Sheng-Wen Lo’s award-winning series, “White Bear,” focuses on polar bears that live in captivity in zoos, marine parks, and other sites around the world. Lo says his goal is to “shed light on the…issues affecting these and other animals” living in captivity, concerns that often make themselves known through the animals’ strange physical actions. One example of this is “looping,” where the bears will repeat the same movement over and over again without stopping. This behavior has only been observed in captive bears, and scientists are concerned about what this could mean for the animals’ well-being; looping is considered a sign of psychological distress in animals, and, as Lo says, “is therefore an animal welfare issue.”
Speaking about the habitats that the polar bears live in, Lo says, “the zoo habitats are designed to satisfy both their animal occupants as well as spectators and visitors. In an effort to mimic the arctic environment, the uncanny structures combine elements of nature, home and the stage. Juxtaposed with man-made backgrounds, the enclosures and their furry protagonists occupy a world filled with contrasting elements—grasslands, plateaus, swimming pools, car tires, fake seals, stone stairs, painted icebergs, yachts, airplanes and even skyscrapers.”
Lo confronts a number of concerns in his series. First and foremost is the ongoing controversy about the existence of modern-day zoos. While many zoos promote themselves as centers for research and species preservation, Lo says that “the missions of conservation, research and education are frequently overshadowed by the interest of public entertainment.” Taking polar bears as a sample, Lo’s aim is to delve into the “questions behind the contemporary justification for the existence of zoos.” So far, his project has explored habitats in 24 sites across Europe and China.
Editor’s Note: White Bear will be exhibited during “HABITAT” at FORMAT Photo Festival, Derby, UK (March-April), at Fotofestival Naarden (FFN) 2017 (starting 20th May, in Naarden, The Netherlands)and during OrganVida Photo Festival, Zagreb, Croatia (September). Sheng Wen Lo has also created a corresponding video based on the “stereotypical (looping) behaviors” of polar bears in captivity. Also, the artist has recently experimented with 360 VR Videos on several sites (2016, Playlist). Furthermore, there is a photo book in the making, which will be kid-friendly as well!
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like one of these previous features: UnNatural Bestiary, a disconcerting photobook that juxtaposes taxidermy with images of confined animals; Inherit the Dust, photographs of massive murals that insert animals into landscapes that have been transformed by industry; and Beyond Drifting, elegant documentation of the plastics that have infiltrated the animal food chain across the globe.