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Making the Unseen Seen: A Conversation with Photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur

by the PZI Team

September 12, 2023

For more than 20 years, Canadian photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur has been using the power of photography to illuminate our complex and conflicting relationships with animals around the globe.

Jo-Anne has won numerous awards and accolades for her work, which is regularly featured in mainstream publications. She has also published several books.

In 2019, she launched We Animals Media, an organization dedicated to bringing visibility to animals through compelling photojournalism.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

PZI: Recently, your photojournalism (and that of several fellow We Animals Media photographers) was featured in Animal Markets and Zoonotic Disease in the United States, a new report by Harvard Law School and New York University. You’ve been on the ground in more than 60 countries, documenting conditions like those outlined in the report. Did anything in the report surprise you?

JM: It’s an exciting time to be working on animal stories.

For a long time, these stories were ignored and overlooked as irrelevant, especially journalism focusing on farmed animals and other animals we exploit. We are culturally attached, and that is to say emotionally attached, to animal use, and for a long time no one has wanted to hear about the problems arising from this use.

That’s changing, as is evident by the mainstream publication of the Harvard report, and the increasing attention to the animal photojournalism we produce at We Animals Media.

I’ve been documenting the insides of factory farms, transport trucks, fur farms, and places of exploitation and entertainment for 20 years. But the numbers are still staggering.

That we have sanctioned the kind of confinement that doesn’t allow for wings to spread or for legs to walk for billions of animals is still incomprehensible to me, though I face it daily in my work.

I think it feels that way because I face these animals as individuals, and each one of them is suffering in many ways and each of them deserves to have that suffering alleviated. So when I multiply those individuals, it takes my breath away.

I say this while my dog rests nearby. He’s incapacitated by advanced dementia and now requires full-time, attentive care.

The Harvard report was released first by the New York Times. On the heels of its release one of their star reporters, Nicholas Kristof, wrote an op-ed about the horrors of industrial pig farming.

He was a pig farmer himself and relayed that we have learned that pigs are as smart as dogs, but he feels that they often seemed to him more like humans.

I agree. I’ve met lots of pigs: in the confinement of gestation crates, where they can only sit up and sit down, not move backwards or forwards, or turn around. And I’ve spent months with pigs at sanctuaries. All animals deserve the care we afford animals who live at sanctuaries.

PZI: The report focused on the pandemic risk posed by animal industries in the US. The juxtaposition of the text and We Animals Media photos illustrates an even deeper relationship—between the unjust treatment of animals and the consequences to humans. In many ways that juxtaposition highlights the link between justice and health for humans and other-than-human animals.

How do you perceive those connections?

JM: There’s a growing understanding of animal behavior and sentience.

Ethologists are still few and far between but their work is incredibly valuable with regards to how we’re going to treat animals in the present and future: they provide much-needed research and evidence that farmed animals and other animals we keep in close confinement are suffering.

It’s a shame we need scientific proof, as anyone who spends time with or observes animals can see that they have a will and can experience emotions. However, we do need that proof of complex sentience so that we can use that as reasoning for not inflicting suffering, which industrial farming does.

We need to stop exploiting animals—not just for their wellbeing, but also because the acts of exploitation harm us, too.

Whether it’s a worker on a kill line, or someone who is undocumented and having to work at a horrifically low wage on farms, or loading transport trucks with animals, we know that animal exploitation also leads to human exploitation.

And we can also see that animal exploitation causes massive pollution, which harms humans too, especially those living near these facilities.

Animal advocacy should never be in its own bubble; there is much overlap with the systemic oppression of people, and with human health risks from working with and eating industrially farmed animals.

PZI: What changes have you seen in people who see your work and the work of those on your team? What future changes do you hope to see resulting from your work?

JM: It’s rewarding to work in this milieu because we continue to receive an enormous response to the investigative work and the stories we put out into the world.

At many levels, our work is useful, and that’s fundamentally what photojournalism aims to be.

Our images improve the quality of campaigns globally. Our work is used in legal cases and to support legislative change. It helps close down farms that have legal infractions. It inspires people to eat fewer or no animal products.

Increasingly, the work is reaching mainstream media and winning awards in major photo and film competitions that once purposely excluded captive and exploited animals.

We are seeing a growing acceptance globally that animal stories are relevant and even necessary.

I have been documenting animal stories for about two decades, and the feedback on the work has never ceased, be it from individuals who were moved to change when they saw the work, or from NGOs who affirm that We Animals Media is an invaluable and unique resource.

We’re doing our best to work with media, campaigners, and academics to make all animals visible, and to normalize that visibility.

PZI: Recently, there have been legislative attempts to limit journalist access, including to places featured in your work. Can you speak about that?

JM: In the US and Canada we are seeing more ag-gag laws (agricultural-gag laws) passed or proposed in states, provinces, and even federally to prevent journalists, whistleblowers, workers, and the public from creating any form of documentation at farms, or from reporting to outsiders what goes on in farms.

This wastes time and resources for advocates and journalists, but it also gives us an opportunity to blast out questions to farms—and the media of course—about what exactly the farms are trying to hide. Ag-gag is a bad look for industry!

These laws are eventually overturned because they are unconstitutional, but in the short term they limit some of the work we can safely do.

For example, I could face significant fines for lifting my camera to a transport truck if I am standing within a few meters.

Journalists and activists can face incarceration. These laws have a chilling effect on journalism, and every journalist should take note: an attack on one area of press freedom is an attack on all press freedoms.

PZI: Tell us a little about any current projects you’re working on that highlight the connections between human and nonhuman rights, health, and wellbeing.

JM: One of our long-term projects that did that best was The Unbound Project. Here, we featured almost two hundred women who work as advocates for animals.

Many work for human and animal health. Some advocate for animals through athleticism, others through the authorship of texts about the human toll on the kill floor.

Additionally, we have ongoing investigative work with our photographers and NGOs, and we tend to talk about the connections after the fact, which gives us some protection during its production.

Each month we add more animal photojournalism to our stock platform for media, campaigners, academics, and advocates to use. We have over 22,000 images and videos available, and I believe that this is one of the most beneficial ways as photographers that we can support animals: make their lives visible.

While we are committed to focusing on animal lives and sentience, our work increasingly overlaps with the lives and health of people and the planet.

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