I first met Boza Ivanovic years ago, looking at his photographs of people living with HIV and AIDS around the world. The work was powerful in its ability to show the pathos of daily life for people burdened with this disease, people living in poverty in Africa, Russia, and the United States. We had been chatting about the possibility of doing a book, but then, things changed. Boza was in a motorcycle accident, and had been laid up for months. I hadn’t heard from him for some time, until he began to send me these stark and stunning portraits of animals he had started taking during his recovery.
The images, at once beautiful and captivating, were also very sad in many ways. The more I gazed upon these magnificent creatures, the more I began to notice I was looking at photographs of the incarcerated, sentenced to life behind bars and required to display themselves for our entertainment. And while I have always loved animals, the idea that they exist for our benefit, in conditions that would be inhuman if we confined people to them, was something that I can never forget when looking at these portraits.
I am thankful to Boza Ivanovic for granting this interview and sharing his work.
Please talk in full about how this series came into being.
Boza Ivanovic: Since I first got a camera in my hands, people were not my primary interest. In my late teens early twenties, living it what is now known as the former Yugoslavia, I used to jump the walls in the zoos to get in, since I did not have enough money to pay for the ticket, to be able to photograph animals. These walls were at least six feet tall and were lined with broken glass and barb wire.
I would then spend at least half day taking pictures of the animals on display. I always felt deep sorrow for this encaged animals since I though they were in terrible unnatural conditions. Of course, the quality of my work back then does not compare with my work today but when I look back, these humble beginnings were the start of what I portrait today.
I did not focus on animals until after I was recuperating from a motorcycle accident. The picture that rekindled my love for animal photography was taken at the San Diego zoo in Southern California when I was there for the sole purpose of taking my then six year-old son. It was a photograph of a tiger. The beast, as I saw it, was in a perfect, mysterious combination of darkness and light.
Since then on, I focused all my energy to develop the kind of animal photography that would portrait the beauty, traits and characteristics of these encaged animas. I have come to know and develop great admiration and respect for all the animals I have photographed since it requires quite a large amount of time and patients to have all the necessary elements to come together.
I remember when I first saw the photos, there was a natural joy to looking at the animals, but as time went on I began to see how miserable these creatures are, basically being in jail for their entire lives. In many of your photos, there is a feeling that you are photographing inmates sentenced to life, with no chance of parole. Having spent so much time looking carefully at these animals, did you notice their emotional states, and how would you describe them?
Yes. If you think about it, these animals are in very unnatural situations. Limited to what the enclosed, and most of the time, inadequate dwellings. And this I say regardless of the fancy we may perceive in some of the zoos. The endless pacing of bears, leopards, wolves; the endless rocking-like motion of the elephant’s head. I have seen animal in their natural environment when in one assignment in Africa and I can tell the difference in behavior. This is very disturbing to me and specially the fact that some of these animals when born in captivity will never know what freedom means. What is it more cruel, the animal that has lost his natural environment after being captured, or the one that has been born in captivity?
Your blackening out of the background further serves to underscore an unnatural environment, and focuses in on the animals themselves. What was your inspiration to focus exclusively on the animals?
I consider the majority of my photographs to be portraits. As such, I want people to “see” what I captured about that animal. By “blackening out” as you described it, unnatural elements such as bars and glass, I feel is the way to enhance the beauty, power, or any other characteristic of the animal. By being a documentary photographer, I don’t want to disturb the surrounding, I just want to capture the moment as it is. I want the animal to speak for itself.
Are there any particular animals to which you keep returning, and why ?
Absolutely. Chimps. I keep returning because there is always something happening with or around them. Gorillas because I am not yet completely satisfied with what I have so far. They are also my favorite apes. And of course, I come back to those animal I have not yet captured and portrayed at all or to my satisfaction.
Having spent so much time at zoos, what are your thoughts on the concept of locking up and displaying animals for our entertainment ?
Zoos are businesses and they exploit the natural desire we as humans have to see different animals specially those from the wild. However, I have observed many people at the zoo who do not know the difference between a cheetah and a jaguar, a gorilla and a chimpanzee. There are better and more economical ways to educate ourselves and our children about animals. It is cruel and egotistic from our part to capture these animals for our entertainment.
How do people react to your work? Do they see the pathos in these portraits, or are they, like the zoo-goer, simply enjoying the voyeuristic thrill of looking at animals up close ?
I have encounter both. People from the art field (magazine, books, galleries) tend to have a more sympathetic approach towards the animal. The common zoo-goer see them as interesting pictures and want to know how I got the picture, instead of being concern about the animal itself.