With an estimated 35 million plus tourists visiting Thailand in 2017 alone, the wildlife tourism industry has never been more in demand. People come from all over the world for the novelty of photographs and rides with “wild” animals, yet little do many of these tourists realize what the animals must endure to keep the revenue flowing. “Life in Chains” is an ongoing series by 24-year-old British photographer Louis Supple that looks to shed a revealing light on South East Asia’s wildlife tourism industry. We spoke with Louis about his route into photography, his conceptual approach to this series and why he values darkness as much as light in his images.
Perhaps you could begin by telling us how you first got into photography? Was there anyone in particular, who inspired you along the way?
My initial introduction to photography was through my father, both he and my grandfather were passionate photographers, so it has always been something I have grown up around. Having said this, I discovered photography slightly later in my life, and it wasn’t until my late teens that I realized I could really try and pursue a career in the field. I have always been inspired by the work of Alex Webb and Harry Gruyaert, the depth they create in their images and the use of light in their work has long been something I have admired.
You recently graduated from studying Marine and Natural History photography at Falmouth University in the UK. Could you tell us more about this rather specific course?
Marine and Natural History photography is a conservation based photography course. The course itself looks into the science behind conservation and the way in which photography can be used as a powerful medium to draw attention to issues in today’s world. This course taught me a great deal about the complexity of conservation issues, and also enabled me to create my first major overseas project on trophy hunting.
What made you decide to follow the path into photojournalism?
Well, originally, I started shooting street photography when I was around 17 years old and I was instantly drawn to the countless scenarios and narratives that take place in everyday life, and I suppose this is where my first interest began for telling stories through my imagery. Then, over the course of a couple of years, I began to take my work more seriously and started to look at trying to develop a serious career in the world of photojournalism. I still have that same fascination today that I had when I was 17, and I think it’s something that will never go away.
Your series “Life in Chains” is an on-going work that looks into South East Asia’s wildlife tourism industry. Why did you choose to focus on this particular theme? And where does your interest in the natural world come from?
One of the many reasons that I chose to focus on this particular topic is because I think that the wildlife tourism industry is a prevalent issue in many countries across the world. It is perhaps something that, in the West, we are less visually exposed to, but that doesn’t mean we don’t contribute to the problem. After numerous visits to South East Asia, I finally felt that this topic deserved more exposure, and so, I decided to carry out a long-term project on the subject.
My interest for the natural world came at an early age, both my mother and father have a strong affinity with nature. There were many books on birds and wildlife in our household, and I loved Attenborough’s documentaries, in particular from my earliest years. I think the colors, the noises and the sheer visual excitement of the natural world had a deep effect on me.
How would you describe the concept of the series? And what were you hoping to show with these images?
The concept of this series is to try and illustrate the real ‘cost’ of the wildlife tourism industry. One of my primary aims is to get people to develop an understanding of the poor animal welfare standards in many of these places. If I can encourage an awareness amongst the kind of people who care where their money goes, then perhaps fewer of them may visit, or even better, they themselves may challenge the owners and authorities to address the underlying issue.
Whereabouts exactly did you shoot the series to date? And how would you describe the zoos you visited?
So far, this series has only been shot in Thailand, predominantly in the Bangkok area over an 8-week period. I have made several trips around Thailand, in particular to Pattaya, to document the Tiger Zoo, as I feel it is an important aspect of the story. I would say that the majority of places I have visited so far display a very poor attitude to animal welfare, and I believe some of the organizations are incredibly cruel, in terms of how the animals are kept.
Almost all of the photos in your series feature a captive animal but rarely is the entire animal visible. Your compositions often chop off their heads and body parts, figuratively dissecting them with your lens. This is a far cry from classic wildlife photography. What was your thinking behind this technique?
I wanted to create a set of images that forces the audience to think, as I believe these type of photographs create the most impact. I felt it was important to stray away from the classic ‘animal through the cage’ style of imagery, not because it doesn’t work, but because we have seen this too many times before. I thought it was imperative to tackle this subject from a different angle, and use my style of photography to try and illustrate the undeniable misery of the creatures involved in this industry.
Your compositions also draw the viewer’s eye to the cages, chains and confined nature of the animals. How much was this a conscious decision? And why did you include the images of zoo visitors photographing the animals with their phones?
In many ways this was a conscious decision, I aimed to emphasize the constrictions within the animal’s environment. I want the audience to see the limitations of these creatures’ everyday lives and to show how completely unnatural their existence has become. The inclusion of phones came very naturally. Everywhere I went, tourists would use their mobile phones to photograph the attractions. There was perhaps something I saw in the joyful shooting of a thousand phone pictures that suggested the casual indifference of the visitors to the animals’ miserable predicament. It gave it context.
The general darkness and use of shadow present in a lot of these images creates a violent, threatening undertone. How and why did you go about creating this strong visual language?
For this style of image I would tend to shoot on medium ISOs, with a high aperture and a fast shutter speed. I find that this enables me to create strong contrast in the images and provides the photograph with a darker and more dramatic feel. I value darkness as much as light in my images.
Can you tell us more about the intriguing image with the array of guns?
Sadly, these guns are used by tourists to hit targets that then results in meat being dropped into the tiger’s cage. This particular activity was incredibly barbaric to witness, and I felt that the animal was stripped of all dignity and respect. As I went to leave, I came across this table laden with guns, which seemed coincidentally ironic, given the scenario that was unfolding behind me.
And how did you capture the bizarrely wonderful image of the ghost-like penguin?
This shot actually took me quite a while. I had been at the penguin enclosure for around 45 minutes, I felt that there was a photograph there but I wasn’t quite sure where it was. I eventually saw a young boy teasing a Penguin with a bag of crisps and began to photograph him. Shortly after the boy left, the penguin came back and swam past the glass a few times. I couldn’t help but notice how lost it seemed, and decided to wait until something happened in the background – at which point, I took the photograph.
You shot this series with your Leica M9-P and a 35mm Summicron lens. How was it working with the camera to shoot this series? And what do you consider to be the advantages of your set-up?
This camera for me is everything I will ever need. Due its size, it allows me to become part of a situation, and therefore enables me to witness events more naturally. I have regularly used 28mm and 50mm lenses, but the 35mm focal length is where I feel most comfortable. It allows context and space without losing the central subject, and the grain-like quality of noise that the M9-P produces means that shooting in low light conditions is always enjoyable, and for a project like this, that was extremely important.
How do to you plan on adding to the series? And what else can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
Well, I plan to head back to South East Asia in 2019 to add to the series, and I think on this trip I will focus more on the obsession with social media and how that has a significant impact on the wildlife tourism industry. As well as this, I have another personal project currently underway in the UK this year – incidentally, one entirely unrelated to wildlife! – which I hope to be able to show more of soon.