Photographer Seph Lawless has traveled across America documenting decaying structures that dot its urban landscape — everything from abandoned amusement parks to crumbling malls that used to be thriving just a few years ago. But his recent travels to France allowed him to capture eerie images of an abandoned site with a disturbing history from more than 100 years ago.
On the eastern edge of the Bois de Vincennes, on the outskirts of the French capital, Lawless photographed the rotting structures of what can only be described as a former “human zoo,” where people from French colonies, such as Tunisia and Morocco, were put on display.
Le Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale was built in 1899, originally as a laboratory for the reproduction of plants and food from the French colonies, such as banana, coffee and cocoa, according to the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau. But in 1907, it transformed into a “colonial exhibition,” where replica villages were constructed to represent Madagascar, Sudan, Indochine, Morocco, Congo and Tunisia.
People from those colonies were transported from their homes to France and dressed in traditional costumes, to live in these temporary communities so that they could be observed by visitors.
An estimated two million people attended the exhibition from May to October 1907 to see what the life and culture were like in those French colonial territories, according to Atlas Obscura. Food, refreshments and goods were available for purchase, as visitors walked around the park to visit the replica villages.
Lawless said he was overwhelmed as he captured images of what was left of the human zoo, which is now a park open to visitors. “It’s like being in a real-life episode of Black Mirror,” he says. “It’s a part of history that is so provocative, that reminds us how fragile humanity can be.”
Lawless says he hopes his images serve as a “reminder of what mankind is capable of.”
Today, the public park still houses the skeletal remains of the replica villages, now overgrown with vegetation. In 2012, Messy Nessy reported that there were rumored plans to refurbish one of the structures, the Indochine pavilion, so it can function as a small museum and research centre. But no changes to the park seem to have taken place.
For now, decaying buildings are left to nature’s devices in this haunting space, where visitors can still catch a glimpse of a dark history.
View the slideshow above to see Lawless’ photos of Le Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, and postcards and photos of the park in 1907.
To see more of Seph Lawless’ work, visit his website, or follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.