Photographer. Activist. Broccoli Fanatic.
Jo-Anne McArthur is an award-winning photojournalist, author, educator, and animal activist. She is best known for her internationally celebrated archive We Animals, which documents our use and abuse of animals for food, experimentation, work, entertainment, slavery, and companionship. Jo-Anne and her work are also the focal point of the acclaimed documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine by Canadian filmmaker Liz Marshall.
How did you come into this work? Were you a photographer or an activist first?
I was a photographer before I was an activist. And photographers—especially photojournalists—are always trying to find their story. It was as I was carving out a career in photography that I realized I saw animals differently than other people.
There was a time when I was photographing a macaque monkey who was chained up. And other people were photographing the monkey because they thought it was cute, and they thought it was funny. But I was taking a picture because I thought it was cruel, that it was a problem, and that I wanted to show people what I was seeing. That’s when I realized that I really did see animals differently, and that my point of view was important.
That was in '98, so it has been a long time now.
Can you speak to what you see as the role of imagery in the animal rights movement? Why is good photography essential?
You said it when you said the word “good.” We all know why visuals are important. But you said good photography, and that is what has changed within the animal rights movement in the past decade.
To look at animal cruelty is to look at our complicity in that cruelty.
We used to rely on average or even very bad-looking investigative work by people who had a camera but who were not photographers. Most of the photos were shot from the human eye vantage point: pointing down, too far away, not engaging.
This has really changed in the last decade. It’s exciting to see incredible, professional, well-lit, engaging images. So that’s the difference: good photography. And we’re seeing that worldwide now.
What is catalyzing that change?
The animal rights movement is growing up and becoming more professional. Now, we’re using our tools as effectively as we can, and the camera is an important part of that.
People are reluctant to witness suffering. No one wants to admit that they’re participating in such a cruel system. How do you get viewers to engage?
This is the key that we’re all looking for: how do you get people to look and not to turn away? It’s very hard. As you pointed out, to look at animal cruelty is to look at our complicity in that cruelty, which makes this a double-whammy.
I wish that my images could convey the smell of these places.
So, how do you get people to look? You have to meet your audience where they are. Often that means non-aggressive tactics and non-accusatory tactics. It means being helpful instead of condescending, and it means showing the right material.
The images that I shoot are engaging. You might not want to look, because it’s sad subject matter; but you might be attracted to it because it’s an interesting, well-composed image.
How does animal cruelty compare across the globe?
From the poorest to the richest countries, we treat animals as objects for profit. It's systemic, and it's international. These industries have been built to wring the most profit out of each individual.
From China to the US, Sweden, or Argentina, animals are crammed into factory farms. They're raised in extremely small spaces where they can’t even turn around. Sometimes, I specifically try to shoot these stories in the richer countries to show that it happens everywhere.
I wish that my images could convey the smell of these places. There’s so much that we can’t understand from an image alone.
What do you say to folks who ask how we can focus on animal rights when there are so many human rights violations all over the world?
That’s part of the problem. Part of the reason the world has gone to hell is that we prioritize ourselves and our problems over everything—completely abusing animals, the environment, and anyone in our path.
There are so many good reasons to be vegan: the animals, the planet, our health.
But to that I will add that animal rights is not an exclusive club. This cause encompasses human rights and many other causes. Animal rights are labor rights: just look at the working conditions in slaughterhouses and factory farms. Animal rights are women’s rights. Animal rights are environmental rights.
It’s all interconnected. When we see those connections, we can make the world a better place for all.
Can you speak to your current work, The Unbound Project, which hits on that intersection between women's rights and animal rights?
Women have been the major players in the animal rights movement since its inception in both the US and the UK, where the movement really started. Today, women are 60%-80% of the movement. That’s worth highlighting. That’s worth celebrating. And it’s also worth discussing since we all see men at the top of the organizations...why is that?
This is worth trying to understand. For instance, in the 1800s and more recently as well of course, there are examples of organizations founded by women who then felt they had to place a man as the organization's leader in order for it to gain more authority and credibility. Women were seen as "hysterical" and "overly emotional."
The Unbound Project is about that. But really, mostly, it’s a celebration of the fantastic trailblazing that women have done all around the world. We know Gene Baur. We know Wayne Pacelle, but we should know more about the women.
You have a book coming out in April called Captive that looks at animals in zoos and aquaria. Why did you choose this subject matter?
I’m doing Captive because it’s timely, first and foremost. Captive animals in zoos and aquaria do not necessarily pose the most pressing issue—factory farming is a lot more oppressing in terms of sheer numbers—but events like the killing of Harambe the gorilla and the killing of Marius the giraffe have propelled zoo reform and zoo ethics into the mainstream conversation.
With Captive, I’m adding to that conversation by publishing a book that looks at how we see and how we fail to see animals in zoos. The book is being published by Lantern Books, and I’m working with the Born Free Foundation—I shot their EU Zoo Inquiry in 2016. I have over ten years of work documenting animals in zoos on five continents, so it’s a good way to use my archive as well.
At the end of a long day, what’s your favorite meal?
Oh god, I love food.
It’s an opportunity to be creative. It’s an opportunity to eat much better food.
My favorite vegetable is broccoli, so if something can include big piles of broccoli that is fantastic. Let’s say—at the end of a long day—a big bowl of spaghetti with pesto, lots of broccoli, cherry tomatoes, and big chunks of roasted tofu. Oh god, that sounds like heaven. And you know, I would probably take a bunch of spinach, wilt it, and mix that in as well.
And soups are the greatest thing in the world—so easy. Just roast up whatever you have in the fridge with some garlic, and then stick it in a pot with some bouillon. It’s always good. You can’t fail.
What do you wish more people knew about veganism?
That it’s a pleasure.
I had always thought that veganism was extreme. The reason that I went from vegetarian to vegan is that I was going to do an internship at Farm Sanctuary for a month, and they ask you to be vegan out of respect for the animals while you're on the property. My desire to do this internship outweighed my ideas about the extremism of veganism, so I thought I would just go vegan for the month and then go back to vegetarianism.
But after 24 hours of being vegan, I hadn’t harmed anyone: I hadn’t enslaved chickens in barns, and I hadn’t taken baby calves away from their moms so that I could drink milk. I’m saying that metaphorically, but it’s not even that metaphorical. That’s really what we’re doing when we consume these products.
So, after 24 hours of being vegan, I was so at peace, and I realized that that was a path I would continue on forever. It's especially easy in the big cities where many of us live now; we’re not at all deprived. You reshape your plate, and you eat in a much better way. It’s an opportunity to be creative. It’s an opportunity to eat much better food.
There are so many good reasons to be vegan: the animals, the planet, our health. It’s really long past time that we make those decisions.