Polar bear in captivity, Toronto Zoo, Canada, 2005
Most people don’t see animals the way Jo-Anne McArthur does. Be they lab rats, meat for the slaughter or wild animals trained to perform tricks for an audience, they are, in her eyes, victims of our “common disregard for non-human animals.”
An award-winning photojournalist and activist, McArthur has dedicated her career to making others see things the way she does, documenting abuse and aggravating for change. Her work, she has said, does aim to shock and disturb her audience, but it also strives to do something deeper: “to break down the mental and physical barriers we’ve built that allow us to treat our fellow creatures as objects and not as sentient beings.”
“We Animals,” McArthur’s first book, compiles 100 of her most striking photographs, along with the stories behind them. She shared some of her reflections, along with a collection of her work (below) with Salon. This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
The book is a culmination of over a decade of work photographing animals, across many countries and industries. When you originally set out to do this work, did you have a specific goal you were trying to achieve?
I’m not much of a goal-setter, but what I have is an insatiable curiosity and that has propelled the We Animals project since I conceived of it in about 1998. I was in Ecuador in the summer of that year and I noticed a macaque monkey tied to a window sill; he could neither get in or out of the barred window, and passersby were taking photos of him because they found this cute and entertaining. I took photos because I was appalled and wanted others to see what I saw. You could say the project began around that time; I knew that the way I saw our treatment of animals was important, and I wanted to share that point of view.
How do some of the norms surrounding how we treat animals differ across cultures?
There are certainly differences from place to place but for the most part I’m trying to show the similarities, and the similarities are our common disregard for non-human animals. I’m also trying to show how pervasive factory farming has become, and that it looks the same from Canada to Australia to Spain and Cameroon. Often when people see my photos from factory farms, they’re outraged and want to know where the farm is, who the farmer is. They believe that if that location is outed, it’ll be shut down. An interesting reaction to these images is that people think that what they’re seeing is so horrific that it must be illegal, and can be shut down on that basis. The truth is that the confinement we see in these farms is not only legal but, more than ever, standard global practice. This is why we can eat billions upon billions of them each year.
Sure, there are differences and a classic example is that dogs and cats are eaten in Asia. We see this issue in We Animals, but the book flows in such a way that we can’t point our fingers at one continent or country and say “They are doing something bad over there, not here;” the book looks at how involved we all are in the uses and abuses of animals. Hopefully, after someone’s gone through the whole book, they’ll see that the treatment of all animals needs to change, be it the dogs in Vietnam or the broiler chickens in Australia.
Your photos range from factory farms to animals trained to do tricks to fish kept in bowls without any stimulation. Do you draw any kind of line between different types of exploitation, or see some as particularly worse than others?
Some abuse of animals is much more calculated, where every step is taken to maximize the amount of profit we can ring from their lives, such as in factory farming. Fish who are thoughtlessly kept alone in tiny bowls — that’s no good either, but the intent is often ignorant or benign. There’s a gallery in the We Animals archive called “Good Intentions,” about how we use animals for our own edification but in reality the bottom line is profit, not learning. I think that zoos get away with this a lot under their advertising around being wholly about educating us and making conservationists out of us. My take on zoos is that, though we may momentarily be moved by these others, these non-humans, we don’t walk away after staring at them for 30 seconds with a determination to save their natural habitat or help them in any meaningful way; we walk away with the subconscious lesson that they are ours, for our use, for our entertainment.
I’m curious as to whether you consider yourself to be more of an activist or an artist?
I’m an activist. The camera’s my tool for creating change and I try to use it skillfully. I do love the artistry, and that’s why I got into it in the first place, but my motives have changed since I first started shooting.
The problem with calling myself an activist and not an objective photojournalist is that a lot of media outlets aren’t interested in publishing “activist” work. But that’s a whole other story, one I’m learning about and working through.
Do you ever intervene on behalf of animals, or do you only document what you see?
I document activists who intervene in the form of open rescues. There have been other instances as well. For example, I’ve documented investigations where veterinarians who were also on site as part of the investigation had to humanely euthanize an animal who was suffering greatly, such as a half-dead mink kit who was being cannibalized by his siblings, which happens often with the fur-bearing animals trapped in cages. They’re so stressed that they tear each other apart. You can see this in some of the pages of We Animals; mink missing ears and parts of their necks, or their tails. They go crazy in those cages.
It’s hard leaving all the animals behind. It’s the worst part of my work.
How often is your work conducted undercover?
More now than it used to be. I started with the animal work in a sort of “street photography” way, but now I work more often in an investigative capacity. Actually I’d really like to get back to that; shooting the ways we use animals all around us, exposing things that have become invisible. I have a photo of a woman carrying a taxidermied deer head while talking on her cell phone in Manhattan. Animal use is so deeply entrenched in our lives, we don’t even notice half the time.
Is there a picture in the book that you found especially hard to take, or to look at now?
Not so much a picture but a situation. Having to leave behind the animals in factory farms is heartbreaking. Watching animals get slaughtered by the hundreds or thousands, knowing that I could help one of those individuals but that I don’t, knowing that they are all going to their deaths unwillingly and by force. I document these animals close up and sometimes we’re looking into each other’s eyes as they go. Seeing some of the photos in the book takes me back to those moments, which aren’t moments I care to dwell in.
Ron, who is the chimpanzee on the cover of the book, and whose story is told in the last pages of the book, has a special spot in my heart. It’s not because I spent any great amount of time with him; it’s that I did meet him, and witnessed his dignity, a dignity that he maintained despite living in a 5x5x7 cage for about 30 years while being relentlessly tested on. He passed away in 2011 at a sanctuary called Save the Chimps in Florida. The book is dedicated to him. He carried the burden of “progress,” and animals by the billions carry the burden of we humans every day.
What would you say are some of the biggest issues surrounding animal rights that are currently going unseen?
Corporate interests and the government are trying to muzzle the movement and no one speaks better to this issue than Will Potter, who wrote Green Is the New Red. The U.S. implemented the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006, and “ag-gag” laws are trying to make it illegal to take photos on any farming property or do anything that would compromise the ability of a company to make money. Industry is scared of what activists are exposing, but what does this tell us? The AETA is law in the U.S., and we have to make sure this sort of extreme bullying and corruption doesn’t spread farther afield. However, cruelty issues continue to be exposed and if anything, implementing draconian laws that muzzle freedom of speech in this way will only, eventually, fuel public outcry and curiosity. Even mainstream magazines are publishing huge stories about undercover work and animal cruelty. Animal activism is in the mainstream now; I’m looking forward to the tipping point where things start changing for the better for animals in a really drastic way.
The book ends on a hopeful note, featuring some of the good work happening in animal conservation. When it comes to animal rights, would you say humanity is moving, in general, in the right direction?
That’s sort of a trick question because things are getting better and worse at the same time. Fur farms are moving east to where there are fewer welfare standards for animals, and animals continue to be bred for fur in higher numbers. It’s discouraging. And yet it’s the rising economies such as China and India who are the big consumers of these products now. Laws are improving, slowly, for animals, mostly in Europe. People are eating less meat in North America and there are now more great, healthy and tasty options than ever before. People are learning and caring about animal welfare more than ever in some countries, while things get worse in others. It’s a bit of a chase, but, more and more people are learning, caring and acting. I have faith that this will continue. It has to. And I’m working with a lot of amazing folk around the globe to make sure we keep in the right direction.
Polar bear in captivity, Toronto Zoo, Canada, 2005
Fox fur farm, Sweden, 2010
San Sebastián de Los Reyes, Spain, 2010
Chatuchak weekend market, Bangkok, Thailand, 2011
The Vientiane Xin Ling monkey farm, near Vientiane, Laos, 2011
Monkey restraining jacket, The Coulston Foundation, Alamogordo, New Mexico, 2008
Organic dairy farm, near Madrid, Spain, 2010
Pig going to slaughter, Toronto, Canada, 2012
Rabbit slaughter, Spain, 2010
Appolinaire Mdohoudou and Pikin, Ape Action Africa, Cameroon, 2009
New York City, 2005
Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email email@example.com.More Lindsay Abrams.
Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"
One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.
Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"
In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.
Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"
Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.
Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"
We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?
Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"
On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).
Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"
Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.
Tad and Loreen, "The Return"
The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.
Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"
Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.
Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"
While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.
Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"
As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”
Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"
Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?
Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"
Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.
Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"
There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.