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Wildlife photographer and photojournalist Jasper Doest has been taking pictures of Japanese macaques for years after growing intrigued about their place in Japanese culture.
Aware of their revered status, Jasper initially wanted to explore the impacts of habitual feedings by humans on the macaques. His project, however, led him to discover a complex network of issues surrounding the monkeys, including pest-control, animal performance and human land-use. Over five years Jasper crafted a photo story that, while harrowing, depicts an issue that humans can't afford to turn away from.
The image above, a part of his category-winning photo story from the 55th iteration of Wildlife Photographer of the Year, shows his starting point, the feeding of these animals.
'For 12 years I’ve photographed Japanese macaques at the famous Jigokudani hot springs. During those years I got to know the individual monkeys, I would see them age, and learn about their personalities. It's important to understand that the Jigokudani Monkey Park uses daily food provisioning to keep monkeys away from human habitations', Jasper says.
Established in the 1960s, these parks were created to aid the recovery of the then-suffering macaque population, however, their runaway success has caused problems.
Talking about how food is used to control populations, Jasper explains how 'Food availability strongly controls wildlife populations and food provisioning helps to create perfect circumstances for animal populations to thrive.'
'This leads to a growing problem of monkeys raiding crops in a country that is dealing with a rapidly ageing community and a high rate of rural land abandonment'.
This growing activity, combined with the replacement of their deciduous forest habitat with pine trees for timber production, has meant that these animals are increasingly seen as a 'problem on the agricultural land.'
Farmers have taken to guarding their land, using equipment like air rifles to defend their crops. Jasper notes that in this conflict with nature, it is often the animals that are blamed. Because of this, he muses that we can 'often head for the wrong solutions – catching or killing wildlife populations.'
This risks doing permanent damage to the ecosystems we depend on. Jasper says, 'We're doing ourselves a disservice.'
Culling can prove difficult, however. 'Because of the cultural and protected status of the Japanese macaques, the law does not allow killing of these animals without a license'. But even then, hunters are hesitant. 'To the hunters the macaques look too human and it would bring bad luck to kill a scared mediator.'
Jasper explains that as a result, to control the population without killing, 'Babies are caught and end up in (private) zoos, as pets or as entertainment animals'. Jasper felt he needed to include this in his photo story 'as part of the visual narrative to show how these monkeys are part of Japanese culture.'
With photojournalism, getting the images you want means accessing the community and quickly building relationships. However, there was an extra layer for Jasper, 'I went into this entertainment scene with pre-imposed opinions. Which makes getting access more difficult.'
'Thankfully I worked closely with a Japanese primatologist connected to the University of Kyoto, who introduced me to many of the people in the story and has helped to make me understand the relationships from a cultural perspective.'
This valuable contact gave Jasper the perfect opportunity to find the insights he was so curious about in a personal way, through interaction, discussion and openness with his subjects.
He learned a lot from his time with this community and became more informed about the historic relationship between human and macaques. The difficulty however, was in balancing his need to educate and raise awareness with his own personal feelings, whilst having the cultural sensitivity to look at this situation as an impartial observer.
Jasper explains that monkey entertainment 'is based on the belief these sacred animals are capable of dispelling evil spirits' and that the trainers would 'build a close relationship with their monkey, which they would treat as family'. However, it's Jasper's belief that 'these animals should be wild and free, and that culture and tradition should never be an excuse for animal abuse'.
Using animals in entertainment is abusive but there are certain cultural reasonings why such activities are still happening. Jasper is certainly aware of this and while he was raised in a period that cultivated certain moral values, he is more than aware of how his background affects his thinking.
'Who am I as an outsider to judge?' Jasper wonders. 'I realised that if something like animal entertainment has been part of your life, your society, your history, it is incredibly difficult to put things in perspective.'
But that hasn't stopped Jasper from trying to change people's minds. He hopes that his portfolio 'starts a conversation and initiates positive change.'
Jasper is aware that he can't be the one to implement change, instead, he can hold up a mirror to another society. 'I still believe change needs to come from inside the community itself, which is why education is key. And photography can play an important role in that.'
A brilliant part of Jasper's portfolio is its directness and closeness to his subjects. At times this can be disconcerting but ultimately, this discomfort teaches us a lesson and shows us a rounded perspective of this cultural phenomenon.
The moral quandary at the centre of this, of embedding himself with this community so deeply, was problematic for Jasper. 'In one way you are on a mission to initiate positive change, and on the other hand you don't want to destroy the lives of the people that have welcomed you into their lives.'
It comes down to being a storyteller, to find and explore stories and complex issues that catalyse discussion, provide education and encourage opinion. The people who run these animal entertainment sessions are still people, the cultural paradigms that exist for them, exist in a broadly similar way to many practices in Western countries that we perceive as ordinary.
Jasper summarises this discrepancy, 'Some people see an animal on a leash and immediately say "it's abusive and it is wrong…and so are the people in the pictures." While that same evening, after eating their farmed salmon, they walk their dog, that has been trained to obey.'
While he says he doesn't want to judge, Jasper is aware that this discussion of human-animal relationships needs to be had across all cultures and people.
Jasper says that he has been changed by his experiences. He befriended the group of monkey trainers in his photos and was present when one of the monkeys passed away. 'I had just taken photographs of their last moments together', he recalls.
Upon returning sometime later, Jasper remembers he 'was seated in their kitchen when they brought out an urn containing the ashes of their monkey named Mame. We burned candles, incense, shared stories and they started to cry. I cried too.'
While it sounds surreal, it was a critical personal moment for Jasper. 'A beautiful moment,' he remembers.
His time with this community taught him many lessons, and while he still holds the same moral beliefs, his view has been forever changed.
'Yes, I still believe these animals should be in the wild but it really helped me to put things in perspective and also evaluate my own personal relationship with animals.'
Jasper's portfolio is a magnificent work in photojournalism, but a challenging piece at the same time. It should also provide a moment for audiences outside of Japan to reflect.
Thinking about his aspirations for the story he has crafted, Jasper explains how 'by using the story of the Japanese macaques, I hope to tap into the larger debate around this theme of human-wildlife connection.
'Hopefully one day we'll realise we are not alone on this planet and we need to share it with all living being as if our lives depend on it.'
Jasper spent five years documenting the lives and activities of the trainers and their monkeys. While certain audiences may find this material hard to look at, these shocking and evocative photo stories are crucial to the gradual unpicking and rebuilding of our relationship with the natural world.