A man goes to the zoo, but he does not see the animals. What does he see then? This is the initial question of the photo project »May be an image of nature« by Jens Nommel and at the same time the description of his method. On cold, grey days, Nommel moves with his camera through the zoos of major European cities and documents the landscapes in which the animals are presented, but not the animals themselves.
If you close your eyes and think of a zoo, the image of a tiger or lion trotting lazily back and forth in a cell behind iron bars may come to mind. This could be a childhood memory or an imagination: a moral judgment depicted as a visual metaphor of human hubris and guilt (what if one day the bars no longer protect us?). Such cages can still often be seen today in fictitious depictions of animals in captivity, for instance in movies such as »Jurassic World« or in children’s books such as »Good Night, Gorilla«. However, from the zoos, as Jens Nommel visited them, they have largely disappeared.
»What fascinates me about these places is the illusion of freedom«, he says. As an academically trained geographer, he also sees boundaries where they should not be seen. Because the new cages no longer need iron bars, they are embedded in the landscape, for example through ditches, which are hidden behind small hedges and earth mounds and thus create the illusion that behind them the animals almost live like in the wild. But the disappearance of the bars from the zoos does not make the animals freer, but only the view of the visitors.
Jens Nommel’s photos are not an outraged accusation, but factual, calm and at first glance strangely empty. »I want to lower the pulse of the viewer«, he says. Only those who do not immediately recognize what can be seen in a photo begin to look consciously. Thus, one discovers that every simulation contains glitches, including the simulation of freedom in modern zoos. At second glance, one is almost amazed at how bunglingly these artificial landscapes are knocked together: Poorly camouflaged doors lie in rock walls. Tufts of grass proliferate from glaciers. And eyelets can be seen on a block of ice: Are they transport eyelets that have not been removed after assembly? Or is this where the window cleaners abseil into the polar sea?
When Nommel posted one of his photos on Instagram, the image recognition algorithm tagged it like this: »May be an image of nature«. Maybe.
© Oskar Piegsa
Jens Nommel is a fine art photographer living in Hamburg. He studied Geography but he is now fully concentrating on photography, therefore he has a geographical view. His imagery is documentary, working in balanced light conditions. His main general terms are symmetry, calmness, and topic. At the same time, he feels a longing for the unpleasant realities that our lives produce. Susan Sontag called it “needing to have reality confirmed”.
One example of his work is dealing with boundaries. As a geographer Jens Nommel sees boundaries everywhere. Boundaries tell us something about risks and balance of power. Perhaps his interest stems from the fact that he grew up on the inner-German border. The iron curtain hung right in front of his city. And there he saw, that boundaries can be extremely dense and walls very high.
In November 2023, an Exhibition of the project “May be an image of nature” in the Kunstverein Jena is planned.
© Pictures by Jens Nommel / text by Oskar Piegsa