Mishka Henner’s stunning aerial images of industrial feedlots in the United States have been receiving a lot of attention in recent weeks. The large-scale digital photographs were included in an exhibition called “Precious Commodities” at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool in spring 2013, but have recently gone viral online thanks to the number of times they have been shared on social media.
Feedlot sites are a key step in the industrial agricultural systems that dominate North America today – this is where each year thousands upon thousands of cattle are sent to be “finished” prior to slaughter. The feedlot is a part of contemporary meat production that most consumers have little knowledge of – in spite of the massive scale of these operations, most people do not have the opportunity to view these facilities. Henner ensures that his viewers understand the scale and function of these sites by including a video introducing the feedlot system as an “exhibition trailer.” In this video, the juxtaposition of the perky TV hosts’ banter about beef with the disturbing images that Henner presents in the exhibition underscores the sense of disconnect that defines contemporary food politics.
These images are at once visually engaging and jaw-droppingly horrifying. The vantage point from which we are permitted to look down at these feedlots renders these sites almost abstract. The geometric shapes and broad patches of colors neatly arranged against one another can be seen as aesthetically pleasing from a purely formal perspective (some commentators have remarked that, at first glance, these photographs look like abstract paintings), and yet what those shapes and colors represent makes these photographs unforgettably terrifying. It is incredibly unsettling to recognize that the thousands of small “dots” we see in the images are individual cows, and that the brightly colored areas in the photographs are enormous lagoons of waste generated through the feedlot operations.
These photographs are generating a lot of buzz for two reasons. First of all, they depict something that is normally hidden from view – namely the massive scale and environmental impact of industrial feedlot operations. Secondly, the production of these photographs is very much dependent upon our contemporary image technologies. Henner created these images by combining satellite photographs that are already publicly available online. Had Henner taken these photographs, he might have found himself in the center of the controversies over the so-called ag-gag bills – legislation intended to criminalize the act of photographing or filming industrial agriculture sites. Instead, his work focuses on using readily available imagery in new ways, and as a result, this project is framed by debates very particular to our specific historical moment.
Henner’s work can be situated alongside other contemporary photographers who use imagery as a way of focusing attention on environmental politics. In recent decades, photographers like Edward Burtysnky and David T. Hanson have highlighted the ways in which industrial activities have dramatically altered our contemporary landscapes. We hear statistics about environmental issues all the time, but it is sometimes hard to put those numbers into context. The significance of images like these is that they offer a visual representation of the ways in which our consumer choices are transforming the planet.