“When I started photographing animals in the Anthropocene, editors still turned their backs on the subject matter,” Jo-Anne McArthur tells us. “It was near impossible to get these important stories published.”
Over nearly two decades, the photojournalist has documented the lives (and deaths) of unseen animals, including those used for food, fashion, entertainment, medical research, religious sacrifice, and more. She’s traveled to more than sixty countries, investigating the relationship between humankind and the animals we farm, wear, experiment on, and keep in captivity.
These images are often painful, but in recent years, McArthur has noticed a profound shift. With time, fewer people want to turn their backs on this subject. “We’re in the midst of a global rise of engagement in animal journalism, a collective seeing,” she says. “This visibility is creating change for animals.”
Now, she’s helping to foster the next generation of animal activism through We Animals Media, a global agency of photographers, journalists, filmmakers, and more devoted to telling these stories. This year, she also released the We Animals Photography Masterclass–a series of seven courses for photographers and advocates.
Throughout the series, McArthur covers the ins and outs of working with NGOs, finding local stories, and creating pictures that resonate. She encounters suffering at pig vigils and farms, and she finds joy at Farm Sanctuary, a safe-haven for rescued farm animals. She teaches students how to make sure they’re on the ground when and where they need to be–and how to stay safe in the process.
Importantly, she also provides insight into how she copes with the trauma of bearing witness. As she explains, animal activism can sometimes feel like a “revolving door”; people get involved, but if they don’t take care of themselves, they burn out quickly. By sharing her wisdom and encouraging viewers to find and nurture joy, McArthur arms them with the tools they need join the movement and stay in it for the long haul–because the animals need every single person they can get. “The rewards are bigger than the pain you’ll suffer,” she stresses.
“The animal advocacy movement is an exciting and historical place to be,” McArthur tells us. “There’s so much room for innovation and critical thinking. The movement is now full of people changing laws and policy. Things are getting both better and worse, though. For example, meat-eating is on the rise in the global south, but there’s also a rise in vegetarianism. We have our work cut out for us, but there are great initiatives to work with.”
We spoke with McArthur and the We Animals team about this incredible class. Register for the We Animals Masterclass here. You can also purchase it as a gift for someone you know who’s passionate about photography, animals, and our planet. Make a donation to We Animals Media here, so that they can continue uncovering these crucial stories.
Why do you think people avoid or overlook this subject so often, and how can this challenge be overcome?
“This is a question that many thinkers are trying to answer! It makes sense that people don’t want to look at cruelty. It hurts us to see it, because most of us aren’t psychopaths. Our tendency is to avoid hurt.
“Unfortunately, we also want to avert our eyes to problems that we perpetuate, if we feel we are benefiting from the result of that perpetuation. We like meat. We want to wear fur. So asking us to confront cruelty is asking us to confront our complicity in that cruelty, and ‘give up’ things we want. So we need a different way of seeing, and that starts with education, and it starts with building cultures that truly put the welfare of others–all others–on par with our own.”
What would you say to someone who wants to get involved and make a difference but is afraid to take the first step? How did you first conquer that fear?
“People who want to take action are often aware of the big picture scenarios around animal abuse, environmental destruction, human rights. Seeing the big picture, though, can feel overwhelming; as though any tasks one might undertake to curb these big problems will be daunting and perhaps insurmountable.”
“I like to break things down into projects, timeline, days, and just put one foot in front of the other. Progress seems manageable when there are small accomplishments each week.
“Also–and importantly!–everyone has skills of some kind that they can employ to make the world a better place. Whatever one’s interests, we can use those skills and passions in the service of others. It doesn’t have to be front line photography, like I do. We need lawyers, social services, teachers, artists, scientists, to make the world a better place. We can all take part, and we can all start today.”
What’s the one thing you wish someone had told or taught you before you first embarked on the animal rights journey?
“That Rome wasn’t built in a day. That animal justice won’t be achieved as fast as I would like. It’s the sad truth, but we are getting there, and so our actions must take a marathon and not a sprint’s pace. And to be optimistic. There are so many passionate, committed, and compassionate people out there to work with and be buoyed by. Change is happening.”
Why has it been so important for We Animals to be a team and a community? What does having the support of one another mean to you?
“It’s great to have a team because together we can make wiser and more strategic decisions. As a community, we can discuss big picture tactics, which is why we are focusing on building a world-class archive to be launched later in 2020. I think it’s important for us all to have at least a small community of trusted advisors and colleagues.”
What are your predictions for the future of animal rights photojournalism?
“It’s on the rise, and We Animals Media is part of that forward momentum. As an organization, we mentor photographers and filmmakers, and encourage journalists to cover underreported animal stories. It’s a time for us to be innovative in our journalism and outreach, which is also why we’ve built our We Animals Archive, a repository of thousands of images and video clips, available to anyone who needs to illustrate their work with high-quality visuals.”
Did you have a mentor yourself, early on in your career?
“I’ve sought guidance and mentorship from many people, and I’ve also been sustained by the kindness of enthusiasm of teachers. I never did well in school, but some of the teachers like Mr. Bertrand believed that I was smart and could achieve good things if I was supported, and I never forgot that.
“When I wanted to get immersed in the photography world, I sought out people I could work for, volunteer with, like Margaret Williamson, who was the photo editor at Canadian Geographic. She let me hang out, file images, ask questions, and as I slowly proved that I was passionate for the work, she introduced me to other people, some of whom would also become mentors, like Magnum photographer Larry Towell, who has been wonderfully encouraging to me and also a skillful and direct editor.”
If students take one thing away with them from this masterclass, what do you hope it is?
“That there are a lot of things to consider when you want to be an animal photojournalist. It’s not just about getting out there and taking pictures. It’s about the quality of the pictures. And it’s very much about getting the images out into the world once you’ve shot them. “
All images © We Animals Media