Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: An Interview with Photographer and Animal-Rights Activist Jo-Anne McArthur

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We Animals by Jo-Anne McArthur

Award-winning photojournalist and activist Jo-Anne McArthur has spent over a decade documenting animals and our relationship to them. Her project, We Animals, "aims to break down the barriers that humans have built which allow us to treat non-human animals as objects and not as beings with moral significance." A Toronto resident, McArthur has travelled to over 40 countries taking photos of animals. She has worked with animal-rights groups from around the world.

Many of you will already be familiar with McArthur's work. Her photos have been used for almost 100 animal-rights campaigns, and she is the subject of Canadian filmmaker Liz Marshall's award-winning documentary, The Ghosts in Our Machine. In her director's statement, Marshall writes, "I chose Jo-Anne as the protagonist because her mission is a sympathetic entry-point into the animal question, and her powerful photographs invite us to consider non-human animals as individuals." 

Over 100 of McArthur’s beautiful and provocative photographs are now collected in her remarkable book, We Animals (Lantern Books, 2013). The book is divided into sections: "Fashion and Entertainment," "Food," "Research" and — thankfully — "Mercy," which looks at the individuals and groups working tirelessly to improve the lives of animals around the world. The final section of We Animals, "Notes from the Field," offers readers a look at the notes that McArthur's takes while she's travelling and working. Open Book had the opportunity to speak with McArthur about her book, her participation in Open Rescues, activism and why "[w]e need to look, and to not turn away."

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Open Book:

How did the We Animals project get started, and what is its aim?

Jo-Anne McArthur:

A photographer mentor of mine, Larry Towell, sort of honed my focus. I was a new photographer looking for stories and he reminded me to “Shoot what you love. Shoot what you know.” What I love and know best is my love of photography and story-telling, and my love of animals. About the latter, I always had not just a love for animals, but a concern for them, since I was a kid. After a few years of documenting our complex relationships with animals around the globe, I realized there weren’t enough people covering this issue in a long-term way. I’ve been going full steam with We Animals for a decade or so. Its aim is to remove our blinders, to allows us to see what happens to animals when we actually look. What we see is often the surface of things. How is a pig treated before he becomes bacon? Is an elephant chained up her whole life when she’s not performing at a circus? Gorillas are cool to stare at for 45 seconds in a zoo and then we’re on to the next animals to stare at, but what is the life of the gorilla like, while he sits there day in and day out? My hope is that once we start to look, to really see, we will feel compelled to make changes in our consumer habits and make kinder decisions when it comes to our animal use.

OB:

Your book, We Animals, was published recently. Was it always your intention to use the photos you’ve taken of animals in a book?

JM:

Every photographer wants a book, for sure! It was always my intention but that goal was put on the back burner for the last few years because I saw that my photos would be more visible and useful in furthering animal rights if I concentrated on working with organizations that are helping animals. Through them, millions of people see the images through their campaigns and online. However, when Liz Marshall approached me about being the protagonist in her (now highly acclaimed!) documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine, we discussed the resurrection of the book idea. As she says, the making of a book was something she could “hang her Director’s hat on.” So in 2013 my editor at Lantern Books, Martin Rowe, and I went hard to work at revising my first draft, which you see me writing in the film. Along with designers Paul and Michael of The Goggles fame (they created Adbusters back in the day), we created the We Animals book.

OB:

We Animals offers readers an unflinching look at the way non-human animals are used and treated by humans. Many of the photos are very disturbing and shocking. Although your work is obviously important and rewarding, it must take quite a toll on you emotionally. How do you cope?

JM:

Yes, the images are disturbing but also beautiful. That’s what brings the gaze back to the images of horror. It’s an art that I am ever working on: helping people to look and to not turn away. The work does take its toll and I have suffered through, and recovered from, PTSD. A lot of photojournalists suffer through it; we’re on the front lines, so to speak, documenting what needs to be seen, be it the horrors that humanity inflicts on one another, or what we inflict on other species. People working on front-line media, and activists and compassionate people too, need to take good care of themselves. The world needs us doing the work we doing, which is about speaking up, caring and exposing truths. There’s a high burnout rate in activists. It seems like we have to go full tilt all the time because the issues we are fighting for are such an emergency. And they are an emergency. But we have to look after ourselves in order to be able to keep going, keep pushing. So I cope by realizing I can only change the world one teeny bit at a time, and that has to be enough. Good sleep, good friends and good food helps too!

OB:

One of the many photos in your book that really affected me was the one of the frightened and injured bull in the bullfighting ring. Your caption explains that the audience is calling for the matador to cut off the bull's ears. In your experience, are people's reactions to animals and their suffering generally different when the people are part of a crowd?

JM:

Good observation. The mob mentality applies in this case too, you’re right. But the reasons that people are in that crowd in the first place have so little to do with the bull anyway. Bull fights, just like rodeos which happen all over Canada, are a spectacle. It’s about being there, being seen, dressing up, being part of a crowd, and cheering on an “art form” or “sport” which is performed by the matador or the rider of the bulls and horses. As with so many situations that we put animals in, they are an afterthought.

OB:

In contrast to the enthusiasm of the crowd at the Spanish bullfight, your photo of workers at a Tanzanian slaughterhouse leading a terrified goat to be killed not only shows the obvious distress of the goat, but your caption explains that one of the workers told you he didn't like his job because he didn't think animals should be killed, the job is dangerous and the pay is poor. Can "food-animal" production be considered a human-rights issue as well as an animal-rights issue?

JM:

Time and time again, I meet slaughterhouse workers and factory farm workers who are underpaid, or migrant workers who are paid less than minimum wage, under the table, with no benefits. A common problem is that they have to work at breakneck speeds, too. Injury rates are higher than average at slaughterhouses. In Spain, I documented illegal workers from India, Eastern Europe and the Middle East who all hated their backbreaking work and who felt the animals were mistreated in part because of how fast they had to work. They felt they had no choice though; that if they complained they would just be replaced by the next man in need of a job. My experience in the field over the years leads me to believe that large companies are not only profiting off the suffering of the non-humans, but of the humans as well.

In Tanzania, the men graciously (ok, some, skeptically) welcomed me at the slaughterhouse and told me that this was the sort of work that only the poorest of families would do. Animal killing overall is tied to human rights and a socio-economic system that puts profit first and caters to a market that demands the cheapest possible food. A lot needs to change.

OB:

Your book includes photos of rabbits being crated for slaughter followed by photos of the blood-streaked slaughterhouse floor and the skinned rabbits. You write that rabbits occupy "the unsettling divide we've created between a pet and a piece of meat." Why do you think we sentimentalize some animals and eat others? Or, in the case of rabbits, both sentimentalize and eat them?

JM:

I don’t have the answer to that, but what I try to do about that very question is to simply get it on the table in the first place. This will hopefully get people talking about it, and by extension, about cognitive dissonance. “Why love one but eat the other?” is an ad campaign in Canada that we’ve seen quite a bit, and that campaign aims to just get the people talking as well. Loving some animals and eating others ties back into our history of hunting, domestication and farming, and so eating and using animals is profoundly culturally ingrained. Since industrialization and the advent of factory farming, we have begun to mass produce (and therefore abuse in the extreme) animals. Including rabbits. Including dogs. Rather than understanding why, which is difficult, we have to unlearn some things, undo what is culturally acceptable, because whether we love and sentimentalize an animal or not, they are all sentient beings who do not deserve the cruelty we inflict on them.

OB:

Tell us how you became involved in investigative campaigns and Open Rescues.

JM:

I can attribute that directly to my favourite animal rights organization in the world: Animal Equality. They introduced me to the concept of Open Rescue, which I discuss in the We Animals book, but the concept of ORs was created by a wonderful Australian activist named Patty Mark, who founded Animal Liberation Victoria. In the We Animals book, you see images of open rescue by both Animal Equality and ALV. It was probably in 2008 that I started getting heavily into investigative campaign work, mostly in Europe, with groups who were tired of the unaccountability of virtually everyone involved in animal industries and who would use social media as a main platform for exposing the issues that they, and I, documented.

OB:

All of the rescues you've been involved with must be memorable, but can you tell us about a rescue that particularly stands out in your mind?

JM:

Fanny and Sonny. Their rescues are featured in the film The Ghosts in Our Machine, actually. I think what is so special about their rescue was that I have seen them many times since then and have witnessed their personalities emerge and their happiness and comfort grow. It’s really beautiful. Fanny was a timid, spent dairy cow, no older than four years of age, when she was rescued from an auction house as she was going to slaughter. Cows can live 20 or so years but by industry standards, and because of the way their bodies are so abused by multiple pregnancies and the milking and standing on cement all day, they are “spent” at a very young age. Sonny, a very weak day-old veal calf, was at the same auction yard and nobody wanted him. Farm Sanctuary rescued them both. I was there that day and from then on, got to watch them grow and heal. I’m not at the Farm nearly often enough but I get regular updates! Fanny’s body healed over time, she became more trusting of humans and she made friends with many of the other cows and steer at Farm Sanctuary. Sonny, from day one, has only ever known love from humans, so you can imagine what a friendly, 2000-pound steer he has become! He’s described as “a friend to all.” He and Fanny’s stories are also told in the We Animals book.

OB:

There are many remarkable people and organizations working for animal rights, and a section of We Animals is devoted to them. Please tell us about some of the people and organizations — local and international — that you've worked with.

JM:

Many are dear to my heart, like Animal Equality and Farm Sanctuary, whom I’ve already mentioned and have worked with for years. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is a direct action group with whom I had the great pleasure of being in service during one of their Antarctic campaigns to end whale poaching by the Japanese whaling fleet. Bonds are formed with activists and investigators while we’re out on these missions and I’m lucky; because of this, I have friends around the globe. I feel the same way about Ape Action Africa in Cameroon as well. I volunteered with them for six weeks and during that time, got to document the incredible work they do, which is seen in the We Animals book as well. There are so few groups invested in helping animals, and when I see just how hard they work, and always on a shoestring, I can’t help but want to help and promote them for life! We need more animal groups and they need more funds. We need more sanctuaries and more safe havens for animals. We need more lawyers and more governments taking up and enforcing animal welfare standards. As animal rights grows and the ideas become more mainstream, things will change. We Animals aims to be a small part of that change, helping it all along.

OB:

What advice would you have for our readers who are interested in getting involved in animal rights?

JM:

We can start by opening our mind and our hearts to how animals are treated. We can learn more and we can consume less. Of everything. We’ve learned to consume so thoughtlessly, but who is affected by our decisions? What animals, and which workers? We can buy cruelty-free products that aren’t tested on animals. We can reduce or stop consuming animals. There are so many easy ways to create change. I love the motto from Edgar’s Mission sanctuary in Australia: “If we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?” It’s so beautiful and so simple.

And like what Larry Towell said to me: Do what you love. Do what you know. If we help animals in our own way, using our own skills, we’ll do it with joy and passion. So whatever you skill set may be, use it to make the world a better and kinder place. The situation for billions of animals worldwide is dire. We need to look, and to not turn away.



The We Animals project was created by award-winning photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur who has been documenting the plight of animals on all seven continents for over ten years. Her documentary project, We Animals, is internationally celebrated and over one hundred animal organizations, among them Igualdad Animal, Sea Shepherd and the Jane Goodall Institute, have benefited from her photography. Many organizations continue to work closely with Jo-Anne on campaigns and investigations. Recent awards and accolades include the 2013 Compassion for Animals Award; the 2011 Canadian Empathy Award (art category); one of CBC's Top 50 Champions of Change; Farm Sanctuary's 2010 "Friend of Farm Animals" award; HuffPost WOMEN's "Top 10 Women trying to change the world"; one of 20 activists featured in the book The Next Eco Warrior; and the "Shining World Compassion Award" by Supreme Master Ching Hai. Jo-Anne is the subject of Canadian film maker Liz Marshall's celebrated documentary The Ghosts In Our Machine and her first book, also entitled We Animals, was published by Lantern Books in 2013. She hails from Toronto, Canada.




Click on a thumbnail to start the image gallery. Photographs courtesy of JMcArthur/We Animals/GhostsMedia

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