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‘The images are confronting’: Q&A with animal photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur

  • Hidden: Animals in the Anthropocene, published in December 2020, is a photojournalism book that documents the lives and deaths of animals in a human-dominated world.
  • The “hidden” animals of the title are those that we humans use for food, fashion, research and cultural purposes.
  • The book showcases the work of more than 40 photographers, including co-editor Jo-Anne McArthur, working in the burgeoning field of animal photojournalism.
  • Mongabay interviewed McArthur about the creation of the book, the importance of engaging with images of animal suffering, the intersection between animal advocacy and environmentalism, and the growth of animal photojournalism.

On the title page of Hidden: Animals in the Anthropocene is a black-and-white portrait of a lamb. The little animal, probably only a few weeks old, stands alone on the stained concrete floor of a slaughterhouse at a live animal market in China. The lamb gazes forward, its chin lifted, almost like it’s trying to catch the eye of the photographer. Shortly after the image was taken, the young lamb was likely killed for its meat.

In the pages that follow, there are photos of battery hens standing on the dead bodies of their companions in crammed cages in Spain; the heads of slaughtered dogs tossed into a bowl at a market in Cambodia; piles of fish gasping for air after being caught by an industrial trawler off the coast of France. Some of the most confronting pictures are those that show animals in blood-smeared slaughterhouses, wide-eyed as they watch people kill their companions shortly before their turn arrives.

“There’s a lot of wildlife photography out there and photography of companion animals, but [not of] these hidden animals,” Jo-Anne McArthur, co-editor of the book, told Mongabay in an interview. “We’re just like, ‘Oh, well, they’re for our consumption. They’re not worthy of any attention. That’s different.’ But it’s not different.”

McArthur, an award-winning photographer who has spent more than 20 years photographing the human-animal relationship, and who was once diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to the intensity of her work, says the photographs in Hidden follow in the tradition of conflict or war photojournalism. But instead of focusing on humans, the photographs in Hidden put the spotlight on human-driven animal suffering. In 2020, McArthur even coined a term for this kind of work: animal photojournalism.

The title page of Hidden, edited by Jo-Anne McArthur and Keith Wilson. Image by Britta Jaschinski / Hidden / We Animals Media.

McArthur’s previous two books, We Animals and Captive, consisted of her own photography. Hidden, on the other hand, is a mix of more than 40 photographers’ work, including that of Britta Jaschinski, Paul Hilton, Aaron Gekoski, and McArthur herself.

“I’ve been watching what photographers have been shooting about animals in the Anthropocene for many years, and I squirrelled away those images thinking about what I could do with them someday,” she said. “I can’t possibly, as one person, cover everything that I want to cover, and other photographers are doing it very well.”

The photographs in Hidden are presented in 12 chapters, ranging from industrial farming to animal research to dog meat to fashion. Many of the images stretch across a two-page spread. The blurbs for these photos aren’t presented until the end of each chapter, which encourages the reader to fully engage with each image before reading about its background.

The foreword is written by Academy Award-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, and there are also short texts throughout the book by McArthur, co-editor Keith Wilson, and author Martin Rowe.

While the book’s emphasis seems to be animal advocacy, there is a distinct overlap with environmentalism. Photographs of cows packed into factory farms are accompanied by information from the Water Footprint Network that it takes 15,400 liters of water to produce a kilogram of beef (about 1,850 gallons per pound), compared with 322 liters per kilo (39 gallons per pound) of vegetables. In a chapter on animal markets, a photograph of the head of a red-tailed monkey (Cercopithecus ascanius) being sold in a bushmeat market in the Republic of Congo points toward the larger issue of wildlife poaching. In a chapter on fishing, the reader is confronted with a seemingly endless pile of shark fins.

Photographer and Hidden co-editor Jo-Anne McArthur. Image by Lisa MacIntosh.

Incidentally, Hidden was published in December 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing. While McArthur said this timing was a coincidence, she added that the pandemic made it clear how important it was to include chapters that highlighted zoonotic diseases and human-induced climate change.

“[O]ur work extends beyond animal suffering,” McArthur said. “It’s about the lives of animals and how we keep them in such close proximity to one another and in such filth — it’s the reason we are here in a pandemic.”

Besides working as a photographer, McArthur founded We Animals Media (WAM), a photojournalism agency that documents the lives of animals in a world dominated by people, and that bolsters the burgeoning genre of animal photojournalism. WAM also operates a stock collection of more than 10,000 royalty-free photographs that can be easily accessed by journalists and news teams.

Mongabay spoke with McArthur on Sept. 2, the same day her work would be showcased at the Visa pour l’image, an international festival of photojournalism that takes place annually in Perpignan, France.

This interview has been edited for length, clarity and style.

Steel barriers, concrete floors, tiled walls and push-button technology make up the habitat of the modern day dairy herd. Image by Andrew Skowron / Hidden / We Animals Media.

Mongabay: How did you get the idea for your book, Hidden?

Jo-Anne McArthur: I was always into journalism and conflict photography. There was a book by a very famous war photographer named James Nachtwey called Inferno. It was at least 18 years ago that I got my hands on it and looked through it. It was this massive tome of a book that depicted what he had seen over five decades — genocide, famine, all kinds of wars. He documented close-up and personal things that we do to one another. And I love that photographers memorialize these things in books because books have staying power, and photojournalism covers the human condition. But what about the animal condition? When I saw his book, I was thinking, you know, someday I’m going to do a book like this for animals.

Mongabay: Your previous books have been made up solely of your own photography, but Hidden showcases other photographers’ work in addition to your own. Why did you choose to put the book together like this, and what was that collaboration like?  

Jo-Anne McArthur: I’ve been watching what photographers have been shooting about animals in the Anthropocene for many years, and I squirrelled away those images thinking about what I could do with them someday. I can’t possibly, as one person, cover everything that I want to cover, and other photographers are doing it very well. I knew that it would be a stronger book if it was the work of many, and a book that helps to teach the photo community that “animal photojournalism” is a thing. We created a book of it and it’s not just one photographer saying, “Hey, it’s a thing” — it’s 40 photographers.

Mongabay: Who is your envisaged audience for Hidden? 

Jo-Anne McArthur: It’s the general public, but it is also very much people interested in photography. Photographers are very influential people, and we want more of them doing animal photojournalism. So by producing a book that gives the topic so much weight and much more validity, people are going to consider it as a subject worthy of their attention. As we know, there’s a lot of wildlife photography out there and photography of companion animals, but not of these hidden animals. We’re just like, “Oh, well, they’re for our consumption. They’re not worthy of any attention. That’s different.” But it’s not different because those animals are equally sentient, which is what we talk about in the book.

Cycling, crab-eating macaques at an amusement park in Ho Chi Minh City. Image by Aaron Gekoski / HIDDEN / We Animals Media.

Mongabay: How did you choose the photos for the book? 

Jo-Anne McArthur: Just like I knew I couldn’t shoot this book alone, I knew I could not edit it alone. And I wanted to go really big. So I approached the journalist and photo editor Keith Wilson. He had done a book called Photographers Against Wildlife Crime, which I really loved. And I asked him if he would work on this vision with me, and he said absolutely yes he would because nothing of the sort had been done yet. He’s worked on a lot of wildlife photography books and this was something very new to him. He became vegan while making the book because he was enlightened to all these things and felt very passionately about it.

We looked at thousands and thousands of images. One NGO on their own sent in over a thousand images and we have all these other photographers and historic images. So we narrowed down to some of the best images — we were at about 900 images. Keith has been photo editing books for years, so we gave it to him to narrow down from about 900 images to what ended up in the book, which is 204 images. We could have packed the book with more images, but we wanted to give a lot of space to a lot of images, which is why you can have one image spanning two pages.

Mongabay: In the beginning of the book, you invite the reader to look at the suffering of animals and not to turn away. Can you tell me why that’s important?

Jo-Anne McArthur: As we learn more and more about animals, we know that they are not automatons — they are deeply complex, just as we are. They have a wide range of emotions, and not just sad, mad, glad, but they can experience jealousy and anxiety. We have seen chimpanzees go to this one spot every day to watch the sun set. And there are billions of animals suffering at our hands every single moment of every single day. They are as complex, intellectually and emotionally, as our dogs, and as many other animals that we revere in the wild. But these animals are hidden. They are in this category of animals that we don’t care about. But they deserve to be cared about. They do not deserve to be treated completely brutally, as we do. Our main focus is industrial farming because that’s where we have concentrated billions of animals every single day for our consumption.

Thousands of chickens packed into a broiler hall complex. Image by Juho Kerola / HIDDEN / We Animals Media.

Mongabay: You book was published in 2020, the year of COVID-19. Was this timing a coincidence, or did you decide that this was the right time to release Hidden?

Jo-Anne McArthur: It was just a coincidence and very strange for me to be grounded for a year and a half. But it turns out that I really needed that time not only to work intensively on Hidden, but to continue to build my photo agency. And so that’s what I did during the pandemic. If anything, the pandemic illuminated to us just how much we needed to include the issue of zoonotic diseases and catastrophes, so we have chapters for that. Those might have been smaller chapters had we not been going through this current climate crisis and pandemic.

Mongabay: Many of the photos are quite hard to look at — they’re very, very confronting. Do you think there’s a danger of immobilizing your audience into grief?

Jo-Anne McArthur: Absolutely, and to step back a bit, that’s also why these images of brutality — whether it’s humanity or animals — don’t get published. We don’t see these images because they’re just so hard on us and they shut us down. The animal images are especially confronting because the photographers are asking you not only to confront cruelty, but to confront your complicity in that cruelty. People have every excuse, saying, “Oh it’s not me, it’s happening over there.” Or, “You know, I would never hurt an animal, but we’re supposed to eat bacon.” It’s definitely an uphill battle. But we know that seeing is one of the steps in creating a kinder world for animals, so that’s the role of us animal photojournalists. It’s creating proof. It’s bearing witness, which is what our journalists have been doing for a very long time. That helps NGOs, it helps educate people, it helps change campaigns, change laws, it helps galvanize entire nations. We’ve known that since photography began and since conflict journalism began. It’s a chronicle of history.

Just this morning I was looking at the work of the photographers who got into the Tigray region of Ethiopia where there was a media blackout last year because people were being mowed down by the government. And there are so many displaced people now, and it took photographers to get past the media blackout and somehow sneak in there to show the world what is going on with these people. And that helps change things. When things get exposed, things change … that’s the hope, at the very least. So that’s what we do as well as animal photojournalists.

Mongabay: Are you seeing a new generation of animal photojournalists?

Jo-Anne McArthur: Yes. It’s so exciting to go to people’s Instagram pages and to see them call themselves animal photojournalists. That was not a thing a year and a half ago. [Animal photojournalism] makes sense to people, and it makes sense to photo editors as well.

An immobilized pig awaits the administration of an infusion in a jugular catheter at a research facility. Image by Anonymous / HIDDEN / We Animals Media.

Mongabay: Have you had responses from readers who’ve looked at the book and said, “This has changed me”?

Jo-Anne McArthur: Not only do people tell us daily through We Animals Media that the work has changed them, but we know that the work is effective because it’s getting major awards like Book of the Year by Picture of the Year International. We’re getting invited to present here at Perpignan now, for example. So tonight, thousands of people are going to sit in the audience and see a projection of this book. The organizers of this event usually give about three minutes to the book projections, and they’re giving us eight because they feel like it’s a really worthy book. We’re very excited to be bringing animal stories — the animal condition, the human-animal condition — to places like this because this has always been a place that celebrates conflict … and celebrates and supports conflict photography for humanitarian work.

Mongabay: Why is it important to look at the suffering of animals during this time of immense environmental destruction? 

Jo-Anne McArthur: This is where our work extends beyond animal suffering. It’s about the lives of animals and how we keep them in such close proximity to one another and in such filth — it’s the reason we are here in a pandemic. It’s funny how much we’re not talking about that — we’re talking about vaccines, we’re talking about everything around it, but not the fact that using animals continues to create zoonotic diseases. African swine fever, avian flu, Ebola — these are all a result of us using animals. We know that we deforest the Amazon to make room for raising cattle, growing soy that is fed to cattle so we can eat cattle. We know that industrial farming, fur farming and other kinds of farming causes incredible pollution to waterways into the Earth. It’s part of why soil is getting eroded. A lot of the environmental problems come down to animal use. It’s all entwined. So while my mission is to educate and illuminate animal suffering, it’s also about looking at animal use and how it affects the environment, the animals and our health.

This is hidden because of economics. We want cheap meat, and companies want to produce cheap meat and make a lot of money. And I believe that if more people knew about how animals were treated, we wouldn’t be so quick to eat them and to use them as we do. Companies know that, which is why these places are hidden.

Tourists at Khao Kiew Zoo watch an Asian elephant forced to swim underwaterfor performances. Image by Adam Oswell / HIDDEN / We Animals Media.

Mongabay: Do you think there needs to be more compatibility between environmental work and animal rights?

Jo-Anne McArthur: There has been a division because of how animal rights has been typically viewed. It seems to me that environmental campaigners have put animal advocacy very much to the side because it’s very fringe, and I think that they believe, probably rightfully so, that environmentalists can get more of a leg up If they are not associated with animal rights and animal rights activists, which has often been seen as the advocacy of emotional people. Or that animals don’t matter the way the environment matters. And so there has been a very long divide. There have been environmentalists who are animal advocates and perhaps defending wild animals like orangutans and lions, but serving animals at their conferences. It just really doesn’t make sense. But that’s changing. I’m very happy to report that we’re seeing many environmental NGOs now not serving animals, and also suggesting that we shouldn’t be eating animals in the current crisis that our world is in. It’s more apparent than ever that industrial farming is causing incredible environmental damage, so environmentalists are getting on board with that. And I would also say that the animal advocacy world is growing up. It’s not just all about throwing paint on people wearing fur. It’s very strategic now and much more collaborative.

Mongabay: What other positive changes have you seen in the human-animal relationship?

Jo-Anne McArthur: We are seeing immense growth in animal law — there is a thing called animal law now, but there wasn’t a few decades ago. It’s much more common now to have products that aren’t tested on animals as more and more people demand that. We are seeing a lot more policy change. We’re seeing a lot more animal stories in the media. We’re seeing a lot of growth in vegetarianism, reducitarianism and veganism. And also humane education, which is about centering animals, the environment and social responsibility into our daily lives. But we’re still seeing the proliferation of meat. Plant-based food is on the rise, but meat eating is also on the rise, so that’s interesting. Growing economies are eating a lot more meat, and I think that’s actually why there should be more NGOs in those countries focusing on plant-based and curbing meat consumption.

Mongabay: What gives you hope? 

Jo-Anne McArthur: This is a cliche, but it happens to be how I feel: it’s that I believe in the goodness of people and I believe in education. The more people are educated about others and caring for others with passion and empathy and being socially responsible, not just for humans but for all living creatures, I believe that we will make better choices and make kinder choices.

One of our projects is a hopeful project — the Unbound Project. Everywhere I go in the world there are women leading animal advocacy. When I did some research into that just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, sure enough the statistics are that it’s 60 to 80% women leading animal advocacy worldwide. I wanted to create a project that celebrates their pioneering work, because often it’s men in leadership roles. I had Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey to look up to when I was a kid. I saw their incredible adventurous lives. I thought, “Hey, I want to live like that.” And I do have an incredibly adventurous life. I get to be a photojournalist out in the world, trying to do good, change things, educate people. And there are a lot of people doing this inspiring work as well, and so Unbound is a platform to showcase these women, whether you’re running a vegan restaurant or founding a sanctuary or changing laws. So that gives me a lot of hope as well and this is one of my favorite ongoing projects, for sure. It brings levity to my life and it’s a nice balance to all the investigative work.

Across the confines of this crowded pen, dairy cow and photographer lock eyes. Image by Lissy Jayne / HIDDEN / We Animals Media.

Banner image caption: Peering through the gloom of a barn, one of 500 pigs finds a chink of light on a bright summer’s morning. Image by Konrad Lozinski / Hidden.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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