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Do You See The Ghosts?: Animal Advocacy and the Politics of Sight

By Keri Cronin — September 11, 2013

ghosts_in_our_machine_xlgIn his book, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, Timothy Pachirat describes the ways in which different patterns of seeing are intimately linked with the treatment of animals. What is seen and who is permitted to see what –what Pachirat refers to as the “politics of sight” – have always been at the core of animal advocacy. Pachirat’s book focuses on a very particular aspect of our contemporary relationships with nonhuman animals, but the “politics of sight” inform all of our interactions with other species – when it comes to the treatment of animals, what is made visible and what is hidden from view are at the heart of almost all activist and educational campaigns. In this context, activists are often working on two distinct yet related fronts. First of all, there is the need to “expose” the treatment of animals that often takes place out of sight, in distant locales or behind closed doors. Throughout history, activists have turned to art, film, photography, and other forms of visual culture to raise awareness about activities that tend not to take place in public areas, activities that only a select few are otherwise able to see. Secondly, even when the treatment of animals in specific contexts are made visible, there is often a resistance to looking at these images or witnessing these activities – how often do we hear the phrase “oh, I can’t look at that!” when we post images from animal rights campaigns? There is, therefore, a tension between what is culturally (in)visible, and what people are willing and/or able to look at.

The Ghosts in Our Machine, a recent feature-length film by Liz Marshall and starring photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, delves head-on into this dynamic. The film weaves together stories of exploitation with stories of rescue and hope. In each case, McArthur is using her camera to document and record the situation as it unfolds. The idea of bearing witness is central to the project – Marshall describes the film as one that “slowly takes our blinders off.”

This is a powerful film, one that engages with the politics of sight on a number of levels. For one thing, it is visually rich. The camera angles, shots, lighting, and other editorial decisions combine to create a production quality that puts this film on par with some of the most critically acclaimed documentary films of our time. Also, The Ghosts in Our Machine underscores the important roles that imagery and visual culture play in animal advocacy work – both the film itself and McArthur’s photographic work are important tools for change, offering viewers glimpses into situations, locations, and circumstances that they may not otherwise have the opportunity to witness. And perhaps most importantly, this film is sensitive to the difficulties some viewers may have with seeing animals in distress in such places as laboratories or farms. Make no mistake – there are scenes that are difficult to watch; however, they are counterbalanced by scenes of rescue and hope, of animals enjoying life in sanctuaries or in loving adoptive homes. This narrative technique is so important because it empowers viewers and provides them with avenues for getting involved in helping to change the world for animals. Whether viewers are seasoned activists or new to the issues presented in the film, as they watch The Ghosts in Our Machine they will be able to recognize ways in which they can make powerful and important changes on behalf of animals. They can choose not to consume animal products, they can adopt rescued animals, they can refuse to participate in entertainment industries that exploit animals, and they can visit animal sanctuaries where they have the opportunity to get up close and personal with liberated animals. If the film had not included these scenes of rescue and freedom, and if it had instead been 93 minutes of footage showing caged, desperate, sick, and wounded animals, it would be tough to walk away from this film feeling inspired or knowing how to help. Marshall’s choice to include stories of rescue and liberation alongside scenes of animals in captivity and exploitative situations is, therefore, a very important one.

This film also brings into focus animals that many people are not used to seeing or thinking about. As McArthur notes, people tend to “see the animals that they want to see, like wildlife and pets…it’s comfortable to look at those, and it inspires feelings of happiness, and comfort, and familiarity.” She continues, “the ones we don’t look at are often the ones I’m trying to photograph – those who are objectified in zoos, those who we eat and wear, and so there’s an invisibility there.” The Ghosts in Our Machine attempts to counter this sense of invisibility. For example, by juxtaposing scenes from a fur farm in an isolated part of Europe with scenes from a bustling street in New York City where people wearing fur coats walk by signs advertising sales at fur shops, this film makes connections between our habits, behaviors, and consumer choices and animal suffering that takes place somewhere else. Marshall and McArthur want viewers to understand that while the suffering may not always be visible, it never stops.

While places like fur farms and dairy farms are featured in the film, Marshall is clear that this project was not intended to be a “finger wagging” film that “outed” any particular corporation or individual. Rather, she wanted to emphasize the fact that we all have a part to play when it comes to these issues – these are the ghosts in our machine. This is why it is so significant that this film attempts to reach those who may otherwise turn away from the film’s central message, people who say things like “I can’t look at pictures like that” or “I don’t want to see animal suffering.”

The problem of getting a mainstream audience to bear witness to animal suffering is one of the narrative threads that is woven throughout the film. We see, for example, McArthur visiting a photo agency in New York where she is told that her photographs are very powerful, but that it would be difficult to get “consumer magazines” to publish them because the USA is still very much a “PG” society when it comes to animal issues. The irony, of course, is that these topics are seen as shocking and disturbing precisely because they are not being talked about. The significance of McArthur’s photographic work is that it brings the issue of animal exploitation out in the open – change can only happen when people are educated about what is going on in these industries, and these photographs are an important part of that educational process. This is also the case for The Ghosts in Our Machine – when speaking about the film at the recent Toronto Vegetarian Food Festival, Marshall underscored the fact that this film is intended for mainstream viewers. While she, of course, hopes that those already working on animal advocacy campaigns support the film, her primary motivation was to make a documentary film that would reach a broad audience – she saw little point in making a film for the “already converted.” To that end, there is currently a fundraising campaign for the US theatrical release of this film. Marshall and her team have until the end of September to raise the necessary funds to have The Ghosts in Our Machine screened in mainstream theatres across the United States. If you believe in the power of visual imagery as a tool for changing the world for animals, please consider supporting this fund-raising campaign. This is a film that needs to be seen.

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