On Saturday October 17th, Belgian vegan organisation BE Vegan organised and evening with Canadian photographer Jo-Anne McArthur. In the vegan or animal rights community, Jo-Anne McArthur is well known for her work on the project We Animals, which resulted in a book with the same title. We Animals is a series of portraits of animals in the human environment: animals used for food production, clothing, experiments and companionship. We Animals is not just meant to be a series of portraits, there’s also a moral message. Taken from the We Animals website:
We Animals aims to break down the barriers that humans have built which allow us to treat non-human animals as objects and not as beings with moral significance. The objective is to photograph our interactions with animals in such a way that the viewer finds new significance in these ordinary, often unnoticed situations of use, abuse and sharing of spaces.
The photos are meant to make us question what is normal, and show it from the perspective of the animal.
Some of her photos were also featured in the exhibit ‘Het Vergeten Dier‘ (the forgotten animal), which I saw in Amsterdam (Netherlands) in 2013 (see the post on my Dutch blog here). This exhibit was also in in Bruges (Belgium) in 2015 (see my impressions from Bruges here). And a lot of her photos could also be seen at an exhibition dedicated to her work during Belgium’s first Vegan festival in Gentbrugge a couple of weeks ago (Vegan Summer Fest, see my review here).
Jo-Anne McArthur’s life and photos are featured in the 2013 docu The Ghosts in our Machine. The docu illuminates the lives of individual animals living within and rescued from “the machine” of our modern world. The animals who otherwise remain invisible, who most humans only know through the products which they consume or buy.
It was an interesting evening. With lots of touching stories and images of the many individuals who Jo-Anne has come across in her years as a photographer. Ranging from dolphins to bears, from dogs to chickens, fish to alligators, rabbits to chimpansees, gorillas to insects. Those last ones are our most constant companions, but the most invisible in our society. No gruesome, bloody slaughterhouse photos as often do the round in animal rights advocay, but portraits that capture their individuality and portray them as who they are: each and every one an individual thinking and sentient being.
Jo-Anne McArthur underlined the importance and power of images in the making of history, showing some images that are in our collective memory. She told stories of resuce operations and her undercover work in animal agriculture or animal zoos. She also elaborated on the many ways in which you can put words into action: adopt, don’t shop, volunteer, take political action, stop eating animals, protest with humor, participate in direct action, support sanctuaries instead of zoos and aquaria, are just a few of the examples she gave.
On outreach at a Turkish wedding
It was a full house that evening in Ghent, and I think everyone was impressed by the beautiful – albeit often sad – portraits and stories. I noticed familiar faces in the audience, and had also seen on the registration form of the event on FB that a lot of people were in one way or another linked to vegan/AR advocay. So I guess a lot of people already knew her work, or at least were aware of the animal suffering and abuse that accompanies the situations in the photos. I wonder how her speech would be received by a more ‘unknowing’ or unfavourable, or maybe even hostile – audience. People who are not involved in animal rights or vegan activism, like for example people from the ecological movement or an audience of ‘average’ meat eaters. Or even, an audience comprised of those participating in animal experiments, animal agriculture or the exploitation of animals for human entertainment.
During the presentation, we could hear Turkish music coming from the hall next door, as there was a big wedding party going on. I pondered how interesting it might be to replace animal advocates in our room with party goers from next door. What would they see in the photos? What questions would they ask her? Do these images make them see the animals as individuals, and not as mere objects at their mercy? What message would they take home?
Part of me left with the feeling that they should have been the ones hearing and seeing her presentation, not us ‘insiders’. But how do you reach them?
Finding the balance
This brings me to another point. As Jo-Anne McArthur said herself, images are a powerful tool in unveiling what is happening to the ‘invisible’ animals in our machine. The fact that the animal industry is trying at all cost to prevent undercover images from being made and distributed (cf. the ag-gag laws in the US) underlines the importance these images have for animal advocay. The importance such footage can even have in getting people to align their beliefs (I love animals) in accordance with their behaviour (I don’t eat wear or use animal products). So being able to make the images in animal factories, zoos, and laboratories is an important first step, but getting them out there is even more important. Spreading them. Getting them covered in media. To reach as much people as possible to see these images, to listen to the stories.
What I find paradoxical is that the last couple of years, there have been a growing number of vegan or AR community groups on social media enforcing a ‘no graphic images policy’ (or even no images that suggest animal abuse or even make them think about it – which is for example the reason one group even found this photo too suggestive and not according to the policy). The reason often being: we already know what’s happening with the animals, we don’t need to see it anymore. But not everybody does, as some people come to veganism (vegan groups) from an environmental or health perspective and are rather ignorant about the animal rights issues involved.
I agree that a cascade of horrible animal abuse photos tips the balance in the wrong direction and can drive people away, or can be too hurtful or stressful to witness (I admit I too have hidden or deleted people who post one photo after another of bloody, injured or trapped animals). At this point however, I feel the balance is often pending in the other direction, with animals and their lives now also being made invisible in vegan groups themselves. Make them visible, don’t hide them, seems a message we should take head of, now more than ever.
It was an inspirational evening. One of the most important messages to take in from all this (although not explicitly mentioned) was visible on the flag of the organisation next to the speaker’s platform: Be vegan. Don’t participate in the exploitation and use of animals. So these photos can be archived in history books as portaits of a long gone era when humans used to disregard the rights of other animals.
We Animals, Jo-Anne McArthur
Organised by BE Vegan, October 17, 2015.
Artcube, Ghent, Belgium
Be Vegan: http://bevegan.be/
Je kan deze blog ook in het Nederlands lezen op mijn andere blog Veggieleven, hier.