In our contemporary world, industrial-scale agricultural operations have a lot invested in making sure that consumers don’t think too much about where the meat, dairy, and eggs they pick up in the supermarket come from. In this equation, sentient beings are conceived of as commodities and treated as such, as if they do not have the ability to feel pain, pleasure, or fear. Under this system, billions of animals are considered in abstract terms, given numbers instead of names because it would be too uncomfortable to think of each of them as an individual.
Isa Leshko’s Elderly Animals project is a stark and poignant contrast to the impersonal reality of contemporary agricultural operations. This photographic series is composed of achingly beautiful black-and-white images of animals living out their final days in sanctuaries around the United States. In North America, we tend to assign categories to the animals we share the planet with – some are pets, some are pests, and many more are food. However, in Leshko’s work, photographs of aging sheep, roosters, turkeys, pigs, goats, ducks, and geese are presented alongside portraits of elderly horses and dogs. In this series, there is no distinction made along species lines – all are depicted with dignity and compassion. Each of the animals photographed for this series had a unique story. Some came from factory farms; others were raised as members of a family who loved them.
Leshko had two goals for this series. First, as she described in the artist statement, she wanted to use her camera “in order to take an unflinching look at aging and mortality.” This aspect of the project was her response to her mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Second, she hoped these photographs would “inspire greater empathy toward animals, particularly farm animals.”
These photographs haunt me; I cannot get them out of my mind. As I look at them I feel a deep sadness when I recognize there is a good chance the animals photographed for this series are no longer alive. And yet, at the same time, I experience a sense of peace knowing that these animals were cared for and loved in their sanctuary environments. Leshko used her camera to make sure that these animals would not be forgotten – that we recognize them as individuals who had thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Like us, these animals sought out comfort and peace in their final days.
The history of photography is, in many ways, a history of remembering, of memorializing, of making a record of that which will no longer be there. The animals photographed for the Elderly Animals series may no longer be alive, but their stories are. These images bring comfort to the human companions left behind and, in a more general sense, serve as a reminder to all of us – even those of us who didn’t have the chance to meet these animals in person – that each individual life matters.
Leshko’s approach to making these images was as important as the final product. In each case, she spent hours with the animals she was photographing, earning their trust and getting to know them as individuals. She deliberately chose not to use a telephoto lens on her medium-format camera, a decision that forced her to be in close physical proximity with the animals she was photographing. There is, therefore, a sense of intimacy in these images that renders them entirely unforgettable.
If you’ve shared your home with pets, you are probably familiar with the heartbreaking moments when you recognize the signs of aging in your beloved companion animals. Perhaps they play less, sleep more, or require medication to help manage conditions like arthritis. In our contemporary society, however, very few have the opportunity to witness the lives of elderly farmed animals. Susie Coston, the national shelter director for Farm Sanctuary, often speaks about the unique challenges that those working with animals in sanctuaries experience when it comes to elderly animals. Simply put, these animals were not intended to live a long time. Current agribusiness practices breed animals for maximum profit, not longevity. When an animal from this system ends up in a sanctuary or shelter, he or she may experience age-related health problems that few veterinarians know how to treat.
Sanctuaries present an opportunity for people to see these animals in a new light. As they are given the opportunity to gently and gracefully transition to old age, they are treated with care and compassion. Likewise, Leshko’s Elderly Animals project presents viewers with the opportunity to think differently about the animals they share the planet with. These photographs demonstrate that there is little difference between species when it comes to issues of aging and mortality.
To view the Elderly Animals series, visit Leshko’s website.