A photographer captured stark images of a former human zoo that’s now a public park near Paris

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, a former human zoo outside Paris, France.

Just outside Paris, there is a peculiar park, where ruins of pavilions and greenhouses lie among overgrown grass, weeds, and wild tree branches.

The site hosts the remains of one of the world’s few “human zoos,” called the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale. In the early 20th century, white visitors would come to see the exotic animals, plants, and other products of the European empires. They would also gawk at the actual people from territories in Africa, Asia, and Oceania who were brought there.

From 1899 to the late 1910s, the zoo served as an agricultural laboratory and exhibition space. In the decades following World War I, the area was largely abandoned, until it reopened in 2006 as a public park.

An American photographer who works under the pseudonym Seph Lawless documented portraits of the site in his latest photo series, “Human Zoo.”

He shared them with Business Insider below.


Around the turn of the 20th century, the French government allotted 16 acres of land for an experimental botanical garden, called the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

The name translates to “Garden of Tropical Agronomy.”


The garden’s primary function was to test whether tropical and non-native plants and crops, like coffee, vanilla, cacao, and banana, could be grown in France.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

The site’s entrance features the remnants of an arch in the style of traditional Chinese architecture.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

Its “villages” were built to mimic the life and culture of the French colonies in Africa, Asia, and Oceania — before France’s colonization.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

Source: Atlas Obscura


This was done by importing plants as well as people to fill the imitation houses and structures.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in 1907.

The pavilions displayed artifacts and products native to places like Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam …

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in 1907.

… as well as people who were brought far from their homes to live there. The French government gave them costumes and paid them to put on shows for visitors.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in 1907.

From May to October 1907, the French Society of Colonization hosted a massive exhibition of the flora, fauna, and people at the zoo. More than 1 million European visitors attended.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in 1907.

The site was rarely used as an exhibition space after the start of WWI, when it served as a hospital for colonial troops.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

Today, 11 acres of the park are open to the public, and the Center for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development occupies the rest.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

Few tropical species remain, except for bamboo, latex trees, and persimmons.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

In the northern part of the park, a small artificial pond flows through an artificial stream.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

Most of the buildings and greenhouses that were built before the 1907 exhibition are falling apart.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

When the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale was up and running, it portrayed non-white people as spectacles.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

As the zoo approaches the 100-year anniversary of its opening, Lawless said he has reflected on the site’s relationship to modern-day racism in the US.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

He said he sees similarities between the zoo and the captivity of undocumented immigrants who have tried to cross the US-Mexico border.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration administered a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, meaning that any migrant caught entering the US without documentation will be prosecuted.

The Department of Homeland Security recently came under fire when Reuters revealed that more than 2,000 children had been separated from their parents in the span of six weeks.

Thousands of families are now awaiting trial.


“I believe the widespread anti-immigrant rhetoric we are witnessing currently, both at home and aboard, is laced partly with racism and ignorance,” he said.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

“My images are a poignant reminder of what mankind is capable of, especially in these times when we are increasingly becoming more sharply divided by race.”

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

With the photo series, Lawless aims to “challenge viewers to re-evaluate their views on race and immigration.”

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

“These images are a sobering reminder of just how bad it could be,” he said.

Seph LawlessThe Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in June 2018.

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