Phenomenology and a Day at the Omaha Zoo

I hate zoos. Animals shouldn’t be confined and put on display for our amusement. That being said, this past summer I spent a day at the Omaha Zoo, it being, I’m told, “world famous.” I’d have been perfectly happy to sit for the day in our hipster hotel room in downtown Omaha drinking bourbon while the wife went to visit family. Instead, I was dragooned into visiting the zoo. You’ll have fun, she said. Remember that guy who took photos at the zoo, the guy who you like who took all the crazy street photos, she asked. Why not do the same. Take your camera and see what you come up with, she said. It’ll be fun. I had been giving animals a lot of thought recently, so I figured, what the hell, let’s go to the Zoo.

During that time I’d been reading in a philosophical movement known as “Phenomenology,” and specifically the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and the Swede Jakob Uexkull. In 1934 Uexkull published A Foray into the World of Animals and Humans, much of it based on ideas first elaborated by Husserl, which established what is now known as ‘biosemiotics,’ a fancy word for the premise, based on Phenomenologist thinking, that you must first understand the animal’s environment, its “umwelt” (literally its “around-world”), before you could have any sense of what it might be like to be that animal. The animal is its umwelt. This has obvious implications for housing non-human animals in zoos. If your intent is to understand the animal as it exists in nature, the one on display in a zoo enclosure won’t help, because it’s not that animal. Their respective umwelts are completely different.

The art critic John Berger, the guy who wrote the iconic “Ways of Seeing” in 1971, recently wrote an essay “Why look at Animals?” (2009). In it, he argued that zoos are emblematic of western society’s disenchanted worldview, where science has stripped away the basic ‘Being’ of animals, considering them devoid of any interiority. As such, house them where you will; they’re all the same wherever they live. They’re machines made of meat, inert things to observe and exploit rather than creatures who have a life and with whom we might share a life. Instead of acknowledging their being and sharing a world with them, we capture them and exhibit them in museums we call ‘zoos,’ where they become an object whose sole use is to be gazed at. In attempting to understand them, we negate them. It’s all very sad. This sadness, essentially, was Gary Winogrand’s point in his first published book of photography, The Animals (1969).


Winogrand, from The Animals. This Photo Makes Me Sooo Sad.

So, as I walked through the Omaha zoo, camera in hand, I was thinking about non-human animals and umwelts and Husserl and Uexkull and Winogrand. I wanted to be more cognizant of the being of the animals I observed… and more deliberate in my photographic response to them than Winogrand probably had been. I wanted to ‘think’ my photographs, to ‘see’ photographs that reflected the big ideas I carried around in my head. I had my Sigma Merrill, which is slow and encourages slow contemplative technique. No point and shoot. Rather, consider, evaluate, compose, reevaluate, recompose, shoot…and then wait as the camera processes the massive file. Then start again. If I took 30 photos while at the zoo, that’d be a good day’s work. Not much different from the film photography I’d grown up with.

While in the zoo’s aquarium, I noticed a guy with 2 DSLR’s hanging from his neck, enormous lenses mounted on both. Typical meatball, probably with a social media feed full of photos of sunsets. I watched him hold his camera up and heard the rapid clacking of a modern DSLR in burst mode. He must have fired off 15 shots in a second or two, put the camera down, and walked to the next exhibit, where he did the same thing. I saw him again later, outside, standing in front of the zebra pen, burst shooting at a zebra standing forlornly in the enclosure’s far corner. What’s it like to be that kind of photographer, I wondered?


Edmund Husserl says we create our umwelt by the attention we pay. Our realities are unique to us, created in the space we live in as opposed to some objective geometric space, in lived time as opposed to clock time. For Husserl, all experience necessarily involves a subjectivity the quality of which creates the experience itself. In effect, we get to choose our reality by choosing how we attend to it. In watching this guy with his cameras, I couldn’t help but think of the lessons I’d been taught reading the phenomenology of Husserl and Uexkull, of how you choose to structure your embodied experience in the world, and how that choice creates meaning, what Husserl calls your ‘lifeworld;’ how the experience of embodiment – bodily spatiality, but also attention and agency – affects the quality of your reality, your umwelt.

Me. At My Fancy Downtown Art-Deco Hotel. Creating My Umwelt. This is what my Wife Dragged Me From to Go to the Zoo.

What would have been DSLR guy’s experience? It certainly couldn’t have provided him the same experience of a more thoughtful photographer – someone slower and more nuanced, someone paying attention and attuned to his tools and his subject matter. I thought of how an hour really looking, attuned to the subtle changes of light and shade, the play of forms as people move about, the aesthetics of their groupings, the search for that one instant that makes a photo – the ‘decisive moment’ to use the overburdened cliche – contrasted with an hour hustling through that same landscape reflexively pointing one’s camera at things in 11 fps burst mode. I pondered the umwelt of the person who off-loads aesthetic decisions to burst-mode, how his disembodied interaction with his tools shapes his experience of his photographic act and environment. My experience versus DSLR guy’s experience. Both of our hours at the zoo, camera in hand, consisted of the same number of minutes ostensibly engaged in the same activity; however, I suspect that our respective lived experience differed as night does day.

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26 thoughts on “Phenomenology and a Day at the Omaha Zoo

  1. Tam

    Burst mode is throwing a handful of rocks at a flock of moments and hoping you hit the decisive one by pure chance. I guess if you have enough rocks and the flock is small enough, your odds are okay?

    Not really my thing.

  2. 32BT

    I like the word hyperbole. Especially in the context of the internutz. In fact, I first learned about that word on the internutz, but then, I’ve been part of the internutz since its inception, which unfortunately says more about my advancing age than that of the internutz. The internutz is still in its infancy. It would in that regard, or any other regard too, be totally appropriate to call it an infantile medium.

    And the problem with underdevelopment, especially an underdeveloped brain, is that it requires exaggeration to get the same stimulus, the same kick, as a more sophisticated brain can get from subtlety and nuances. The type of subtlety as might be available in poetry for example. Or in visual art expressions.

    Some brains thus need several dslrs with powerzooms and burstmode and then likely still don’t get the buzz.

    And the internutz meanwhile may one day actually mature, but in technology years that probably is not during our lifetime…

  3. Stephen J

    Have you ever wondered just how effectively animals communicate with each other? There are no other animals that manipulate their larynxes in the way that we do, yet they all seem to understand each other and are aware of the realities of life (and death).

    You only need to look at a caged animal to know that it is distressed, and it is for that reason that I haven’t visited a zoo since I was around 12 years old, when a school outing visited a strange mixture between funfair and zoo called Chessington. The dirty scraggy looking polar bear that was marching backwards and forwards in that concrete yard was the decider, unlike the bear that was taking a free ride on that ice cube in the (as yet unpublished) famous picture, who was having a wonderful life by comparison.

    I never went again, never took any of my kids, and whenever the subject came up, I suggested that if they wanted to go, they should go with the school, or ask one of their friends, which of course put them in an embarrassing position. I never went to what used to be known as a safari park either. Running prisons for profit is not an attractive idea.

    As you know, I am fiercely in favour of what has become known as brexit, and it is for the above reason. My ancestors spent generations fighting to get some form of power over their environment (umwelt). What emerged was what we call democracy, it is a very blunt instrument, but that is as far as we have got. With it we have the ability to make our voices heard, we used to learn at school just how important that is, but as far as I know, currently what the students learn through a joint EU program called socrates, is just how lucky we all are to be governed by the experts at the EU, where there is no democracy other than a passing deliberately ineffective chimera.

    So anyway Tim, you felt uncomfortable at the zoo, but you had a problem with the fellow that chose to wear two DSLRs’, Christ he may have even voted for Trump! Don’t you think that by putting your fellow man into various labelled boxes, that you were behaving a little bit like the zookeeper? Is prison good enough for your fellow man, particularly if he is more bovine than thou, even though it is not right for (other) animals?

    I realise that you put me in one of your boxes one day, when you said that you had published something just to wind me up, because you thought that I was fairly good natured, and wouldn’t mind. Well it was a surprising thing to read at the time, and at the time I was offended. However, good writing is somewhat difficult to find and despite your deference for daft French philosophers, who seem to have been universally influenced by Mr. Marx, I keep coming back. I like the photographs that you produce and apart from one of your reader/commenters, I enjoy reading the comments too.

    I understand that good writing should be irritating, it should scratch an itch, otherwise what is the point? So thanks for your blog, and I hope you don’t mind me over-sharing here, even though I am sure that you will produce a pithy (even phenomenal) rejoinder of some description.

      1. Leicaphila Post author

        Rob, for the sake of blog harmony, try to be nicer to Stephen.

        As for my opinion of Brexit, as I’ve mentioned before, I have no opinion given I’m not British. For all I care you can dissolve as a nation and go back to the clan system. But it is fun watching you and Stephen argue.

        As for Trump, He’s clearly a criminal. Can’t wait to see him doing a manacled perp-walk. It’s coming. Just a matter of when. As for the people who voted for him, well I’m not in their shoes.

        1. Rob Campbell

          The trouble is, not being British is as unhelpful as is my not being American. Both of us have national top dogs who have abandoned reality and altered, entirely, the nature of diplomacy and the at least superficial cleaving to some generally acceptable concept of telling the truth and reasoned argument.

          I have never felt as cynical about politics and politicians in my life, and it is not a happy place to be. I see great damage being done in every direction, and it spreads into all the other nations that have contact with ours.

          Today, I discover that Trump has decided, in his tit for tat lunacy of sanctions and tax weaponry waving against Europe, to apply sanctions against Spanish olive oil, but not olive oil produced in other European countries. What’s that all about? Is it a not very suble attempt to creat tensions within European unity and play one country member agaist another? If it is, do we really need “friends” like that? So many years spent creating a sense of a unique cross-Atlantic bond, and in a few short months the entire effort is rendered untenable, as well as making some believe it perhaps not such a good idea after all.

          And to think that the US has at least two military bases here in Spain; does he know that? As it seems they are going to replace British ones in importance post-Brexit, does BoJo know that yet – has anyone told him?

          How insane are they going to get, and who will follow them if that’s what it now takes to get elected and retain power? And we smugly thought the Middle East had such a monopoly on crazies?

          1. Stephen J

            Naturally Rob, that is one comment that I think needs a bit of balance.

            What is happening in both nations is a struggle between globalism and democracy. Globalism is utterly evil, since it is only being insinuated upon us all to make it easier for the world’s biggest commercial outfits to operate without having to concern themselves with little things like unemployment, or tariff, or corporate taxation. The globalist companies would dearly like to have total control of everything, where currently they (in the form of the banks) only have about 80% control.

            For every one of your whinges in the above comment, I can and will demonstrate that there is a counter opinion that is just as correct as yours.


            1: The difference between the two that you mention is that they are both democrats, in that they believe in the nation state, democracy and bilateral relations between nations. The alternative is diktat, it is the stuff of empire and it always ends in tears. Democracies DO NOT go to war with each other.

            2: How do you think I feel about a government that has spent the last three years attempting to impede the result of a national vote, for completely spurious reasons? Especially when you remember that the experiment is not mine, what I support is the majority view. No the experiment dates back to the days of the Soviet Union, “Europe” was meant to emulate that wonderful bolshevik system, however because the germans were so nationalistic, the idea was that this hollowing out of the nation state had to be achieved without people noticing, they would manage their revolution in small increments, so as not to frighten the natives. The UK was not even expected to be involved, but rather we were supposed to be looking out to the west and the open sea, as always. The then president of France tried desperately to remind our stupid politicians of that fact, but rather inconveniently died.

            3: As for American bases in Spain, the keen communitarians amongst the EU member states, are not paying their AGREED 2% of GDP to maintain them and other bases across Yerp. In fact, the EU has begun something called PESCO, which is the emerging nation state that is currently known as the EU’s fledgling cross-state armed force. In a debate between Farage and the idiot Clegg, Farage was told by the latter that the idea of a European (so confused is he as to the difference between that and something known as the EU) army, was a dangerous delusion, yet here it is. The only non-US member of NATO that pays its way, is the UK, the American people pay a fortune. However, even that is slightly fiddled by our pro-EU establishment. It is Clegg that is dangerously deluded when he believes that 60% and falling of the landmass that is known as the EU, does not include the Russian armed forces. Over 40% of Europe is NOT in the EU.

            4: So I don’t think Trump really cares whether he treads on a few prissy Spanish toes. If and when they start behaving themselves over their “protectorates” in North Africa, which are hellholes (or shitholes), when they start taking seriously the plight of Catalans and Basques, when they stop taking the piss in Gibraltar, Nato attitudes might alter slightly.


            Trump’s behaviour is exceptional, along with the peaceful reset of democracy that he is attempting to effect.

            I don’t hold Johnson in any regard at all, the man is lying creep. But when it comes to politics, a man’s private life is neither here nor there, both have scurrilous private lives, and I would not call either of them out for that. My mistrust of Johnson rests on the contention that nothing he has said or done so far gives the democrat ANY comfort, he is closer to the maybot than he is to Trump, and he has demonstrated this repeatedly.

            Less charitable folk could call out the Clinton’s perhaps? This lot have engaged in just about every crime, from straight theft through to nepotism, there is probably even murder involved somewhere. And the last straight forward globalist PM, Blair is up there too, the man is as rich as Croesus, but there is no discernible honest source for this fortune, you certainly don’t make his kind of money on the public speaking circuit, however lucrative that might be.

            Face it, all politicians are cnuts.

            Finally, on EVERY occasion that ordinary folk across the world have been offered the choice between freedom (democracy and free market capitalism) and slavery (globalism), people have overwhelmingly opted for the former, regardless of how exalted the questioner might imagine itself to be. Perhaps the most famous example of this was the Russia of the noughties. My proof of this is that at the end of WW2, there were about 50 nation states…. Now there are nearer to 200.

            Now remember Rob, if we want to keep things civil, you have had your word, and I mine. Both are merely opinions, there are no facts in politics, only fancies.

        2. Stephen J

          As I think I insinuated in my reply to Rob, Tim, Americans that understand Brexit, might understand why Brexiters have a high regard for Trump, despite his many warts.

          Anyway, even though you aren’t interested, here is a good summing up of what EU membership actually means.

        1. Rob Campbell

          Quite; reading Keef’s biography revealed that, like myself, he’d watched that Bert Stern classic about six times (I did, exactly six times: paid admission three times, watched the second screening too – because of one act: Chuck Berry.

          There was, for a while, a free Internet route into the documentary on Stern made by his semi-secret wife. And what a rise and fall story that was – I felt quite sad on his behalf. I think it was called The Original Mad Man (not a nutter – a reference to the tv series about the advertising business as seen through the eyes of the entertainment business) and I often wonder how the English lifestyle version of such photographers compared with the American version.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Just a guess, but is it Rob whose comments you don’t care for, stephen?

      I think you’re on to something with your psychoanalysis of me. I much prefer animals to humans. Animals are honest; humans are dishonest and fucked-up (I include myself).
      DSLR guy is a stupid, deluded, arrogant animal. The zebra is just a poor soul imprisoned in some cage in a shitty zoo for the benefit of assholes like me and DSLR guy. Humanity fucks up everything it touches, and yet we have the audacity to claim we’re made in the image of God. If we are, then I suspect that God is a demiurge, something evil. Read up on Gnostic philosophy for further details.

      As for you (and Rob), I genuinely like you both. someday the three of us should sit down with a bottle of uzo and talk about photography and politics and women. It would be fun.While I’m constantly amused by how full-of-shit most people are – and this includes both the educated elite and the common slob (I take you and Rob and my other readers to be the former) – I realize Im pretty much full-of-shit too. It’s the human condition. Don’t take any of it seriously; better to approach it all with an ironic sneer, both at others and at yourself.

      1. Stephen J

        No Tim, it isn’t Rob, I look forward to reading his comments, even though I sometimes disagree and get a bit peeved, they are always interesting.

        As indeed are your blogs Tim…. Many thanks.

      2. Rob Campbell

        I like the idea of the little drink and even of the chat about photography. However, politics today is devoid of logic, and regarding discussing women, I have to come clean and admit that I know nothing about them. I believed that I knew a lot about girls, but when they turn into women, forget it: I don’t think women know anything about women.

        It would be nice to have such a chat in Paris; all I know about it in person, so to speak, is limited to my youth during 1957, when my wife-to-be and I had to change trains there en route to Rome. If I don’t confuse you with somebody else, you spent some quality time in that city and, so, who better a guide to photo heaven – or at least to my holy grail of the Café de Flore, where I could have a short, imaginary conversation with the spirit of Jeanloup Sieff? Trouble is, that would probably require an M4 and a 21mm; could get quite expensive, having an assignment with a hero. At least I do have some film in the freezer…

  4. Dogman

    It’s not the DSLR that’s the culprit here. It’s the attitude of Trophy Hunting. Some people just want a picture to prove they were there and saw it, even when they never really saw it to begin with.

    Sometime in the late 1980s, my girlfriend (now wife) and I were visiting the Grand Canyon. Like most tourists we drove around the South Rim and stopped at every overlook. Back then there were fewer people present and you could actually find a place to park your car. At one overlook as we were watching a bird soar around below us a car came roaring up and stopped. Never shutting off the engine, a middle aged man jumped out of the car and ran to the railing. He hurriedly took out a yellow disposable camera, did a quick snap and then ran back to the car and sped away.

    He had his trophy. He had “seen” the Grand Canyon.

    1. Rob Campbell

      But don’t blame the photographer entirely. A long time ago I found myself in Florida and the client had decided we were going to shoot something in EPCOT (does it still exist?) and to my utter amazement, there were erected signposts bearing the legend Kodak Photo Point or something very similar to that. Buy the film, and they really did try very hard to do the rest!

      You can condition people to that approach. And hey, they may actually get something they can be pleased to show or just keep. A bit of luck now and then, and we can easily begin to believe we are pretty damned good. That old hubris can take us down in one sweet moment of self- recognition and reevaluation.

      But isn’t the been there, done that thing very much what the holiday selfie is basically all about too?


  5. Andrew Molitor

    This will be a little bit wanky, but it’s perhaps worth remarking that for us humans Media forms a great deal of our umwelt. Not only is much of our umwelt made up largely of media (including photographs) it is in fact literally made by, shaped by, media.

    On quite another note, the phenomenological approach does animals something of a disservice. Animals are more adaptable than we give them credit for. Full on anthropomorphizing is obviously wrong, but neither are they simple automatons. Throw them in a new environment, and many will adapt just fine. Insofar as they are their umwelt, I suppose you could argue that the animal itself literally changes as their environment does, and as the animal proceeds to make something of it.

    I think it’s more productive to imagine the animal as remaining more or less the same, and developing new behaviors, or synthesizing new patterns of old ones, to cope.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      It’s not wanky. It’s what I’ve been writing about in one way or another for some time now.

      1. Andrew Molitor

        I have to note that the fact that you’ve been writing about it does in any way constitute a strong argument against its wankiness 😉

    2. Rob Campbell

      I wonder if animals do adapt to great change, and whether an animal bred in captivity is able to realise the fact of its unnatural existence? Which is actually two different points.

      There is the undeniable truth that some form of preservation of a species can be guaranteed by breeding in captivity, and the reality of animals so bred not necessarily being capable of hacking their usual, free natural environment may indicate that natural instinct for the hunt and so on may perhaps be less strong than we usually think it to be. They need Mama to teach ’em how. Reintroduction to the wild, I think, is reserved for damaged wild animals that have been repaired by vets, and I believe it has to be done quite quickly.

      As for dogs having personality – I think if you have had at least two of them you can be in no doubt about how diverse they can be. And how much they understand when it suits them. Our last one would have taken down absolutely anyone who might have attacked my wife. Me? I don’t think she would have had the same defensive reaction or interest at all regarding my safety; she would probably have looked the other way or wagged her tail. Or both.

      Can’t say I blame her very much. It was my wife wot fed her!


  6. 32BT

    Before this turns into another political turmoil, let me take the opportunity to commend you on that third image right before the selfie. I believe it is an utterly brilliant “street photography” shot that also illustrates the point you were making really well.

  7. Andrew Molitor

    Just an FYI, I will cease to read Leicaphilia if it becomes yet another mare’s nest of political tit for tat commentary. I fully support the right of everyone to say there piece, and the right to Tim to publish or not to publish these kinds of remarks, it’s no skin off my back.

    The point is that I won’t be present, which some may find a most excellent thing, and others not.

      1. Stephen J

        Yes Rob, I should be bored by it too, but sometimes I just have to bite. It is a failing of mine.

        Still it’s fortunate that we have the blog molitor at hand to put us back on the right track.

        Oh and Tim…


    1. Keith Laban

      I’m as fired up over Brexit as both Stephen and Rob, but certainly don’t want to read or contribute to the noise here or on other photography related sites.

  8. Joe DuPont

    I do believe zoos have come a long way in terms of creating a more natural environment for their inhabitants and in their efforts at conservation and preservation of the species. The expectation of a bucolic “umwelt” is just not the reality of most of the animals living on the outside. Kids can develop empathy and a deeper relationship with these animals by seeing them in person rather than by having their only contact be from books or film. I think it’s the best shot we have of future generations to slow or halt the destruction of their environments.

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