Wild Animals at Home – Areca Roe

Housebroken Series © Areca Roe


Areca Roe graduated from the University of Minnesota with a MFA in 2011 and currently lives and works in Minneapolis. She has exhibited throughout the Midwest, was included in the Soap Factory Biennial show in 2015, and has shown internationally in Finland and Scotland. Roe has also received several grants and fellowships in support of her work including the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. She recently became a member of the Rosalux Gallery artist collective in Minneapolis.


Hi  Areca. Your work very much looks at the relationship between humans and animals, and how we keep and contain them, how did this focus develop? 

My initial interest in our relationships to animals and the natural world stems from my studies in ecology and the environment, which I studied and worked in for a while. I have my own obsessions with animals, of course, and partly wanted to explore just why that strong pull to interact with animals exists. I see the same fascination with animals in my young kids before they can even speak.

I first delved into this topic by photographing at zoos. Zoos are one way we manufacture a relationship with animals, though of course it’s rather one-sided and forced. The zoo series led directly into the concept of photographing pets—it’s just another way in which we create relationships with animals, though on a much more intimate level. I wanted to photograph pets that were a bit more unusual, some of them wild-looking or wild-seeming, because these kinds of relationships were more mysterious to me. What does each party in the relationship, owner and pet, get out of it? It’s not as understandable  and established as our relationships with dogs and cats, who give us comfort and companionship.
The apparent wildness of the animals served as an intriguing counterpoint to their domestic environs, so I was also inspired by that visual and conceptual clash. It just looks so strange to plop a lizard onto a couch, or a parrot in a car. What do they make of this environment, I wonder?

What was the strangest situation that you found yourself in?

One of the more intimidating animals I photographed was actually a peacock. I was in the enclosure with him and his owner, and my presence seemed to make him nervous at first. He was flying and leaping back and forth in the enclosure and I could feel the wind from his feathers as he breezed passed me. His beak and talons looked mighty sharp at that moment.  The Burmese python was also impressive. She was gigantic, and it was daunting to be a few feet from this powerful snake that could kill me if she felt the need.  The owner had a large punching bag in the basement, next to the room-sized snake enclosure he had build, and he suggested we drape her over the bag for the photo. It made for an arresting visual, I think. But she was very heavy and difficult to manipulate, so the couple that owned her had to struggle to get her into place. She seemed content enough to be there, exploring around. They are still rather mysterious to me, and I can’t say I totally understand the urge to keep a snakes as pets—I never got the sense that there was much of a back and forth relationship between snake and owner, though the owners all had genuine fascinations with their creatures.

“I love photography for that ability to generate empathy, because of it’s vividness and it’s ability to make you ponder a frozen moment in time.”

Areca Roe

Left: Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, Illinois #3, Right: Gladys Porter Zoo, Brownsville, Texas #5, Habitat Series © Areca Roe

What is the most difficult challenge about working with animals?

The lighting was often most difficult for Housebroken. Most of the animals moved quickly, and required lots of extra light (or else I’d get an indistinct blur in the photo instead of an animal). So I had to set up my own large lights on stands in most of these situations, then try to keep up with the animals and corral them into the lit area.

Some of your photographs feel quite painterly, and in the recreated landscapes of your O Pioneer series this really comes through for me. Where do you take inspiration from?

For O Pioneer I took inspiration, and sometimes compositional elements, from landscape photos from the late 1800s of the American West. Those photographers were copying paintings, in many ways, so that transference shows through in my work as well.

Could you expand a little on what inspires you and drives you to photograph?

Lately I’ve been inspired by an urge to create understanding and empathy, to use the arts to forge a new way to understand the world and the creatures within it. I think our society needs a lot more empathy– it’s so important for people to imagine themselves in the shoes of someone else, or as another creature. I love photography for that ability to generate empathy, because of it’s vividness and it’s ability to make you ponder a frozen moment in time.

I am also drawn to photography because of the element of surprise that’s built into the process. It was so delightful to photograph the pets for Housebroken— I’d just have to see what the animal wanted to do, to follow it’s lead. This resulted in much more interesting juxtapositions than I could come up with myself.

“It just looks so strange to plop a lizard onto a couch, or a parrot in a car. What do they make of this environment, I wonder?”

Spike and Crikey (Bearded Dragons), Housebroken © Areca Roe

You recently self-published your work in a book, how was it adjusting your project in book form? How do you feel that photographs fit within the book form and aid to tell a story?

I love photography books. Books served as my introduction to fine art photography as teenager in a small town (with no art museums around), and photo books have continued to be compelling and essential to me. Something about the experience of sitting down with a photo book—paging through at my own pace while holding an actual object—is more memorable and intimate than viewing online. And it’s different than a gallery setting as well. With a book you are urged to view in a specific order, one image at a time. You include more images in a book, generally, than a gallery show, so the story can become richer and more complex.

From the very beginning of the Housebroken project I felt it would lend itself well to a book format. I actually shot with a book in mind as the end product. It’s more of an adjustment to put it into exhibition for gallery format, to edit it down to just 10 images or so (from 40+). Each image feels lower stakes as well, when shot for a book. When I know I’m going to blow an image up and place it on a gallery wall, I want it to be a stunner. But if it’s just one of many images in a book, telling a story and reinforcing other images, I feel like it can be a quieter image, not necessarily remarkable.

You have worked on several installation based projects, often inviting audience participation, how do you feel that this feeds into your other work as an artist?

I think explicitly inviting or requiring audience participation to fully realize a project is exciting, though it’s not the only way to involve an audience. Sometimes the more passive and perhaps traditional way of looking at art—images on a gallery wall—can be just the ticket for certain topics and situations. More than having audience participation, I think that I’m interested in getting art into situations and locations that are not typical. Outside, on the street, in a park, etc.  Our lives are enriched when we have art around us, and stumbling upon art in unexpected places is such a delight. Last summer I showed some of my 3D photographs outside a baseball stadium, then along a major street during an event, and also along a busy bike path. Each time I reached people who otherwise would have not sought out art in a gallery or museum setting.

What do you think the value is of having audience participation and interaction in art?

It’s more fun, and it can take the intimidation factor out of art. It can break down notions of what art IS—I’ve heard artists recently talking about how art should be viewed as a catalyst for experience, not an object, and I definitely embrace this shift in perspective.

What do you hope that people take away from your work?

I hope that viewers will find themselves reflecting on their relationships to animals, why we desire those relationships, and what it means to feel a strong affinity with a creature so foreign to us.

Passenger Pigeons, O Pioneer © Areca Roe