Nonja, The Orangutan Photographer

There’s a new photographer in town, only the thing is, she doesn’t even know it. Nonja, a 33-year-old female orangutan at the Vienna Zoo at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria, became an Internet sensation last week when her photographs of life inside her 750 square-meter (8,072 square-foot) enclosure started appearing on a Facebook page set up by the zoo. Nonja takes photographs with her specially-designed Samsung ST1000 which is part camera, part raisin dispenser, and the photos are directly uploaded to her Facebook profile via Wi-Fi. Since Nonja’s page opened on Tuesday, December 1, she has acquired over 51,700 fans and counting.

I spoke with Harald Schwammer, Deputy Director of the Vienna Zoo at Schönbrunn, about the orangutan’s newest project.

Tell me about the project.  What was the idea behind it? Why was it started?

The company Samsung came up with the suggestion. It was their idea to advertise their camera! For me as zoologist and curator, it is an enrichment project with some opportunities for behavioral studies. To be clear, the orang does not know that it is making pictures with the camera!  All of the orangs in the group manipulate the instrument and turn a switch. After this switch is turned, a raisin falls out. By turning the switch, the photo is taken. Therefore, the orangutan does not know that this is a camera and that they are making pictures, they are only trying to get a reward from the machine.

Is this meant to be a study of orangutan behavior, an effort to bring more publicity to the Schönbrunn Zoo, or both?

The Vienna Zoo has three main targets: conservation, research, and education, independent from publicity. We have always studied our animals – the camera project is only a small contribution to these targets. The media makes it into a sensation, sometimes with the wrong information. 

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Nonja used to be a painter. Did this make it easier to teach her how to use a camera?

We did not have to teach her to use the camera. Orangutans like to handle objects and manipulate things. Concerning the painting, this project is similar. It is mainly enrichment and playing, nothing more. It is just like the elephant paintings that are going around the world with false information: elephants are not able to paint a tree or flowers; they are trained for this. There is no creative touch, no artistic approach!

Do the other orangutans use the camera?

Yes, for sure. All of them do because it is only an object for playing.

Have there been any surprising things that you’ve  learned from this experience?

There was nothing surprising concerning the orangutans’ behavior. We knew that they use and manipulate every object they touch. If you give them a machine-gun, they will soon find out how to shoot it.

What I found surprising and impressive is that media can make this into a worldwide story, which is nice, but it creates a very incorrect image of animals, of apes. It has made some believe that apes can take a camera and make pictures and understand what they’re doing, simply because they have received false information.

Photos via Nonja’s Facebook page. Bottom photo taken by Nonja.