“Entering intensive pig farms is an extreme experience,” the Italian photojournalist Francesco Pistilli tells me. “The pervasive sound is that of the animals’ human-like screams. The nauseating smell stays with you for days, despite numerous showers. It is a circle of hell.”
In one such farm, he discovered a shed where piglets, along with their mothers, were kept in cages, the floors covered in worms, razor blades, and testicles. The garbage overflowed with syringes and bottles of antibiotics. The baby pigs had just been castrated without any anesthesia.
Pistilli has been documenting life for animals in factory farms for nearly a decade now, along with activists from the animal charity Essere Animali, who carry out investigations into the (often hidden) meat industry. In 2012, when he first joined forces with the organization, they were a small group known as Nemesi Animale; during this time, these investigations were riskier than ever, as Europe had classified animal activists as eco-terrorists.
Today, Essere Animali is one of the most important organizations of its kind, positioned on the frontlines of the fight for a better future for people and animals. “The relationship we’ve built over the years is one of complete trust and respect,” the photographer says. “The team at Essere Animali has helped me to better understand the animal world and the level of abuse they undergo to get into our supermarkets, as well as the devastating effects the industry has on the environment and the health of the humans who eat these products.”
Over the years, he’s photographed pig farms, broiler chicken plants, turkey farms, veal and dairy farms, warehouses for laying hens, rabbit farms, slaughterhouses, and more. Aside from the stench and the cries of animals, what most of these places have in common is the inescapable darkness. Baby pigs grow up under artificial heat lamps, without ever seeing sunlight.
“If you enter an intensive laying hen farm at night, you will hear a dead silence at first, but the moment you turn on an LED light and shine it down those long corridors, you will see the hens waking up in their overcrowded cages,” Pistilli says. “You will see them starting to eat, noisily and hysterically. For these animals, the vital cycles between day and night are regulated only with artificial light. They will not live a single day in the sunlight.”
Even now, these kinds of investigations carry risks, and animals trapped in the food industry remain some of the least protected by law. “The activists at Essere Animali agree to be photographed, despite those risks, because they know they are disseminating information that is increasingly important to the public,” Pistilli explains. “When dealing with an industry protected by silence, every image and every piece of information is valuable.”
Literal and metaphorical darkness allow these systems to continue, as facilities and farms are often erected in rural areas, outside of public view. “The level of hygiene is so low in these places that it creates the perfect environment for the evolution and expansion of new zoonoses and pandemics,” the photojournalist says, looking back on that hellish night in the pig shed, illuminated only by the orange glow of heat lamps and surrounded by worms, with testicles littering the floor and hung on cage doors.
Amid the current pandemic, this work has only become more urgent. COVID-19 might have originated in animal markets, but the next pandemic could just as easily come from a factory farm. “I hope that with this clearly animal-derived pandemic, people will begin to develop a critical consciousness,” the photographer says. “The problem, however, is that social inequality often leads people with fewer resources to eat meat from large distributors or fast food companies, which is practically poisonous for those who eat it and devastating for the environment. The whole system is sick and perpetuates sickness.”
As long as these stories continue to come to light, however, hope persists. Friendships on the frontlines can last a lifetime, and Pistilli has forged an indelible bond with the advocates at Essere Animali. Together, they hold onto a shared dream; although they won’t be able to help the individual animals they’ve met within these darkened corridors, they can pave the way for the next generation.
“The best contribution people can make is to stop eating meat,” Pistilli tells me. “If the vegetarian or vegan choice is not possible, then an alternative solution could be to not buy and eat meat produced in this way, and that almost always means no longer buying meat from supermarkets.
“I am aware that, as a photographer, I alone will never be able to change the world, but I can certainly inform the public in the most honest way possible. Working on this story for almost a decade now has been a political choice. I’m driven by my desire for a different world–and a different future.”
Follow Francesco Pistilli on Instagram at @francesco.pistilli. If you’d like to learn more about Essere Animali and the vital work they do, visit their website or follow them on Instagram at @essereanimali. You can support their investigations here.
All images and captions © Francesco Pistilli