to see how our photographers use technology in the field.
This is one in a series of dispatches sent from the road by photographer Joel Sartore.
Out in the chimp building at the Sunset Zoo, the keepers and I were taking bets on how long the white paper background I’d just installed would remain intact once they let the apes in. I said I thought I’d get three minutes of shooting at least. I figured they would take their time and investigate their new surroundings carefully, like when man first stepped onto the surface of the moon.
“No way,” the keepers said. “Chimps are too destructive. You’ll get 60 seconds, max.”
I had just lined an empty stall with seamless photo studio paper, and it was a lovely job if I do say so myself. It always is before we open up and put animals on it. Called Polar White, this was top-of-the-line background material, shipped all the way in from Chicago. It was heavier than butcher paper and completely seamless and beautiful. It was as if the entire cell had just been covered in a newly fallen snow.
To install it, I got on my hands and knees so as not to mark anything with my shoes, taping the paper carefully around the edges to the walls and floor so that it would stick solidly and not come up under foot as the animals entered and moved about.
Once finished, I backed out of the stall slowly, admiring the scene and imagining all the wondrous things that would take place on it just a few minutes from now. All the while, the zoo’s four chimps listened nervously, rocking back and forth and shaking the bars of the pen down the hall.
My lights and soft boxes were brought in and set up just outside of the chimps’ “grab zone” in the hallway outside the pen. It was go time.
“Is all that photo gear washable?” one keeper laughed. Seems chimps love to throw their poop at anyone they don’t like, from the veterinarian with the dart gun to the photographer with the camera lens that resembles a dart gun. The zoo had outfitted me with an old keeper’s uniform, just in case things got nasty. I braced for the worst and said, “Let ’em in.”
With the turn of a crank, slowly a big iron door slid back, allowing the chimps access to their impromptu photo studio. The tension was as heavy as the smell of chimp excrement in the air.
Hazina the chimp stuck just her head and arms into the enclosure very slowly and cautiously, touching the white paper as if it were electric. She seemed lost in thought. Her baby clung to her underside. Then, with a single, swift wave of her arm, that momma chimp ripped that 7-foot by 12-foot background right off the wall and floor like it was nothing, sucking the entire thing through a tiny doorway, like water through a straw.
The show was over, and the only shooting I got was of her destroying the set (above).
I went to look at the chimps in the stall next door. In 30 seconds, they already had the background in a wad now, jumping on the Polar White and listening to it crunch. When she saw me, the mom tried to poop into her hairy, eager hand so she could throw it at me, but she came up empty, fortunately. Pouting now, I turned to pack my bags.
It’s not a good feeling to know you’ve been outsmarted by chimps. At least I smelled good on my drive to our next zoo. Next stop: Fort Worth.
See more animal portraits and learn how you can help at