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Do YOU have the courage to not look away? How about the courage and decency to NOT harm?

May 1, 2023

Minimal space to move around in this pig farm, in a northern Italian region where “prosciutto” (flesh, muscle stolen from animals) is “produced” (violently bred and killed). Image Jo-Anne McArthur / Essere Animali / We Animals Media

Source DeMorgen

By Sophie Mulder

Interviewing conflict photographer Jo-Anne McArthur: ,

All images courtesy

“We cut off their beaks, burn their tails, castrate them without anesthesia, and slaughter them without blinking.” These are just some of the tortures that billions of animals endure every day. Photographer Jo-Anne McArthur makes the horror painfully visible.

It started when she was 22 and traveled through Ecuador with her backpack and camera. One day she saw a monkey tied with a chain to the bars of a window. The monkey had nowhere to go and was trained to steal from passing tourists. Like some passersby, Jo-Anne McArthur stopped to take pictures of the animal.

But unlike the other tourists, who thought it was a funny and fun spectacle, she saw the suffering of the monkey. She started thinking about what she could do with her photo, and so the photojournalist in her was born. “Photojournalism can make things move. It can touch people’s hearts or move them to action. It can change policy. The picture of that monkey didn’t change much, but I knew then: this is what I want to do. This is how the We Animals project came about. Because we like to forget, but we are all animals.”

We Animals has since grown into a photography project to which 95 photographers around the world contribute, all with the same goal: to give visibility to the billions of animals that live in captivity, either for entertainment or as a so-called production animal. More than 20,000 photos are made available free of charge and royalty-free.

McArthur (46) herself has been to more than sixty countries to photograph animals and is internationally acclaimed for her work. This week she was in Brussels at the invitation of Compassion in World Farming, an international animal protection organization that stands up for the welfare of animals in livestock farming. The day before McArthur gave a speech to some European Commissioners and Members of Parliament, we were able to speak to her in the lobby of her hotel.

She explicitly refers to her work as conflict photography. “The way we treat animals is one big conflict. If I took people to the places I visit, they would feel the same way. We force billions of living beings into confinement, suffering and death. Out of sight of everyone. Hardly anyone ever sees these animals. We also do not see who is on our plate. I want to show the individuals. And how they have to live their lives because we have an insatiable hunger for meat, which also has to be produced as cheaply as possible.”

We don’t talk about the animals we eat, she says, or how miserable we’ve made their lives. “It’s not like we take an animal out of the wild and end its life very quickly because we don’t have any other food available.

“No, as soon as an agricultural animal is born, we run off with it. We mutilate them, cut off their beaks, burn off their tails, cut off their teeth, perforate their ears, castrate them without anesthesia, take them away from their dams and other relatives, put them on a truck to slaughter and kill them in the in the presence of peers.”

Humans are extremely violent, she says. And no, she doesn’t hesitate to use those words. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t be empathetic as individuals. After all, we also have an intellect, with which we can make choices.” The argument that nature is the most violent place, where animals devour each other in a horrific way without much fuss, does not impress her much. “Animals don’t overeat. They only take what they need. And only if they are carnivorous.

“What we do is completely different. We lock up and abuse billions of animals when we don’t even need it. Have you ever seen the arms of a gorilla? They eat vegetarian and are so strong. There are cultures that have lived without meat for centuries and are healthy. Until recently, a piece of meat was still expensive. Our grandmothers ate meat maybe twice a week, we consume it three times a day. With enormous health and environmental problems as a result.”

For more than twenty years, Jo-Anne McArthur has been photographing in places where hardly anyone goes. She’s seen millions of captive animals, but she remembers every place she’s been, she says. What she will certainly never get out of her memory, and what she cannot convey in her photos, is the smell. “I wish people could smell him. The smell of a stable where animals are crammed together creeps into everything. In my backpack, my clothes, my camera. If I’ve been in a pig farm for half an hour, my cameras still smell like it a month later.”

We often think that the biggest problems in industrial livestock farming are in African or Asian countries and not in Europe, but that’s not true, says McArthur. “I have visited many European farms, and some of the dirtiest were in Sweden. All over Europe I have visited places where dead animals lie, where animals stand knee-deep in their own manure, where your eyes are burned by the smell of ammonia. I sometimes hear that I only show the ugly sides, but you know what? There are no good sides to industrial livestock farming.”

People are often defensive when they see her images, she says. “Because they fundamentally question our goodness. We all think of ourselves as good people, so it is confronting to watch the intense suffering we all participate in every day. We don’t like to make time for that kind of thinking exercise.”

And yet, McArthur continues to show her work wherever she can. “Urgency, shame and empowerment: that’s what I want to achieve with my images. So that people feel pain when they look at my pictures, but the pain doesn’t paralyze them. I’m taking them to a tough, hellish place, but I’m also telling them, we can change this. What can I do, people sometimes ask me. Leave the animals off your plate, is my answer.”

When she was 22, she got to know the chickens that lived with her mother in the country. “I noticed that, like the cats and dogs that lived with my mother, they each had a personality. That was annoying, because chicken was my favorite food back then. I was a carnivore. I had always thought of myself as an empathetic person, but apparently it had taken years for me to see these so-called production animals as individuals. I’ve been vegan for twenty years now and I feel very good about it. No animal has had to suffer for my food or my clothes.”

The work she does is not harmless. Few farms open their doors wide to a photographer or journalist. How does she get in there? “You enter any way you can. Sometimes I ask in advance, sometimes not. I definitely don’t like doing things secretly. But it is the only way to get an accurate picture of how animals have to live on a farm.”

Colleague photographers of hers have already been beaten up, she says. She recently had to flee a country herself. The government was looking for her. Even the neighboring country to which she had fled turned out not to be safe for her.

McArthur is one of the few who looks the animals we eat in the eye. It’s painful work, she says. “But that applies to everyone who is involved in animal rights. It’s still in its infancy, changes are painfully slow, and most people don’t understand you. And we suffer. Because we see how much the animals suffer. Over the years I have learned better how to keep my joy. I had to. At one point I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is more common among conflict photographers. My philosophy now is: I have one life. I want to work hard for others, but also live a joyful life myself.”

I ask her if she thinks things will have changed in 25 years. She nods. “The humiliation of animals in circuses will be over and bear bile farming will have ended (bears kept in captivity to harvest their bile, which is used as medicine by some traditional Asian cultures, ed.). I also think that zoos in their current form will no longer exist. There will be more vegetarianism and veganism. But at the same time, in some parts of the world, they are now starting to eat meat like we do. So I don’t think industrial livestock farming will have disappeared in 25 years. Unless deadly pandemics and zoonoses have pushed us a little further. But let’s hope this won’t be the way to get rid of it.”

On Tuesday, McArthur showed her photos to several European Commissioners and Members of Parliament. “I get invited to conferences like this because I’m on the front lines,” she began her speech. “I photograph animals in the entertainment sector, but my main focus is on industrial livestock farming. I’m there to photograph the animals that we don’t see, but eat. Such as cows, pigs, chickens, rabbits, sheep, fish. Billions of animals that we keep in cages and pens. They are invisible. Nobody cares about them. I hope we can work up the courage to see each individual. That’s our job. Watch them. See them. Don’t look away.”

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Some images always linger
Break your heart
As they reach the tips
Of your fingers

Karen Lyons Kalmenson

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2023 4:28 am

    Some images always linger
    Break your heart
    As they reach the tips
    Of your fingers

    Liked by 2 people

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