In July 2022 Robin Schwartz traveled to Seoul, South Korea, one of the great centers of the world’s animal cafes. These cafes offer not only the usual domestic creatures but a whole panoply of exotic beasts: sheep, raccoons, meerkats, arctic foxes, turtles, and many more.
It’s no accident that animal cafes have flourished in some of the densest metropolises of Asia, where few have the space at home to raise pets or the occasion to encounter animals in the wild. The South Korean government estimated in 2019 that there were about 240 “wild animal cafes” across the country.
Owners of the cafes almost without fail say their customers come to “commune” with the animals, to connect on an emotional level. Couples on dates, families with gleeful children and people on their own while away hours at the cafes. Photographing people interacting with the critters, Robin Schwartz said she sensed in them kindred spirits even though she was visiting from halfway around the world. “Animal people are a tribe,” she said.
Schwartz originally proposed the idea for this photo essay for the 2022 Voyages Issue of The New York Times Magazine. The issue featured photographers who journeyed around the world in search of animal encounters.
Schwartz said, “I chose to visit the Seoul animal cafes to explore the desire that humans have to be with animals. I see now how they function as intense therapy for people. I saw couples cradling ferrets like babies. I saw children become less fearful of animals. I saw more than a few people petting an animal and crying.”
Robin Schwartz is a photographer driven to capture the connection and sameness of animals and humans. She is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow in photography with photographs in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Museum of Modern Art; The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and others. The Aperture Foundation has published two books of Schwartz’s 20 years of photographing her daughter, Amelia, with animals. Her other books include Like Us: Primate Portraits and Dog Watching. She is a professor in photography at William Paterson University of New Jersey.
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South Korean Animal Cafes
Featuring: Robin Schwartz
Curated by: Amy Kellner
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Brooklyn, NY 11201
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This project was originally commissioned by The New York Times Magazine
Amy Kellner, Senior Photo Editor, New York Times Magazine
Kathy Ryan, Director of Photography, The New York Times Magazine
Victoria Kim, New York Times correspondent, South Korea