When you think of the visuals you’ve seen from conventional farms or slaughterhouses, there’s a good chance an animal rights organization like PETA is behind them. Usually they’re grainy. With laws like the so-called Ag-Gag bills passed in 10 states as well as 2006’s Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, it’s easy to presume any footage was taken without the owner’s permission. The graphics you’ve seen were probably meant to shock you.
Photographer Jo-Anne McArthur is trying to change all that. She’s travelled extensively and her photos have helped organizations like the Sea Shepherd, Jane Goodall Institute, and Farm Sanctuary. But if you’ve never heard of her work before I can present two potential reasons: McArthur is a vegan and she takes photos of animals.
“When you’re asking people to look at cruelty to animals especially in food production you’re hitting them with a double whammy,” McArthur said. “Everyone loves animals and doesn’t want to see photos of them being hurt. To ask them to confront animal cruelty is to ask them to confront their own habits.”
For all of these reasons, it has been hard for her to get mainstream coverage. As she told me, “Vegans want to talk about veganism; animal rights people want to talk about animal rights” and they’ve both used her work to do just that. McArthur might consider herself an activist but it’s not hard to sense she’d like to be considered a photojournalist too. There’s certainly a lot of fodder for conversations about both veganism and animal rights in the images included in her recent book We Animals. But the images do more than speak to one platform.
In the journalism schools of today, it’s become trendy to say that there’s no such thing as real objectivity; we bring our biases to an article every time we decide to put one quote in and leave another out. “Journalists are supposed to be objective but most of us pick up stories because we care and are interested in them,” McArthur said. Clearly, there’s a connection between her personal beliefs and the subjects of her photos – that doesn’t mean either one should be dismissed.
The language of We Animals is strikingly neutral. Animals “die” they aren’t “murdered.” Each caption simply explains the situation under which the photo was taken. “We’re just letting the photos speak for themselves. We’re not saying ‘this cruel factory farm,’” McArthur said. “I’m just describing the situation, the smell, the sounds.”
Not being a vegetarian myself, I found it refreshing to be able to spend time judging the reality of these images without feeling attacked. As a viewer, you’re allowed to come to your own conclusions. “I just want to get people close to death,” McArthur said. “It’s making art out of the horrors of what I’m witnessing, reaching people by getting them to look at angles and symmetry.”
Some of the goriest photos are beautiful in the way that only death and industrialization can be – it takes a moment before you remember that you’ve been staring at a photo of blood for the last two minutes.
That is the greatest triumph of the photos in We Animals. They allow you to spend time with them and make judgements independent of McArthur’s conclusions. In one set of photos, she follows men slaughtering goats in the open air of Monduli, Tanzania. She writes about the conversation she had with these men before the slaughter and, even though they are the ones literally doing the killing, McArthur shows them the same respect she gives to the animals.
Whether through speaking with her or the work itself, she comes off as a deeply thoughtful person. In today’s black and white political climate (especially where food policy is concerned) that’s a trait worth celebrating.
Though she has been vegan for eleven years and was vegetarian a couple years before that, she’ll remind people that she ate meat for half of her life before that. Ultimately, it felt good for her to get completely out of a system that had so much cruelty in it. You get the sense that if McArthur blames anything for animal suffering, it’s the system itself – not the individual.
-Tove K. Danovich