaviour as well as their environments. “I hope we can think more about our desire to alter the fate of some animals, either directly or indirectly. It seems natural that we like to watch or connect with exotic animals in love action, but satisfying this desire comes at cost,” says Sheng.