I have been visiting the Jigokudani Yaen-koen, one of Japan's many wild monkey parks, since 2007. And it was then, during my first visit, that I was able to create these intimate photographs of Japanese macaques resting in their own private onsen, or natural hot spring.
This photograph was taken on a very cold day around noon. It had snowed the day before—the last snow of that winter—and as a result many of the monkeys were congregated in the hot spring. There was hardly any wind, and a thick layer of fog was hanging above the onsen. This made it particularly difficult to focus on the animals, so I used a wider lens and worked with the monkeys closer to the edge, letting the fog blend around them. I can't recall how long I stayed with them, as I often lose sense of time while looking through the viewfinder.
When working this close to an animal, you have to change your energy level so that your presence is not of any disturbance. It's almost like if you need to gain access within their comfort zone without being present. That way I could move around freely while observing their natural behavior. It often felt like I became one of them. At times, I was surrounded by the macaques on the mountain slopes and they couldn't care less that I was there.
To me, being accepted into another individual's comfort zone is the biggest compliment I could ever receive. And in photography, gaining this kind of access is key. It allows you to create images from the inside out instead of showing things as an outsider. I often get run over by other people who say, "Oh sorry, I didn't see you there." This puts a smile on my face, because to me it means I'm doing a good job.
Personally, I don't mind all the challenges of working in harsh conditions. It makes you feel alive. However, through the years, tourism has proved to be my biggest challenge with the macaques. It seems like most people just visit this place to get it off their bucket list and take a cool selfie with a snow monkey.
These animals are not here for our entertainment. They are individual characters that deserve our deepest respect. I hope this series will help to contribute to that.
Jasper Doest is a fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). You can see more of his work on his website.