We had the privilege of interviewing award-winning photojournalist, author, and educator Jo-Anne McArthur, who has been documenting the plight of animals on all seven continents for over a decade. Her project We Animals has become an internationally celebrated archive, and over one hundred animal organizations have benefited from her photography, many of which continue to work closely with Jo-Anne on stories, investigations, campaigns and humane education.
We’ve featured a few highlights from the interview below. You can read the interview in its entirety here.
ACE: Why is good photography important to the animal advocacy movement?
JM: Animal advocacy has a long history of mediocre photography. This is largely due to the fact that images provided to campaigns were taken by activists and investigators, rather than by people with specific photography skills. Photos were shot mainly as proof of a situation or event. Now, all of that has changed. From grassroots campaigns to the largest organizations, advocates know that good images are absolutely essential in engaging audiences.
Our photographs portray issues and images that no one wants to look at. The greatest challenge in animal advocacy is getting people not only to look, but to not turn away. We are presenting scenes of horror, and it’s natural for them to want to turn away. We are demanding a lot of our audience, so our images have to be beautiful as well as technically excellent. Our images need to have qualities that help the viewer return to the image and connect with it on some other level. Thus, our images not only have to document a situation, but they need to be beautiful, well-crafted, engaging, and interesting.
It’s a tall order for photographers. We are often working in stressful, horrible, dirty or dark conditions. We are often dealing with bad lighting, cages, fences and all manner of obstacles. Executing good images in these environments, especially when our subjects—the animals—are depressed or stressed out and just plain afraid of humans, is a challenge. Thankfully for the animals, activists recognize the need for strong images in campaigns, and are stepping up to the task. Activists and investigators are honing their photography skills, and non-animal rights photographers are starting to document animal cruelty.
ACE: What types of photographs are most effective in creating change?
JM: After more than 15 years of working with images that are trying to effect change, I have come to understand a bit about what works and why. Firstly, I don’t think we need to bombard viewers with thousands of images for one campaign. A few excellent images, which show numbers as well as individuals, can be effective in engagement. In my humane education talks, I impress upon the audience that animals are suffering by the billions each day, but that a billion isn’t just a billion. A billion is one, plus one, plus one, plus one. In my photographs, I try to show the large numbers as well as the individuals. For example, if we are talking about turkey farming, we need to see what it looks like to have 2,500 turkeys crammed into one barn. But then, we need to meet the individuals in the barn. This is when I get down and get close to the animals, and try to engage with them individually.
I think we also have to remember that animal advocacy images are also very much a commentary on us, not the animal. Sometimes, it’s showing the fences, chains, walls, crates, and cages and focusing on the architecture of captivity that is really arresting. A portrait of a gorilla in a zoo is one thing, but showing the absurd, human-made confines are more the point. Take, for example, the absurd paintings of nature that are inside so many zoo enclosures. It’s insulting to both us and the animal. I often try to draw attention to this sort of trompe d’oeil. We have to draw attention to our folly and, again, to the utter insanity of the architecture of cages and farms.
I’ve also learned that we’re asking a lot of our audiences when we present them with this harsh material. The images are not only asking them to confront cruelty, which is painful for anyone to look at, because most of us are compassionate people. These images are also difficult because they turn the lens inward. People who look at these images often become defensive or upset. If they eat the animal depicted, they may feel their morals and beliefs are being attacked. I think engaging an audience with photographs is a delicate matter, and I’ve yet to find the absolute best way to fully engage an audience. Though many of my images are disturbing or graphic, I try to be gentle with people and meet them where they are. One of the simple bits of text I use on my images is “Please Don’t Turn Away.” It’s polite, and, I hope, a simple enough ask.
It’s also important not to paralyze people with images of horror and terror, which can make people feel hopeless. Instead, I often try to give viewers hope and happiness. I show images that depict happiness, change and the change-makers themselves. This is because we see ourselves in others. Just as, when we have a broken heart, every love song is about us, we also see ourselves in images. Images of other advocates inspire us to be a part of the change. It’s important to show photos of people with placards, people bearing witness at the transport trucks, and people showing up at city hall to say their two cents about legislative initiatives—old people, young people, people of all races and backgrounds. Photos should also empower people. If we show people taking part, taking action, many of us will think I can do that too, I can see myself doing that.
This reasoning was the inspiration for one of my current big projects, Unbound. With my co-author, Professor Keri Cronin, I am working to show viewers the women on the front lines of animal advocacy worldwide. This project is a celebration of change makers in both a historical and contemporary context. Rather than feeling hopeless or paralyzed, I want people to see that something can and is being done, and that they too can take part.
ACE: What advice do you have for aspiring animal advocacy photographers?
JM: Begin it now, as Goethe said. You don’t need to sneak into farms or go undercover to be an animal advocacy photographer. There is so much we can document: use and abuse is happening on every block of every city. We need to tell stories creatively. We can do a photo story on all the bacon ads in a city, highlighting excessive animal consumption. We can interview people on all manner of topics about animals. We can show the change makers. We can shoot pictures at shelters and donate the images to that shelter or sanctuary for their use and profit. We can fundraise through our images. To aspiring photographers, take photos at a local aquarium or rodeo. Expose the brutality of industries that profit at the expense of animals. Just do something to make the issue visible. Take, for example, photographer Shannon Johnstone’s incredible project, Landfill Dogs. It’s a perfect example of a project that started close to home but has now changed the lives of thousands of animals.
When I give photo workshops, I think people expect elaborate explanations and technical tips, but I always say that the most important thing is “get down and get close”. Don’t shoot from the typical human-eye vantage point. This is how we all see things all the time. Crouch down to the turkeys, or the calves, or the hens. Engage with them. If they are engaged with you, they will be engaging with every single person looking at the photograph.