Photographer Jo-Anne McArthur talks to us about We Animals, the project that aims to show how animals really live in our human environment
World-renowned photojournalist, author, and educator Jo-Anne McArthur has been documenting our complex relationship with animals around the world and across all seven continents for over a decade. Her project, We Animals, represents her mission to photograph how animals live in our human environment.
Jo-Anne is also the subject and star of the thought-provoking documentary, The Ghosts in Our Machine, which illustrates the lives of individual animals living within and rescued from the machine of our modern world. Her latest project the ‘We Animals’ archive provides free use of thousands of Jo-Anne’s stunning photographs of animals, including hundreds of previously unseen images. At times harrowing, at others joyful, the ‘We Animals’ archive is testament to McArthur’s dedication to showing the plight of animals in a way that few photographers ever have before.
Tell us about your vegan journey…
I was well on my way to being an activist (I was already vegetarian) and I wanted to be an intern at Farm Sanctuary, however out of respect to the animals in order to work there you have to be vegan. Initially I thought this was pretty extreme, and I planned to go back to being vegetarian once the month long internship was over. To my surprise, after 24 hours of being vegan I felt wonderful, I felt spiritually, intellectually and physically sort of all in line with how I wanted to live my life. I spent 24 hours not harming anyone and that felt very good. I realised that veganism was something I would stick to for the rest of my life. That was 14 years ago.
What is the ‘We Animals’ archive? And why did you decide to set it up?
As photojournalists, we are people who are driven by curiosity and people who want to contribute to change. My mission was helping animals, these invisible animals as I call them. Not so much the pets, or the companion animals, not so much the animals we see on the cover of National Geographic but more so these invisibles, the animals we eat, the animals we wear, the animals we test on. It’s been 15 years of documenting – 50 countries now as well – their lives, how they live and die in our hands. It’s very important to see these images. They are difficult images so that’s why they need to be composed, so that they are beautiful as well as difficult. If people feel as though they must turn away from the images, it gives them reason to turn back and gaze at these animals.
Most photographers charge for their work and of course we do because we need to make a living and it makes total sense, but the ‘We Animals Archive’ is a different kind of model. Because I want the images to get out as widely and broadly as possible, I’ve made thousands of images available free to anyone who are using them for the benefit of animals. There is an opportunity for people to donate for that usage and of course I strongly encourage that as it allows me to continue this work but it’s not necessary. So 15 years of work is now available, searchable by keyword and downloadable to people helping animals.
What’s your value in sharing the images? What are you hoping to achieve with them?
Just for them to be shared more widely than ever. In the past so many people have been emailing me, requesting high-res images and they’d have to wait until I was home and able to send them via WeTransfer or something similar, it was a lengthy process. The archive works with ease and makes thousands more images available than I had on the We Animals website. Whether people are using them on book covers, academia, social media, protest banners, you name it that’s what the images are for.
Has photography always been a passion of yours?
I always had such a passion for photography, but I didn’t imagine that I would be able to make a career out of it, let alone a niche career like I have now as an animal rights photographer. But what is so compelling about photography is that we can capture the world, satisfy our curiosity, we can tell stories and we can create change. Photography has always had a very important historical role in creating change. So many of those images are iconic, the guy standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square and the migrant mother during the dust bowl in the US, there are so many images that we recognise worldwide, images that galvanise people and create a conversation. That’s always my goal with the work that I do, to take images that will hopefully end up in the history books, images that show what was once and what should never again be.
Do you face any difficulties working so closely with animals?
It’s absolutely depressing. People choose to be photographed by me, people will choose to do all the things that they do whereas with animals in most circumstances I’m photographing and making visible the lives of these animals that have no autonomy because of us. Whether we’ve put them in a zoo, or in a small tank, whether we are putting them in gestation crates or veal creates, we decide where they will go, who they will socialise with if anyone at all, we decide when they go to slaughter, these are things that can be avoided. I try and show how we treat animals and how they live and die at our hands. So we can see and learn and ultimately make kinder and more compassionate decisions.
After taking so many images of animals, has that helped you develop a deeper bond and understanding with them?
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that, sometimes I feel I do, if I get the opportunity to spend more time with them as individuals then that would be inevitable. I think the difference between me and others is that I’m seeing an individual; I’m not seeing a product, I’m not seeing an object. With Kiska the whale, she has been in that small tank alone for 40 years; it takes her approximately 1 minute to circumnavigate the whole area. When I see her, I don’t just see something that we all want to gawk at, I see someone who has been deprived of her natural environment (she was taken from the wild), I see someone who must be incredibly lonely, so I have a great deal of empathy for animals.
Do you think photographs have a greater power than words?
I think photos are an aid to words. Words are important. We also know that image can create an impact instantly. That’s not something that a book can do, so that’s why photographs specifically are so important. An image is immediately effective; you can digest its message instantaneously. Digesting words can take a few moments and then you have to think about what’s been said.
Are there any images that have impacted on you the most?
There are many, I have thousands of stories that I could share relating to all of the images that I have taken. I will say though that I have looked into the eyes of many animals that I’ve met, it is really a terrible thing to have to document them. In a way you use them, for a photograph and then leave them behind. That is such a tragedy but of course I can’t rescue the hundreds of thousands of animals that I have met in various countries over my life. When I do that, I do it with great sorrow but with the knowledge that I am helping future generations of animals, I am trying to keep these types of animals off people’s plates.
The images that have affected me the most are those where the animals are sweet and curious and engaging with me. They are engaging with the camera and looking into the lens, because anyone who is looking into my lens is going to be looking out at all of the images’ audiences. Whether it’s the rabbit who is next in line for slaughter, or the lovely bear begging for pineapple jam.
What do you think is the importance of bearing witness to the animals and the way they are treated within society?
So few people bear witness, it’s a very important tool for learning and understanding. How can we really know something if we can’t see it? We can read about it, but how are you to know unless you can visualise what the inside of a transport truck looks like. It is wall to wall filth and the cows are covered up to their mid chest with faeces, it is truly horrific. As we mentioned, the visual will strike in just a moment as it makes everything clear whereas writing can’t do that. That’s why I will continue on with the camera as it’s a very easy way for everyone to bear witness. People aren’t going to go down to the slaughterhouses and look inside trucks, who the heck would want to do that. We don’t want to do that as it’s painful, unhappy and unpleasant. That’s why myself and more and more people go to these places to bear witness so that we have something to share with the masses.
Anything else you’d like to add?
What I ask with my images is to please not turn away, see those four words accompanying many of my images and please don’t turn away. It’s a polite request. Turning away is what we want to do because looking is painful but we do owe it to animals that are intelligent and sentient and on this planet for their own reasons, and for that reason I ask to please not turn away and to please consider the individuals before us.
To read more about Jo-Anne’s ‘We Animals’ project please visit the official website at weanimals.org