Text and photos by Cody Cloud.
I stopped over in Shanghai last summer on the way to visit my Grandfather in Thailand. Thought it would be a good place to do a project since the Olympics were to be held in Beijing that summer and the EXPO World’s Fair is scheduled to be in Shanghai in May of 2010. I figured it would be sometime before making it back to that part of the world, so I extended my 5 hour lay over to 6 days. After reading and hearing so much about how big Shanghai was, I was still surprised at how massive I found it to be. Shanghai felt more sophisticated than any city I had ever traveled to. For example I would go one stop on the under ground and not be able to see the tall buildings from the last stop I was at. It was crazy. The first day I set out to explore the city by foot. I got turned around, lost, and it was so hot and humid. I was feeling very uninspired. There were many new and interesting things everywhere I looked, but nothing was holding my interest.
Frustrated and hungry I found the nearest under ground and went back to the hostel. On the way in the front door I picked up one of those “Things to do” brochures for tourist, looked it over, and decided on going to the zoo. I thought that a city this big and sophisticated would equal a zoo of the same status. The only way to the zoo was on the bus.
Upon entering the zoos’ front gate, I immediately knew I had found the project I was looking for. It was very quiet, peaceful and empty. Even with the massive construction right outside the zoo. They estimate Shanghai to have a population of around 19 million people, and there was hardly anyone at the zoo except the occasional couple, small family, and the workers of the zoo. The zoo was anything but sophisticated. It felt like nothing had been done since the late sixties or early seventies. It was so beautiful. I had an overwhelming feeling of peace upon entering the zoo. I’m no animal rights activist, I just wanted to tell the story of the zoo through my eyes.
The zoo was very big and there was very little time if I wanted to complete a project on it before departing to Thailand. So for the next 6 days I returned to the zoo from the time it opened until the time in closed. It was amazing how instantly inspired and full of energy I was while at the zoo every day, alone taking pictures. That’s what photography does for me. It really clears my head and gives me time to slow down and process what I see, and often don’t understand. No one spoke English at the zoo, so for that week I was able to relax and think about each shot through my camera with myself. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say about the zoo. I would take pictures of anything I was attracted to, but at the same time knew the photos would need to relate to one another in the end.
I would often be the only human in a two story building full of different species of monkeys. Or the only one at the lonely hippo exhibit. It was amazing. I would have the time to set up a shot and not ever have to worry about getting in the way of somebody. I shot a lot in order to tell what I thought would be the zoos’ story, or to try and capture the feeling I was getting from the zoo. It took me a day and a half to get to know my way around the zoo. The grounds were huge and the map didn’t always make the most sense to me. I would mark things off as I photographed them or figure out when the light was best and go back. Often getting lost, I would stumble upon short cuts through the middle of the zoo that were not marked on the map. Those little short cuts led to old abandoned buildings and old exhibits of some sort that were no longer in use, and occasionally had no bars. It was great. I explored every inch of the zoo trying unmarked doors and open gates. After a couple of days there, the workers would recognize me and just smile as I braved to go into the gates that were obviously not for the patrons. After about the fourth day I felt more confident being around the workers and would just photograph anything since no one told me not to. The most confused of the zoo workers was the ticket lady. Her face looked more confused everyday I would come back. It made me laugh.
Towards the end of my time at the zoo I had to start rationing the film I brought. It’s was easy to keep shooting, but I didn’t want to run out, which forced me to think about every shot even more. In the end I think that was a good thing for the project. It made me think about the photos I had already taken and how they would work with the one I was setting up for or re-shooting. The Shanghai Zoo project feels like the most complete project I have done, but it is also the newest. In the end every shot didn’t relate to one another, but that was OK for me. Its good practice when the hardest part of the project is upon me… the editing. It helps me to think about the project and how it becomes a body of work. Often the way I was thinking at the time of the picture is not what comes out in the end. It’s pretty amazing. Editing is still by far the hardest part of photography for me. Well, that and writing about it. Even now over a year later the Shanghai Zoo edit changes a little every time I go back to the pictures, hopefully for the best.