Hidden in the depths of Paris’ Vincennes forest are the remains of a shameful secret. Were it not for the barred windows and the dilapidated cages, it'd be easy to mistake the overgrown structures as little more than the remnants of an abandoned village. Instead, standing among the shrouds of grass and vines and chokeweed is something much more sinister: Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale. A real life human zoo.
Citizens from French colonies such as Sudan, Morocco, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were shipped here around the turn of the twentieth century and forced to live in mock villages or "exhibits"—each one modelled on a different ethnic culture—for the sake of its European visitors. Passers-by were given the chance to gawk at and observe these foreign communities, and the captives were often coerced into performing animalistic rituals and shows in order to entertain the curious spectators. All of this, it seems, was to serve a singular purpose: to emphasise European colonialism and reinforce Western superiority.
A number of these so-called "ethnological expositions" remained in operation throughout Germany, Belgium, France, and the United States up until the 30s, 40s, and 50s, when they finally started to close. But while most countries have erased all traces of their involvement with human zoos, one final reminder of the atrocities remains on the outskirts of Paris. Photographer Seph Lawless, known for his work capturing abandoned buildings and urban decay, recently documented the haunting remains of Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale. He believes that an increased awareness of the zoos holds particular significance today: when the shockwaves of colonialism are still being felt, xenophobia still lingers, and race relations are at a boiling point.
VICE: How did you first hear about the remains of the human zoo?
Seph: For a lot of the projects I do I really try and document places that you won’t find a lot about on Google. I had learnt a little bit about the history of human zoos in general from research at home—there were some in England and Berlin but they are now all gone. There wasn’t really that much online about the one still remaining in France, however, which I found surprising. So when I did arrive in Paris early this year, it was the very first thing I explored and the main focus for the trip.
What was your day like exploring the human zoo?
I spent most of the day there, especially since it started to rain later in the afternoon. It’s not uncommon for me to wait for the right mood and lighting to begin shooting a place like this. I was completely alone and I didn’t see anyone until I was walking out. The whole zoo sprawled over several acres (roughly 10), some of which was shrouded far beneath weeds and overgrown vines.
The whole experience was very emotional for me. At times I was moved to tears just seeing firsthand how evil humans can be to one another. I’ve documented some very dark things before—such as the most toxic city in America and the ruins of the rust belt—all of which were difficult projects. But for me the the human zoo was the most jarring.
After returning home a lot of media outlets reached out to report on my latest project, but most editors thought the human zoo was too dark to publish, which makes me think that America is still too afraid to bring the topic of racism to the mainstream. As a minority myself I feel it’s my responsibility to use my social media platforms that have over half a million fans worldwide to raise social awareness about this sordid history, and how racism still affects us all today.
Was there anything specific about your findings that were particularly shocking or confronting?
Yes, absolutely. It was jarring when I would walk through structures that resembled cages. You’d have structures that would initially look like houses, but then they’d have bars over the windows. The bars were shaped in funny ways to make it look more natural, but you knew what they were there for. In one structure there were bars shaped like a jail cell, where people were held. There were cages too that were similar to a zoo where animals move around freely during the day, but are locked up at night in the bottom or behind of the enclosure—that’s how it was really set up. When I was in those sections it was a horrible vision to think of human beings huddled in a cage. It was really deplorable.
There are a few images of various different human sculptures in your photos. What purpose do you think they served?
There’s one in particular which looks like an older white gentleman, standing very proud. I had a French interpreter with me for the video I produced—he didn’t even know the remains were there despite living a few miles away—but he translated that the statue was of a wealthy man who helped fund the zoo. Then there was another statue of a guy holding a severed human head. That was really very bizarre as the plaque had been rubbed off. In other statues it appeared to be slaves doing slave work. At the entrance there was a statue of an angel welcoming the guests through to the gates—which was very eerie. It was just a bizarre and unexplainable mix of different things.
Why do you think France has kept the remains of their human zoos undemolished, when countries like Belgium have removed all traces of their involvement?
In France they have a really distinct view on it: they didn’t actually want to cover up the truth per se, so they’ve left a lot of the remains there. They also didn’t want to be perceived as covering up an ugly side of their history, but in saying that you still don’t have a lot of people talking about it because it is such an embarrassment.
To their credit, I think they wanted to have a level of transparency. I like the fact that they haven’t removed everything there, and they embrace their past and have moved on. I think it’s important that they own up to their ugly history. We have an ugly history in the States, with the treatment of native Americans and civil rights—but there’s an understanding there of the importance of remembering the past, mainly for the reason to assure that it never happens again.
Why do you think an awareness of the human zoo is so important for today’s society, over one hundred years later?
It’s important in the sense that, even though it was a century ago, we need to recognise that we still have a long way to go. We still have racism, especially in America where we have a President who likes to perpetuate the cycle of ignorance and hatred. A lot of people may not know this, but in America now—particularly in the last ten years—race relations have gotten a lot worse. I haven’t seen it quite this bad since the 80s, when we had a large white supremacist movement rearing its ugly head. Now we’re starting to see that again with Neo-Nazi’s and white separatists, and it’s really troubling to see.
Do you think the zoos had a large part in facilitating white sovereignty throughout Europe in the 1900s?
Absolutely. You’re essentially taking white Europeans and gawking at these African women. Imagine how sadistic and disturbing that is. It absolutely would reiterate that the white people are the best, and these people are simply just brought in for their amusement and for entertainment value. I can’t imagine that it was for any other reason.
I remember very specifically when I interviewed an older French man, he said how his father remembered seeing the first African man at the Eiffel tower and recalled seeing him as almost being a spectacle. This was back in the time when you didn’t have TV or social media, so there was no way you could have bridged that gap between ethnicities. Although there was that element of fascination, so to speak, they weren’t treated as human beings: they were treated as subhuman, and therefore helped create to that white supremacist feel.
In 2008 our Australian Prime Minister issued a national apology to Australia’s Indigenous people about the Stolen Generation. Do you think that even today the various European governments that held human zoos should be more vocal about apologising for the atrocities?
I think they absolutely have a responsibility to do that. There should be a responsibility there to not only acknowledge it, but apologise for it: not to forget what was done, but to instead learn from it. The only way that humanity can learn from this time in history is to preserve it. That’s where I step in and I use my images.
Sometimes words aren’t enough, and that’s the goal and premise of why I use my images to raise awareness about issues that I think are important for people to see. I think that would be a really good step.