The World Atlas of Street Photography: Picturing the Human Zoo

This fall, we’re thrilled to bring out an exciting volume, which Mark Byrnes has hailed as, “A must-have ‘atlas’ for street photography lovers… and a remarkable tour of urban life in more than 50 cities.”  The World Atlas of Street Photography is by Jackie Higgins, who was kind enough to offer us some further meditation on her topic.

Jackie Higgins—

9780300207163More people live in cities than ever before in human history, and in 2014, for the first time, these city-dwellers accounted for over half the global population. Mankind has experienced a tipping point in which we have changed from a predominantly rural to an urban species. This shift, this moment, prompted me to look at how artists are exploring the rise of the concrete jungle and ultimately inspired my book The World Atlas of Street Photography.

Let us first put this urban transformation into a broader perspective. For most of our past, we lived in tribes that were widely dispersed across vast plains. The zoologist Desmond Morris asks us to imagine an area of land twenty by twenty miles (about twice the size of Manhattan) and suggests that this would have naturally supported a group of sixty people. In order to arrive at today’s typically sized city, one needs to multiply each of these individuals by a hundred thousand, so that sixty proliferates into six million. This radical change has been so recent and swift that scientists agree there has been too little time for us to evolve and adapt. “So much has happened in the past few thousand years, the urban years, the crowded years of civilised man, that we find it hard to grasp the idea that this is no more than a minute part of the human story,” writes Morris. Biologically we remain simple tribal animals despite our rapidly advancing culture. The title of his famous 1994 book rechristens the city The Human Zoo and he goes on to describe its citizens as inmates. Such a framework begs the questions, “How do we cope within our cage? And why, given the choice, do many stay?”

Certain artists showcased in the pages of The World Atlas of Street Photography shed light on these puzzles. In gathering together and curating the imagery for the book, I was struck by the variety of ways in which artists were drawn to the city’s endless opportunity for voyeurism. Michael Wolf for “Transparent City” (2007) set up nocturnal rooftop vigils to spy on Chicago’s inhabitants like a peeping tom. Yasmine Chatila for the ongoing series “Stolen Moments” developed a photographic system that enabled her to peer directly into New Yorkers’ apartments. Andrew Bush sped along the Los Angeles interstates to pull alongside fellow commuters and picture them in the privacy of their cars. Luc Delahaye hid his 35mm camera beneath the folds of his jacket before heading underground to photograph unsuspecting passengers on the Paris Metro.

These series reveal what people do and what they look like when they think no one is looking. Each speaks volumes of the human condition. For example, the faces in Delahaye’s series “L’Autre” (1995-97) are caught without smiles, frowns, indeed animation. Delahaye suggests this blank expression is part of “that non-aggression pact we all subscribe to: the prohibition against looking at others [where] apart from the odd illicit glance, you keep staring at the wall.” The sociologist Erving Goffman describes it as the “most basic type of facework” that we cultivate to give off “the message ‘you may trust me to be without hostile intent.'” Such “civil inattention” (the scientific term) is essentially a survival tactic: one that acts to ease the human animal’s passage through a crowd of strangers.


The book features many various photographers that frame the city and its citizens through a quasi-anthropological lens. The New York street photographer Peter Funch says, “I am very interested in how we function as people in a large city; where does the individual end and the group begin?” Martin Parr says of Dutchman Hans Eijkelboom, “If I were an anthropologist, the first photographer I would call upon is Eijkelboom.” Funch’s series “Babel Tales” (2006 – 10) concertinas time and composites several hundred snatched moments to create uncanny images of crowds performing similar behaviours, whether holding a manila envelope or a “cappuccino-to-go.” Similarly Eijkelboom’s “Photo Notes” (1992-2007), where he photographed his fellow city-philes nearly every day for fifteen years, presents people in grids like pinned exotic butterflies displaying the same trends, whether Che Guevara t-shirts or fur-rimmed hoods.

The work of both Funch and Eijkelboom could be cited as evidence for a thesis of human behaviour mooted by another zoologist, Richard Dawkins. In his renowned book The Selfish Gene, he expounds on a phenomenon called “The Green Beard Effect”, saying; “It is theoretically possible that a gene could arise which conferred an externally visible ‘label,’ say pale skin, or a green beard, or anything conspicuous, and also a tendency to be specially nice to the bearer of that conspicuous label.” “The Green Beard Effect” is a way in which a would-be selectively altruistic gene can recognize copies of itself in other people, and moreover, look after its own interests by preferentially treating those people. These labels extend into our choice of clothes and accessories: the same rugby colours or Che Guevara print, perhaps even a predilection for coffee-to-go. Ultimately, Funch and Eijkelboom both lay bare the forces at work within each and everyone that persuade us towards conformity and uniformity. They reveal another edict that aids life in the human zoo: one that proclaims, “follow the flock.”

The World Atlas of Street Photography comes only twenty years after Morris’s The Human Zoo, yet the picture it builds is vastly different. Urban growth has accelerated exponentially and given rise to the new phenomenon of the “megacity.” These sprawling, hyper-urbanised areas, dubbed “cities on steroids,” house upwards of ten million people. They are shooting up across the world, from Lagos to Sao Paulo, but Asia lays claim to more than any other continent and China to more than any other country. Sze Tsung Leong’s series “History Images” (2002-2005) portrays China’s unprecedented rates of destruction, reconstruction and expansion. Critics have described the work as “grandly disturbing,” adding that they make “you worry for the world.” Ahn Jun’s daring performative self-portraits capture her precariously balanced atop some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers evoking the experience of this ever more vertical, vertiginous world. Meanwhile, Peter Bialobrzeski’s recent body of work “The Raw and The Cooked” warns we are headed for urban dystopia. A new breed of anthropology-attuned artists emerges within The World Atlas of Street Photography. They join the human odyssey at the dawn of the twenty-first century when the human zoo has matured beyond recognition. The “crowded and civilised years of man” have become more crowded and arguably less civilized. What attracts us to and how we survive the new phenomenon of the ‘megazoo’ are questions that are more pertinent than ever.

Jackie Higgins was a student of Richard Dawkins at Oxford, and went on to make science documentaries for the BBC for over a decade. After this, she completed a masters in art history, specializing in photography, and now writes art books for Thames & Hudson, Phaidon, and Yale University Press.

Click here, here, or here to read blog posts about The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti by Rafael Schacter.

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