Primates in Stock Photography


Inappropriate portrayals hinder conservation and bolster the pet trade

Some pop-culture trends seem to go viral overnight, but other social evolution is more nuanced and permanent. Case in point: the growing public condemnation of the use of wild animals for entertainment. Changing industry standards reflect this cultural shift. For example, after learning that great ape "actors" often endure abuse during preproduction training, the vast majority of top ad agencies in the world—including BBDO, DDB, Grey Group, Leo Burnett, McCann, and Y&R, among many others—have banned the use of great apes in their work.

Nonhuman primates include great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans), "lesser" apes (gibbons and siamangs), monkeys (baboons, capuchins, howler monkeys, macaques, marmosets, spider monkeys, tamarins, etc.), and prosimians (lemurs, lorises, tarsiers, etc.).

Primates used for studio photo shoots are taken away from their mothers shortly after birth, leaving both the mothers and the infants traumatized. Physical abuse of larger primates—such as baboons, chimpanzees, and orangutans—during training is standard. In fact, the "smile" so often exhibited by chimpanzees used in images is actually a fear grimace, not an expression of joy. The animals are conditioned using fear-based training methods to produce this expression on cue for photographs. As "performing" primates grow older, become sick, or are no longer useful to their trainers, most are discarded or sold into the pet trade. Some end up alone in shabby roadside zoos, where they may languish in solitary confinement for the remainder of their lives.

Many primate species are in critical danger and may face extinction within our lifetime. A 2008 study published in Science showed that the inaccurate portrayal of chimpanzees in the media hinders conservation efforts and may also increase the demand for these wild animals as pets. Viral videos of slow lorises being tickled have been found to fuel black market demand for these highly sensitive and endangered animals.

Inappropriate and harmful images of primates include those that depict the animals wearing clothing or accessories; displayed in a studio or other human environment; exhibiting trained behaviors; and engaging in unnatural interactions with humans, such as holding hands or being held.

There may be occasions where some images deemed “inappropriate” may be appropriate in the context of editorial use. For example, a photo of a “pet” monkey wearing clothing could be relevant if it were being used for a news article about the primate pet trade, or the dangers of keeping primates as pets.

There are acceptable depictions of primates in stock photography beyond the boundaries of editorial use—for example, photographs of animals in legitimate zoos or living freely in natural habitats or Asian cities (e.g., free-ranging macaques who inhabit temples)—don't typically promote their use as "performers" or bolster the pet trade. Images of orphaned baby chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans being handled by human caregivers in sanctuaries in their range countries are also acceptable portrayals of primates.

Given the suffering that primates endure when they're exploited for entertainment, refraining from creating stock images that promote misunderstanding and perpetuate abuse of primates will make a significant difference for these intelligent and sensitive animals.

Julia Gallucci



Photo credits: Sun Wei.

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May 06, 2018


Nice to know that respect for animals is evolving. Thank you for the information.

March 20, 2018


Your article was very informative! Thanks for sharing!

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