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"Animal advocacy needs the camera": an interview with Jo-Anne McArthur, founder of WeAnimals

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

Stable Planet Alliance recently launched "Earthlings Gallery," featuring the work of passionate women photographers "working to protect biodiversity, wildlife, domesticated species, and the ecosystems which support us all during and beyond the Anthropocene."

Jo-Anne McArthur, our featured artist for August/September 2022, is photojournalist, author and animal rights advocate from Toronto, Canada, founder of WeAnimals Media and Unbound Project.

This interview explores Jo-Anne's unique relationship and affinity for animals. Her photographs for We Animals Media, of animals in captivity and in sanctuaries, awaken compassion and activism. A champion of women advocates and vegan entrepreneurs, her poignant portraits of changemakers for the Unbound Project illuminates their unflagging efforts to transform the human mindset on animal rights. --Kathleen Sweeney

What compelled you to begin taking photographs of animals in captivity and how did this manifest as your first foray into animal advocacy? How has the experience impacted your dietary and consumer choices?

Photojournalism is anthropocentric, and while I adore the genre and its role in social change, I live with a deep concern for the other animals of this planet and found very few spaces within the genre that found their stories acceptable. Animal photography is usually wildlife photography, conservation work, portraiture, or humor.

Animal advocacy needs the camera. Animal photojournalism and activists with cameras are often the only visual line into the systemic abuse of animals. As I entered my photography career and advocacy, I saw I could combine my passions in a way that helped animals, and advocacy.

People often take photos of animals in captivity, say in a zoo or a circus, because they want to show that they saw an exotic animal. It’s really often just a photo of our own experiences in the world. Or a nice portrait of a captive animal shows that we have some technical savvy, but many animal portraits ultimately don’t reveal much about the life, the self, or the living experience, of the animal. Animal photojournalism attempts to do that.

Prior to my animal advocacy, I had become a vegetarian because I had had the chance to get to know some chickens. I saw their funny, unique, curious personalities and realized that eating them would be like eating one of my companion animals (dogs, cats). I became vegan after undertaking an internship at Farm Sanctuary, where one must be vegan for the internship duration out of respect for the animals. I had thought that it would be difficult, but after 24 hours of being vegan, I knew I would not go back, as I felt intellectually and morally aligned with how I wanted to live in the world – that is, living with doing as little harm as possible. That was almost twenty years ago. And of course, the more I investigated and documented animal abuse, the more my resolve strengthened to never participate in or support all of these unnecessary and inherently cruel animal industries.

How do you mitigate visual trauma by repeated unflinching photographic confrontation with industrial, scientific, and entertainment abuse of animals?

With practice. Therapy. Boundaries. Self-care; knowing what you need to recover. And fun. You don’t get used to the cruelty, but you get used to compartmentalizing it. The trick is to do it in a healthy way, one that won’t make you emotionally and physically ill. I live alongside the pain of the world, and try not to live in it every day. But it also motivates me to work hard to do my part to help end suffering.

Several of the photographs of animals documented in sanctuary and captivity demonstrate startling visual insight into their intelligence with ‘direct address’ gazes. What is your process in connecting so compellingly with these sentient beings? Are the photographs the result of remarkable moments of serendipity discovered after the fact, or is the connection clear at the moment you click the shutter?

The connection is often my primary goal. To get it, you need to spend as much time as you can, which can be hard during an investigation that sometimes needs to be undertaken quickly. In those cases, it’s important to behave in a calm manner so that the animals aren’t alarmed, or might even get a sense that you are not like the other humans coming through (who might be rough, might move them, might only give food, or an injection, or take away offspring), which will, in turn, make the animals feel a bit more calm and curious. My goal is to show the individual within the confines in which they are kept. The confines and constructs are important: they show how animals live and die at our hands, and what the common consumer has implicitly agreed to: confinement, deprivation, and violence, for instance.

The Unbound Project website features portraits of and contributions by compassionate women at the forefront of animal advocacy. The website states that “animal advocacy is continually evolving, growing, and challenging the status quo.” What are some trends you are currently witnessing that give you hope for human evolution, and why do you think women are often at the forefront?

Attempts to advocate for animals became visible to the public, and up for discussion and debate, with tactics like public protest. We had fewer tools in our toolbox then. Now, the movement has diversified because we use a variety of routes to get closer to our goals of animal emancipation, or animal equality. We use the law and the media. We change policies, we open sanctuaries, we protest with our voices, our bodies, and the written word. We use science, data, and art to illuminate, deconstruct, and inspire. It’s an exciting time to be contributing to animal rights!

You have taken some stunning photographs of meat and fish grown in a laboratory which startle the eye with the beauty of composition. Once you realize the origin of the food, and the sci-fi potential of this project, the uncanny sets in. Does this kind of science offer positive outcomes for animals? Should we be wary?

I’m no expert on the discussions about whether we should be wary. I do think it’s expensive right now, but the goal is eventual price parity, and if we can use fewer resources and save billions of animals, I’m thrilled that we’re headed in this direction. I don’t think it’s the only solution of course, but it’s one we should be building right now, as humans want to eat flesh despite the inherent cruelty, pollution, and effects of industrial farming on climate change. It seems to me that eating simple and plant-based whole foods is a cheaper route, but I don’t think we can get enough people leaving meat off their plates fast enough for us to just rely on that solution.

It was really exciting to be photographing in the labs where cell-based flesh is grown. I’ll also mention the companies that are creating plant-based meats with mushrooms and other exciting ingredients. The Better Meat Company, JUST, Miyoko’s Creamery, and Beyond Meat are but a few examples of the changing landscape and diversity of delicious food.

What is the greatest piece of wisdom you have gleaned from delving into the worlds of animal-human interactions witnessed through the lens?

Like us, other sentient beings have a will and a desire to live with autonomy, and so it behooves us to respect that and let them enjoy their lives without the interference of captivity, violence, and death. I have been closely attentive to animals for decades. When it comes to the desire for safety, joy, and living free from suffering, a dog is a pig, is a chicken, is a rat, is an elephant, is a human.

Jo-Anne McArthur is an award-winning photojournalist, sought-after speaker, photo editor, and the founder of We Animals Media. She has visited over sixty countries to document our complex relationship with animals, and is the author of three books: We Animals (2014), Captive (2017), and HIDDEN: Animals in the Anthropocene (2020). Featured in Liz Marshall's acclaimed documentary, The Ghosts in Our Machine, Jo-Anne's photographs have received accolades from Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Nature Photographer of the Year, Big Picture, AEFONA, Picture of the Year International, the Global Peace Award, and others. She hails from Toronto, Canada.

Kathleen Sweeney, Communications Consultant for Stable Planet Alliance and multimedia storyteller, teaches courses on creativity and social change activism as Assistant Professor of Media Studies at The New School, New York. Cited in Gannet News, The New Yorker and on radio, she has published creative non-fiction and photography in The Nation, Indiewire, Afterimage, academic publications and literary magazines. Multimedia projects have been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council for the Arts, and Ford Foundation. She is the author of Maiden USA and The Book of Awe: Meditations on Creative Resilience (forthcoming, 2023) .

All photos ©Jo-Anne McArthur, WeAnimals

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