Jo-Anne McArthur is one of those photographers who has the power to change the world through her camera lens. Her startling images of animals, both enslaved and no longer oppressed, carry inside of them a deep dark truth, but also a glimpse of hope into what is possible when warriors — both Jo-Anne as well as many of her human subjects — refuse to be complacent about the suffering of other beings. Be forewarned: These images will grab you, and may never let you go.
Jo-Anne’s project, We Animals, is now in its 13th year. Since beginning, she has documented the reality of what’s happening to animals in over 40 countries. Just on the heels of her next trip, this one to Tanzania, Jo-Anne agreed to give Our Hen House readers a glimpse into the sometimes sordid and painful, frequently breathtakingly beautiful, and always moving world of We Animals.
Our Hen House: Tell us about We Animals. What is your mission?
Jo-Anne McArthur: We Animals is an ambitious project which documents, through photography, animals in the human environment. The title is intentionally broad in subject matter, interpretation and implication. The premise of the project is that humans are as much animal as the sentient beings we use for food, clothing, research, experimentation, work, entertainment, slavery and companionship. The goal of the project is to break down the barriers that humans have built which allow us to treat non-human animals as objects and not as sentient beings. My objective has been to photograph our interactions with animals in such a way that the viewer finds new significance in these ordinary, often unnoticed situations of use, abuse and sharing of spaces.
OHH: What was the impetus for We Animals?
JM: I’ve always helped animals; rescuing or adopting them, walking dogs and bottlefeeding kittens at the local shelters, stuff like that. At some point, probably around 2000, I realized I could combine my talent for photography with my love for animals and create a project that helped raise awareness about their plight. I started shooting close to home — circuses, meat markets, etc. — but I always loved to travel, so the reach of the project naturally went further. The project has now gone global and continues to be a growing archive of information about our relationships with animals. One of the first of those photos, pre-We Animals, was of a monkey chained to a windowsill in Ecuador, trained to pick the pockets of passersby. Lots of people stopped to look at and touch the monkey. I took the photos and wanted to show people how wrong it was, how used the monkey was. I wanted all the people who walked by that monkey, day after day, to see him the way I did, as a victim and slave, not as a curiosity or as entertainment. That was in 1998.
OHH: When did you become awakened to animal issues?
JM: When I realized I wasn’t comfortable eating my friends. My mum had 10 chickens in her backyard; they became my companions, I got to know them well. At the time I still ate chicken. I became vegetarian in 2001, then vegan on April 1st, 2003, which was my first day as an intern at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY.
OHH: As Gene Baur so eloquently said, the photos in We Animals “illuminate the best and worst of humanity.” How do you decide what kinds of images to shoot, and what is it like photographing animals in dire situations?
JM: I don’t think I can explain how I decide what kinds of images to shoot. I travel and shoot for campaigns as much as I can. Where there is a need for good photos, or where there is a story about an animal or animals, I’ll try to be there. Once I’m there, it’s long hours, wide lenses and close calls!
When I’m photographing animals in bad situations, I’m there to work, with compassion and determination. I am there to bear witness, to document, to tell the story of these animals. It’s extremely upsetting, being there, but I have to put that aside. Breaking down is not an option. Blowing my cover is not an option. Mind you, I’ve had plenty of tears and stress as a result of being in these places, but I deal with those things later.
OHH: As a photographer specializing in sharing animal stories, you have a unique insight into their behaviors. Has there been anything that has surprised you?
JM: Forgiveness. One of the many Asiatic black bears I’ve met along the way, rescued from the massive bear bile farming industry, had been kept in a small cage for 4 years. When he started producing “lower quality bile,” they further used his body by cutting off his front paw for bear paw soup (a delicacy in SE Asia). The bear was spared his life thanks to rescue efforts of Free the Bears. I met him in his Cambodian refuge and he playfully begged me for pineapple jam, his favourite treat. Hey playfully grabbed at me with his stumps, which were once paws.
OHH: What do you hope people will gain from We Animals?
JM: Awareness. I hope the images draw people in, make them think about animals in a different way. The purpose of the project is to break down the barriers that allow us to mistreat animals…. I want the photos to move people, deeply and irrevocably.
OHH: What are some particularly memorable photos that you’ve taken?
JM: Don’t ask me this! Too many photos! I’d rather mention memorable moments… Long hours across Canada while shooting undercover at zoos for Zoocheck Canada. Longer hours, still, on the mink farm campaign in Sweden, working all night, every night… Same thing with the pig farm investigations and the slaughterhouse visits, and the time I was alone in Laos and I snuck into a bear bile farm and got caught. Or the animals whose photos I didn’t take, such as the young mink who was the runt of the litter and being killed slowly by his siblings… This happens often when they are stressed and in confinement. The kit was being torn to shreds before our very eyes and we couldn’t leave him there screaming and dying. We also couldn’t remove him from the cage, because the mink are accounted for and any missing animals would raise suspicion. So, we decided that the vet who was with us on that investigation would kill the mink as humanely as possible (by breaking its neck) and then put him back in the cage. I’ll never forget it. What a choice for a bunch of activists. I still feel really messed up about that.
OHH: Do you have an all-time favorite photograph that you’ve taken?
JM: There are a few. One illustrates my look at our good intentions towards animals, gone wrong. I was photographing a young boy at a matador school in Spain. He must have been about 6. I asked him why he wanted to become a matador. He answered “Because I love bulls.”
OHH: What has been the best part of your work?
JM: Definitely meeting other activists and sanctuary owners who have become friends and family. Especially when I’ve worked with them many times or on a campaign. There’s a wonderful kinship when I get to connect with other activists and vegans. When I’m in a dark place because of the things I’ve witnessed, I’m not alone; there are so many other people doing this work too, who understand. To name a few: Karol Orzechowski, Susie Coston, Sue Coe, Amber Jade Paarman, Lynne Barrington, Lorena Elke, my friends at Igualdad Animal, the amazing folks who make up the Swedish Animal Rights Alliance, the staff and volunteers at Ape Action Africa, the Bob Barker crew, whom I sailed with in Sea Shepherd’s 2009/2010 Antarctic campaign. I’m beyond lucky to have these inspirational people in my life.
OHH: What has been the most trying or challenging part?
JM: I’m pretty resilient! But I need more hours in a day. WAY MORE HOURS!
Getting Dengue Fever and the ensuing year-long battle with crippling arthritis wasn’t so great, now that I think of it. But in all seriousness, the most trying part, probably for many activists, is staving off the feelings of helplessness when they come knocking. I get overwhelmed with the task at hand (Saving all animals! Creating a more compassionate world!). But I can’t look at all the suffering in the world, all the time, because the weight of it crushes me. I have to concentrate on doing small things… one thing at a time. Big changes start with small steps, and I have to remind myself of that often.