Real Life Hero Jo-Anne McArthur Wields a Camera, Not a Cape
By Nell Alk
Award-winning photojournalist and animal advocate Jo-Anne McArthur doesn’t shy away from the everyday. By that I mean the routine events going on behind closed doors, every second of every minute of every hour of every day.
No, not high security prisons…at least not prisons for people. Indeed, the 36-year-old dynamo — who, despite her haunting professional path, has an infectious smile and an inviting twinkle in her eye — documents, as she says, “the predicaments that animals are in because of humans.” (It’s a miracle she’s so cheerful!)
Not everything — or, more accurately, everyone — she photographs is out of sight and out of mind, however. Sure, she sneaks into factory farms at night (a practice she picked up in 2008) and has stealthily crept into fur farms at dawn (one notable operation conducted for the forthcoming film The Ghosts In Our Machine). But, beyond the far removed and remote, McArthur also snaps pictures of animals out in the open, on display as it were: occupants at zoos and aquariums, circus performers and more.
With her work, McArthur takes an alternative tack to ticketholders. She reveals the reality lurking beneath the entertainment, exposing a previously positive pastime for what it really is: a life sentence behind bars (figurative at least, if not also literal) in an unnatural environment — abused and betrayed, confined and forgotten.
The lion’s experience, the dolphin’s experience, the elephant’s experience…none are as they appear to the typical spectator. McArthur lifts the blindfold, so to speak, that the majority of humankind readily dons. Her images convey the war that’s being waged against essentially all species under people’s presumed command — for fashion, for food, for amusement, for consumer goods and so on. Through her poignant portrayals she zeros in on the ubiquitous, elevating what’s hidden in plain sight — from county fairs to butcher shops (the front for a severely secretive industry) — to a status of recognition and, ideally, respect. In a sense, she turns the lens on us.
What do we discover in ourselves when we fix our gaze on her subjects? What do these scenarios — these predicaments — say about us? And what can and will we do about it? As she puts it, “once we see, we can’t unsee.” What comes after awareness?
McArthur — born in Ottawa and based in Toronto — has been an animal lover since she was young. But, about ten years ago, while volunteering with Farm Sanctuary, a light bulb lit up in her head. She went from vegetarian to vegan and got to work on We Animals, what can now be described as a comprehensive photography project — an internationally renowned archive — comprising work she’s done all over the world.
Though you may or may not recognize the name, McArthur has collaborated with over 100 nonprofit organizations (think Sea Shepherd and Animals Asia) and her photos have appeared in over 100 campaigns on behalf of animals. While she spends four to six months of the year traveling — clicking away at a rodeo or an oil spill, a livestock auction or a bullfight — not a day goes by that she isn’t working on We Animals, which in December will be condensed into a 192-page hardcover book.
In addition to keeping busy with this, McArthur is also the center of an award-winning cinematic documentary made by auteur film- maker Liz Marshall, also from Toronto. A critical film, The Ghosts In Our Machine has garnered and continues to garner rave reviews and accolades from critics and animal rights movement mavens alike. Indiewire deemed it a “must see,” and even the celebrity set has chimed in, supplying ample praise for Ghosts. Actor James Cromwell commented, “This is a masterful film. It should be essential viewing for everyone.”
Ghosts, which premiered in April at Hot Docs, raises several questions in its 92 minutes. Namely: “Are non-human animals property to be owned and used, or are they sentient beings deserving of rights?” No predictable talking heads or incomprehensible facts, figures and stats. Instead, it’s a heartfelt film that is equal parts uplifting and harrowing, with some tough sequences to stomach, but also idyllic sequences, which remind watchers of their capacity for kindness.
Ghosts is a compelling — and aesthetically arresting — vehicle for communicating this vision. There’s no telling to what degree hearts and minds may evolve upon exiting the theater, but no one walks away unmoved.
While there’s so much more that could be said about these brave women and their respective contributions to both art and activism, McArthur actually sat down with me in New York not too long ago. She opened up about what she does, why she does it and how she hopes this commitment will nudge, if not catapult, people to take notice and make a change.
BFM: First and foremost, can you expand on the following Ghosts quote?
Jo-Anne: There are a lot of animal photographers taking pictures of animals. Beautiful pictures. Their goal is to document the animal, not the state of the animal. Sometimes it’s a story about penguins, like ‘Aren’t penguins amazing?’ I don’t do those stories. That’s not helping the animal. It inspires feelings of comfort and satisfies a curiosity. It doesn’t make us think about our role in their lives. I want us to think about how we’re affecting them.
BFM: At root, why do you do this?
Jo-Anne: Because those are my skills, and because I love animals. I’m using the skills I have to make the world a better place for ani- mals. You have to do something. It’s like my rent for being on this planet. I’ve always felt empathy towards animals, even when I was a kid. My photography and my love for animals just came together. I’m living my truth.
I help animals because not many people are helping animals. When people ask, ‘Why do you help animals instead of humans?’, aside from the speciesist issues around that, you can throw this amazing stat back: of all the charity work in the world, 95% helps humans and 5% helps the environment and animals combined. ‘Why aren’t you helping the environment? Why aren’t you helping animals?’
BFM: You refer to yourself as a war photographer. Can you elaborate on that?
Jo-Anne: It’s not to pump myself up or aggrandize anything. It’s to make people think. ‘What do you mean you’re a war photographer? You photograph animals.’ I let them put the ideas together, think about animals in a different way and realize there’s a war, an invisible war, on animals.
BFM: Hence the fitting title of the doc. How did Ghosts come about?
Jo-Anne: It has been incubating for Liz for a long time. Liz and I met through Lorena, Liz’s life partner, who is a strong animal advocate. She inspired Liz to make her next feature about the animal question. Liz had been following my work for a few years and asked me if I’d be the central human subject.
BFM: What’s reception been like so far?
Jo-Anne: There’s so much enthusiasm. At Hot Docs, which had 208 films, we were a Top Ten Audience Favourite. The film is get- ting, on average, four out of five stars. People love it, because it’s not a heavy-hitting animal rights message. It’s a gentle, and also a dramatic, film. It’s balanced. And it has a mellow protagonist that people seem to like. [Laughs]
BFM: Anything you would compare it to?
Jo-Anne: My own work. Liz and I have similar messaging. If you read captions to photos and stories I posted several years ago, I’m a lot more directive. I’m directing people how to feel. I’m describ- ing things as “cruel gestation crate” and things like that. But, I’ve learned to let the photos do that heavy lifting. Viewers don’t need my words to direct them how to feel. So, I’ve stepped back. If you give people credit, they will be more receptive. They will appreciate that. Liz does this in her work as well.
BFM: Speaking of your work, can you talk a bit about We Animals?
Jo-Anne: We Animals is an archive of animal rights photography. It’s becoming an historical archive. That’s what I want it to be in the future; this foundational body of work of what was and no longer is. That’s my dream.
BFM: The “future” can’t come soon enough. And you’re currently working on turning this ambitious decade-long endeavor into a book.
Jo-Anne: Making photo books is a dream of every photographer, and it was for me too. But, I put that on the backburner when I realized I could work with campaigns and be far more effective. Martin Rowe of Lantern Books has long been interested in We Animals and recently proposed we crowdfund and make it happen. I thought it would be impossible to raise that amount of money, because it’s super expensive to do a photo book. We agreed on an Indiegogo goal of $32,500, yet I never thought we could possibly attain that. But, we did, in 11 days. People are really excited about it.
BFM: So, why We Animals as a title?
Jo-Anne: We are all animals. Human animals forget that. We see ourselves as above — running and owning the ecosystem — rather than as part. But, that’s destructive. It’s not sustainable. So, We Animals reminds us.
BFM: So too does Farm Sanctuary, which features prominently inGhosts. Is that your favorite place on Earth?
Jo-Anne: It’s my home away from home. It’s great for people to know how important sanctuaries are. Not just for the rescued animals but for humans as well. Not only can humans go and learn, but also activists can go and recover and feel some peace.
BFM: I understand you were perfectly content as a vegetarian before volunteering roughly a decade ago with Farm Sanctuary, which requires volunteers be vegan out of respect for the animals. How did this expectation shift your perspective?
Jo-Anne: Day one of being vegan, a weight lifted off my shoulders. I was surprised. I thought it would be a hassle. But, on the contrary, I felt spiritually and emotionally liberated, and that I was living in line with my beliefs and not abusing anyone. I thought veganism was extreme, but I quickly learned that eating animals is extreme.
BFM: Can you elaborate?
Jo-Anne: Eating animals is extreme, because it’s unnecessary, be- cause it’s cruel, because these animals lead horrible lives, in fear, and they die tragic deaths. They always die fighting to live. No animals are surrendering their lives so we can eat them.
There’s a really fantastic slogan by Edgar’s Mission Farm Sanctuary in Australia that sums it up for me: “If we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others…why wouldn’t we?” So, if I can just not eat stupid steak and have all the other food that I can have, then I’m not causing any harm to anyone. That isn’t extreme at all.
BFM: How do you speak about veganism?
Jo-Anne: I don’t speak about it much. That’s a choice, after years of experience. I encourage people to consider animals in their daily lives: what they’re buying, seeing, consuming. Just be aware. Once you start becoming aware, you start seeing, and you can’t start un- seeing. It opens the floodgates.
BFM: Once you see you can’t unsee…
Jo-Anne: Once you open up your mind and heart to animal issues, you start seeing the issues are everywhere. They’re not just at the supermarket. They are walking past you in the form of a mink coat. It’s what’s tested on animals. All of a sudden you can’t buy the same toothpaste you bought before. You start noticing animal products and animal use are everywhere. And that’s great. It’s great to open your heart and mind to that. You see exactly how big the problem is.
BFM: What about people who just don’t “get” it?
Jo-Anne: I don’t worry about that. I can’t get angry. My energy is precious. I can’t go around trying to convince individuals. My work is to chip away at industry. My work is to make things visible. I’m trying to make people think, but I’m not going to expend energy worrying about them.
BFM: You chip away at industry by documenting animal exploitation. What would you say is the most difficult aspect of your work?
Jo-Anne: That I’m not helping the individuals I’m photographing. I’m not liberating them. It’s very hard to leave them. It’s so difficult.
BFM: Is there a specific scenario you find most upsetting to face?
Jo-Anne: Seeing living animals in trashcans. We always look in dumpsters. There’s always a dumpster or a dead pile at the end of a property. We always look and we always film. Sometimes there are living animals in there.
BFM: You have a responsibility to record what’s happening, but how do you behave in these situations? Like discovering a living animal in a dumpster or on a dead pile?
Jo-Anne: I’m just the photographer. I’ll be part of the rescue team, but it’s up to the rescuers whether they’re going to help an animal. They often do. You want to consider each individual. Every situation is different. Sometimes they take the animals and sometimes they don’t. It’s heart wrenching.
BFM: I can imagine. So, how do you navigate this literal and figurative landscape in America, especially given the advent of ag-gag legislation?
Jo-Anne: I don’t do investigative work in the US — I’m doing everything above board — because the laws are strict and because of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. The consequences for getting caught are much more severe than in most other countries. So, I do other things in this country. There’s still a lot to document.
BFM: In the film you discuss suffering from PTSD. How did this manifest?
Jo-Anne: The PTSD manifested over time. I’m a happy person. All of a sudden I realized, ‘Wow, I’ve been progressively less happy.’
I would wake up and the first thing I would think of would be a pig in a gestation crate or a pile of dead animals. No one should wake up thinking about those things. I realized to what extent I was traumatized by the things I had seen. Everyone has a limit. I needed to not be doing investigative work as much. I don’t need to be in the field all the time.
BFM: What’s been the biggest challenge surrounding this career choice?
Jo-Anne: Getting my work into the mainstream. My theory on why it’s so hard to get published is that animal issues are personal for every single one of us. Everyone is eating animals, wearing animals. To confront animal rights is to confront yourself and change your own ways. So, for an editor to run a story, they aren’t only thinking about their audience and advertisers. He or she needs to confront themselves as well.
BFM: What do you deem the greatest reward of what you do?
Jo-Anne: Knowing the work is affecting people. People give me positive feedback every single day. If I was doing this and no one was seeing it, that would be really hard. I’d have to switch gears. But, more and more people are seeing it. So, how could I not be happy and feed off that energy? That energy moves me forward.
BFM: Are you able to grasp the impact of what you do?
Jo-Anne: I know it’s important work. This is important work right now, because it’s changing people right now. And it’s historical, as I said, because I hope we will one day look back on the atrocities I photograph as a part of history, the way other wars have been a part of history.
BFM: Significant as it is, given the inherent challenges, emotional and otherwise, how do you muster the strength to keep going? To keep repeatedly looking evil in the eye?
Jo-Anne: I keep going, because it’s my goal in life. It’s what I love. It’s what I care most about. How could I give it up when there are billions of individuals suffering and I have this skill I can use? I must keep doing this work. It’s so important. How could I ever stop?
Please assist in spreading The Ghosts In Our Machine message. Consider contributing to an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release this fall in the U.S., which will reach the widest possible audience. Help put this film on the map, bring it above the radar and create a tipping point. All U.S. donations are tax deductible. Donate and download details here. Thank you. FOR THE GHOSTS.