Bente Jørgensen, a former high school teacher living with her husband Soeren in the village of Tingerup, Denmark, used to spend her days outside with her horses, amid the lush green landscape. This has been her home for more than two decades, but in recent years, the presence of a Vandvaerksgaarden pig farm, an industrial factory farm located 100 meters from her house, has forced her to spend much of her time indoors. The smell coming from the farm makes her eyes red and swollen, and she wears a mask whenever she has to go outside.
For neighbors of the farm in Tingerup, the screams of the pigs keep them up at night. Headaches and diarrhea are common. Dead piglets can be seen dumped in trash bins on the street. In 2018-2019, the photographer and investigator Selene Magnolia teamed up with Greenpeace through Wildlight to document life in Tingerup, along with two other communities located close to factory farms, including the Valle de Odieta Scl dairy farm in Spain and the Gallès SAS egg-laying hen farm in France.
“These three locations are very different: green or arid, colder or warmer, humid or dry landscapes,” Magnolia says. “But they all had in common the extreme discomfort experienced by people living in once-peaceful natural environments that were severely damaged by the factory farming facilities that they have next door. Medical complaints that I documented varied from chronic migraines, eye irritation, sleeping issues, breathing problems, corrosive smell for the throat, constant nausea, or digestive issues.”
Near Caparroso, Spain, sits one of the largest dairy farms in Spain, where calves are separated from their mothers and kept in rows of small containers, barely able to move or turn around. In Lescout, France, a factory farm houses 185,000 hens, far more than the 700 human inhabitants of the village, who worry that the polluted air could cause cancer. “In this community in France, the cancer rate is three times higher than in the rest of the country,” Magnolia explains.
“The farm has been built very close to the village’s primary school. I was shocked to learn that many children consequently fall ill, and often, the smell coming from the farm is so bad that the teachers have to keep the children inside the school. Many parents find themselves forced to move their children to schools farther from home in order to protect their health.”
The photographer stayed for approximately one week in each location, spending as much time with the locals as she could. “One week’s exposure is not enough time to experience the physical symptoms and medical conditions that the locals are experiencing, of course, but I did experience what it feels like to suddenly have to go inside because the wind has changed, and a putrid smell is coming from a nearby farm. I also experienced what it was like to hear pigs screaming while trying to relax in the garden.”
Magnolia has been documenting stories related to animal and human welfare for years, and it’s never gotten easier. “Every time I witness injustice, it hits me just like the first time,” she says. “And I’m grateful for this. I have always been afraid of somehow getting used to it and losing the power that comes from anger or shock, but I haven’t.
“Ending this kind of injustice will require radical change and a shift in our habits to create a more sustainable future. That can mean many things, including a plant-based diet, of course, and I also hope to see our communities care for each other more fully. We need to understand the impact of our daily choices, take responsibility for them, and use that social and political responsibility to change things for the better.”
For these families and individuals living close to factory farms, speaking out about their experiences isn’t easy. “Locals can receive backlash from the farm owners,” the photographer says. “Some people were threatened or assaulted by the farmers because they are openly fighting against the presence of factory farms at their doorsteps. There was some intimidation happening against our team as well, though I cannot imagine giving in to that intimidation and not documenting injustice. We can’t let perpetrators in powerful positions shape the narrative.”
Magnolia was unable to visit the farms themselves due to the hostility between the factory farm owners and the communities affected. She does, however, have experience investigating other factory farms around the world. “The conditions of factory-farmed animals are always horrific,” she says. “Hygienic atrocities and constant suffering are the norms, not the exceptions. In Denmark, where I witnessed dead piglets dumped in trash bins on the street outside of the pig farm, it was not hard to imagine what the conditions inside the farm must be like.”
When they do find the courage to share their stories, locals are often ignored. “Sometimes, they are supported by the mayors, but even then, nobody from upper levels seems to be listening to them,” Magnolia explains. Meanwhile, they continue to suffer. “In Denmark, I witnessed stories of people on long-term medication because of the exposure to the farms,” the photographer adds.
“I met people who were desperate to sell their homes but unable to do so because of the presence of the factory farms. Nobody would buy these homes at a fair price. One lady had to cancel the wedding anniversary she had been dreaming of for years because of the smell and the screams of the pigs. One old man was unable to sleep every night.”
Despite threats of intimidation and the lack of support from higher-ups within their governments, the locals persist in the steadfast hope that someone will listen. “The people I met were very open with us and motivated to share their stories,” the photographer tells me. “And I will always remember my conversation with Bente Jørgensen in Tingerup.
“As she was explaining her former life, her passion for the outdoors, the toxic air, and the consequences that the farm has had on her health, she looked out of the window with dreamy, wistful eyes and started crying. I think after experiencing lockdowns during this current pandemic, we can all understand what it means to be forced into isolation inside our homes. But for Bente and others living near the factory farm in Tingerup, this has been happening for years.”