Today, London-based writer Emma Silverthorn is joining us to give us her take on photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur’s new book of photos, We Animals. Jo-Anne – who is, of course, the subject of the new documentary, The Ghosts In Our Machine – recently joined us on the Our Hen House podcast (Episode 209) to discuss the project. If you haven’t yet heard that interview, get on it! But only after you read what Emma has to say about this exquisite book, which will likely wind up on your coffee table (and in your heart) for years to come.
Book Review: “We Animals” by Jo-Anne McArthur
Review by Emma Silverthorn
Canadian photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur’s We Animals (New York: Lantern Books, 2014) is a rare book in that it deftly manages to combine ethics with aesthetics. McArthur’s images and words, a selection from her ten-year project of the same name, are not simply tools for her cause. Rather, these are expertly executed, often beautiful compositions, many of which would not be out of place in a gallery that had no affiliation with the animal advocacy movement – refreshing, of course, in terms of the book’s potential reach. The scope of We Animals is wide, as the photographer covers seven continents, with sections on Fashion and Entertainment, Food, Research, and, finally, Mercy, which portrays rescued animals in sanctuaries or nature reserves, as well as images of animal activists. As McArthur explains in Liz Marshall’s powerful biopic The Ghosts in Our Machine, this project aims to offer a depiction of those animals that are in a certain “predicament . . . because of humans.” Her purpose here is not to liberate those individual animals she photographs, but “to document” their lives, and, in doing so, to encourage the viewer to bear witness to them. What comes through as one turns the pages of We Animals is the singularity and emotion of those photographed. Because of this, McArthur’s work differs from more straightforward campaign images pertaining to animal use and abuse. The perspective is intimate.
For me, particularly striking examples of McArthur’s work include Walrus, Aquarium, USA, 2011; A Deer in the City, New York, 2005; and Wet From Birth, Organic Dairy Farm, Near Madrid, Spain, 2010. In the first, the viewer sees the silhouette of a walrus in captivity. Within the animal’s body, one can make out the reflection of a nearby mural, which depicts both a photograph of a large colony of wild walruses, and the word “Blubber.” As McArthur says in the accompanying text, this is an image with “a lot to say.” Indeed, many of these photographs do have a lot to say, as Martin Rowe’s Polar Bear in the Zoo, A Speculation – a 176 page monograph, which takes its inspiration from one of McArthur’s photographs – suggests (Polar Bear in Captivity, Toronto Zoo, Ontario, Canada, 2005).
In Deer in the City, the viewer confronts a juxtaposition of the urban and wild, as it shows a young woman wandering Manhattan with a taxidermied deer head held against her torso. In Wet from Birth, the calf – ironically named, by the farmers, Jo-Anne, in the photographer’s honor – gazes directly into the camera lens, curled in a wheelbarrow and separate from her mother. Although many of the images featured are undeniably shocking – an abattoir kill-floor, foxes caged in European fur farms, and dumpsters full of piglet carcasses, to name a few – the book offers a portrayal of human-animal relations that is nuanced and questioning, yet, to the photographer’s credit, never judgmental or dogmatic. It repeatedly reveals our often contradictory relationships with non-human animals, epitomised best perhaps in a comment made to McArthur by a six-year-old Spanish boy, who stated that he wishes to become a matador because he loves bulls. The triumph of this book is its ability to balance that which is remarkable against that which is deeply unsettling. We Animals, though released only late last year, is already garnering a great deal of acclaim and press attention, and deservedly so.