Zhao’s AOP award-winning images, entitled Animals Menagerie, come from a selection of photographs taken when he was travelling around Asia. In each country, he visited zoos, circuses or other establishments where animals were on show (black gibbons in Vietnam, shown). “My motivation is always to try and uncover the relationships that humans have with animals, to reflect on how we treat each other,” says Zhao. “I preferred the countries that treated animals really badly, as I found them much more interesting. But you do soon realise that all zoos treat animals similarly, even if they appear different at first.”
Zhao believes that his recent award will be key in gaining both awareness and sponsorship for his continuing photographic studies of the animal kingdom. Indeed, part of his AOP prize is the chance to accompany an AOP photographer on a shoot – and it’s easy to see why he chose to work with Tim Flach, whose stunning images of horses (CR Oct 06) have gained worldwide attention. For Zhao, there’s also another reason: “Tim’s most recent series of live bats attracted me because my last project was contrary to his; working with dead bats and staging them in a studio to look alive!”
As the recipient of the Chelsea Arts Club Travel award, Zhao will also embark on a further two projects abroad this year. He intends to go to Spain to document zoos and then to visit a series of tiger farms (areas set aside to encourage the survival of endangered species) in China.
Whilst studying, Zhao has also co-founded an initiative called “A Dose Of Light” – a collective of artists in Singapore who aim to promote their visual art internationally. A fellow member, Nicholas Chi, won AOP’s Merit Award for his image of the interior of a Singapore hairdressers.
Zhao has a philosophical view of his work, believing he is only as good as his last project. So we’ll have to see where the tiger farms in China lead him. His immediate intention is to complete the final year of his degree. “Then, I hope to stay in London and do commissioned projects on animals in order to promote social change,” he reveals.