Jo-Anne McArthur has taken countless pictures of animals. But for Jo-Anne, it isn’t just about taking pictures, but is about using images to tell important stories, raise awareness, and put an end to animal suffering.
“With my photographs, I love conveying complex stories about our
relationships with animals. If I take photos of just animals,
it is usually about an animal in a particular situation.” ~ Jo-Anne McArthur
Jo-Anne’s photographs are vivid and compelling, and her work has been acknowledged and praised by experts such as Jane Goodall. Visiting Jo-Anne’s We Animals Web site is an informative, intense experience. In a recent conversation with me (Cindi Saadi) for the FARM blog, Jo-Anne described the helplessness she experiences when photographing animals while undercover. She also shared two indelible memories of experiences with the animals that confirmed in her heart just how vital her work is.
Click your way through her various photo galleries, watch the videos, read her blog posts. Whether you are clicking your way around her Web site or talking with her one on one, it is crystal clear that this is a woman on a life-long mission to help animals across the globe.
FARM: Describe your personal history with animals & your path to becoming vegan.
JO-ANNE: As a child, I took in injured animals and had funerals for animals that died in our neighborhood. I had guinea pigs and birds, and always wanted a dog. When I was 10, I felt so terrible for a huge dog named Duke, who was confined in his backyard year-round, that I voluntarily walked and played with him.
I always had a special fascination with birds. When I was 18, my mom lived in the country and had ten chickens. These chickens became my friends. I got to know their personalities. I knew they liked being inside and being cuddled. In fact, they were always on the patio wanting to come inside.
There were a number of years where I grew increasingly uncomfortable with eating meat, particularly when my mother had the chickens. It was very weird to think of eating my friends. I went vegetarian when I was 20. Then in 2003, I did an internship with Farm Sanctuary. I loved eggs and cheese, but agreed to be vegan for that month. But after that month, I knew I was vegan for life.
FARM: What inspired you to start the We Animals project and how has it evolved?
JO-ANNE: The formative photos for the We Animals idea were taken while traveling in Ecuador in 1998 as a photographer for an ecotourism book on the Amazon basin. I came upon a monkey who was tied to bars on a window. It was a tourist area and the monkey was trained to pick pockets. I began taking photos of the monkey. I wanted to show people how wrong it was for the monkey to be in this horrible situation, exploited and treated so poorly. Then I latched onto the idea of documenting and educating in this way. I never really got into photography for the technical stuff. I was drawn to it out of my love for story-telling.
So I came home and began photographing things nearby, such as petting zoos and circuses. But as I have always loved travel, I realized my desire to help animals and my love of travel could be easily combined. Problems involving animals are international and I could take my camera anywhere.
Initially I went to foreign places and found situations on my own or found an animal rights group for more information. Now animal rights organizations contact me to assist them with a campaign. For example, I have worked with Animal Igualdad (click here to view the English version of their site) and Sea Shepherd. (see below for more on both) I think we need better photographs for animal rights campaigns that really tell the story. Often the activists are taking photos and are not necessarily equipped or trained to get the most effective images.
FARM: Describe some experiences with We Animals that have really had an impact on you?
JO-ANNE: There have been so many. One that stands out was watching a chicken collapse out of fear, stress, and exhaustion when put on a truck for transport to slaughter. I was taking photos as 25,000 broiler chickens were grabbed up, six at a time, and crammed into crates. I watched as they fearfully crowded into the corner of the barn, desperate to avoid their fate.
Out at the truck, I looked into the crates and one particular chicken caught my eye. She was panting furiously and looked like she was going to have a heart attack. Out of sheer exhaustion, she eventually fell forward, right on her face, eyes closed. I watched what she was going through, an incredible amount of violence, and thought… this is all she knows. This is all they know. Looking at her and watching her collapse out of stress and exhaustion, I knew I needed to work for these animals for the rest of my life.
Another remarkable situation was with a rescued bear in Cambodia. Some of the bears are missing limbs as their paws are considered a delicacy and have been cut off. These bears love to be out playing with one another, but there was one bear who preferred to be inside with the people. He reached toward people through the bars, played with balls, and brought balls to the people. I was standing too close to the bars and he pulled me into him, like an embrace. He had missing limbs and so he could not even embrace properly. I could not believe the amount of forgiveness I was seeing in this animal. I thought of how similar we are – we like to play and like to be touched. It reminded me of how great the injustice is and how much I need to tell this bear’s story and help people see how much we have in common.
FARM: When did you work with Sea Shepherd and what was the most challenging part of your work with them?
JO-ANNE: I was on the Sea Shepherd 2009/2010 Antarctic campaign for 2 months. I face the unknown with a lot of glee and a bit of terror. The terror aspects of this adventure were the unknowns of the ocean which can be dangerous, and not knowing how the whaling fleet would react to us this year. I was right to wonder: they ran over and sunk one of our boats (Ady Gil) that season. I knew the Sea Shepherd Antarctic campaigns were dangerous and it was true! I don’t think much about the challenges, though, as I’m usually pretty thrilled to be taking part in this type of work and that trumps all.
FARM: What was the most memorable photo or moment from that campaign?
JO-ANNE: Not sure that I have a most memorable picture, though I love the image of our crew on the bow with waves crashing all around. My wonderful memories are of the dedicated crew members, all of whom I admire so fully. I also loved the storms. The rolling, scary, exciting storms. I was one of the only crew members who didn’t suffer from sea sickness, so I had the luxury of enjoying the storms more than others! I also loved seeing the whales and knowing we were down there for them, to protect them. Seeing their dark strong bodies touched my heart; each and every time they came to the surface I was thankful that Sea Shepherd was there to protect them from one of the many animal exploitation industries that puts money and greed before anything else.
FARM: What project stands out in terms of your work with Animal Igualdad?
JO-ANNE: This organization is also dear to my heart. I follow everything they do and I believe the world is watching them too. They lead by example with their open rescues, which are risky, as they show their faces. I love participating in their open rescues. They are just like the investigations we do, however, there is the bonus of taking some of the animals out of there. During investigations, we just document and get out, leaving all behind. I’ve documented two of their open rescues and at the end of it all, they’ve saved the lives of some beautiful individuals and that is cause for celebration. (see photo below for celebration with a rescued chicken!)
FARM: How do you deal with the despair and with seeing so much suffering?
JO-ANNE: The helplessness I experience when undercover and taking photos of animals in terrible situations is very difficult. I remind myself that there is a lot of pain out there and I am witnessing it in order to make a difference.
For example, when I was taking photographs as rabbits were being slaughtered, it felt awful to not reach out and save them. But it is important to not blow my cover. So you have to disconnect from those feelings and focus on the work.
I balance this by surrounding myself with good things that are happening. Farm Sanctuary is a very healing place for me. I like to go and visit the rescued animals and sometimes even have a good cry! Being with the ones who have been rescued is a happy place.
My office is another happy place, particularly since my birds are there! I also have a circle of women I meet with monthly to do healing practices, honor the Earth, talk about activism, and lift each other up. Connecting with the Earth gives me energy to do more work. That’s my religion. My photography work that is not part of We Animals also helps to balance out the intensity of the work.
FARM: What do you see for the future of We Animals?
JO-ANNE: I primarily see two things happening in the future.
One is to do more photography involving concentrated animal feeding operations since the most animals are suffering and dying in these factory situations.
Secondly, I believe I now have a great archive of stories, photographs, and adventures from all over the world that is an incredible resource for humane education. People of all ages need to see it. It’s one thing to publish it, but it’s another to go to schools. I believe we can all focus more energy on sharing beyond our own groups.
I encourage you to visit Jo-Anne’s Web sites. I promise you will come away changed and inspired. Her love of travel and passion for learning about people, animals, and different cultures has taken her to over 40 countries on all 7 continents. She’s contributed to numerous projects and publications, served as a guest lecturer, and received extensive recognition. In addition to tirelessly working to help animals, she continually seeks ways to contribute to her community and inspire others to follow their passions. Read more about Jo-Anne and find out where you can see more of her work. Visit her Web sites: www.weanimals.org AND www.joannemcarthur.com.
~ Cindi Saadi for the FARM blog