“Being very close to a dead body is a disturbing sight: twisted, bloody body parts; the stench, and the buzzing of flies in high summer,” the Berlin-based documentary photographer Timo Stammberger tells me. For years, he’s documented the conditions of animals farmed for food, and his latest project took him behind-the-scenes at breeding and fattening facilities, where “animal body waste” containers hold the corpses of pigs, cows, and chickens who’ve died before ever reaching a slaughterhouse.
These waste containers are regular fixtures of breeding and fattening facilities; once the bodies or body parts are loaded and locked inside, they are picked up on the other side by people from a rendering plant. “While documenting these dead animals, I often hear noises of the remaining, living animals in the sheds nearby,” Stammberger says. “I then wonder if they can smell their dead friends. These are gentle beings, fluffy fur and feathers, surrounded by cold stone and metal, turned into trash.”
The causes of death vary. “Many mother sows die from prolapse–a condition that causes a sow’s rectum, vagina, or uterus to collapse,” the photographer explains. “Chickens have respiratory diseases, bacterial infections, and heart failures. Baby calves suffer from infectious respiratory and digestive diseases.
“While many of these initial injuries or diseases themselves are not fatal, it’s just not economically sustainable to call a vet for a sick baby cow that, in the eyes of the industry, is worth almost nothing. In the case of dying calves, it is mainly the male calves of the dairy lines that are not cared for or are cared for poorly. For a female calf, the veterinarian is more likely to be called.
“Other possible causes of death can be congenital diseases or killing–intentional or unintentional, such as fatal injuries during unloading of day-old chicks. Overbreeding of animals also leads to many health problems for the animals, and ‘select breeds’–that is, cows that produce lots of milk, laying hens that produce many eggs, broiler chickens that gain excessive weight in just a few weeks, or mother sows that produce a lot of piglets–also have health issues.
“In Germany, animal welfare regulation specifies that the cause of death of animals must be recorded. But that’s not always the case, or else it’s hard to find out.” These fatalities are seen as “collateral damage,” and in most cases, the numbers are staggering. In Germany alone, 45 million of the 900 million broiler chickens bred annually die before reaching slaughter, resulting in a mortality rate of 5%.
Stammberger first became familiar with these “animal body waste” containers when covering other stories at these facilities, and he found many of them after learning to recognize them while studying satellite images. Depending on the facility, they might sit openly on the premises or lie tucked away somewhere around the periphery. Some will contain one large body at a time, and others will be filled with corpses. Most look like small houses or sheds, with doors that close and lock, and are situated on publicly accessible land.
“The doors are always closed, and I opened some of them,” Stammberger tells me. “Sometimes, the doors are unlocked, or a key is hidden nearby so the rendering plant people can access the bodies. I see these dead animal containers as symbolic manifestations of our relationship with farmed animals: the animal industry is a sealed-off parallel world made of metal and concrete–purely functional. The containers are gateways between that concealed interior and the public exterior.”
While alive, these animals were kept out of public view; after they were killed, they entered the sunlight for a single brief moment before being taken away once more. These facilities operate in the shadows, and they have a financial interest in keeping their operations under wraps, so the photographer kept a low profile to avoid potential confrontations.
“Some of the sliding doors were quite rusty, so they made a loud noise when opened,” he remembers. “Whenever that happened, my time started ticking, and I was under some pressure, trying not to get noticed. Two times, just as I finished photographing and went back into hiding, a car came rushing around the corner.”
Still, there were some sights he chose not to photograph. “Some of the scenes involving these dead bodies were particularly cruel,” Stammberger says. “They made me wonder what must have happened to these animals and how that individual felt in his or her last moment of life. Some things I cannot put on display anywhere, so in a way, I needed to censor my work when selecting the final images.”
He has that in common with generations of war photographers who’ve grappled with publicly sharing moments of graphic violence. Of the images that made the final selection, some are more difficult than others, but he’ll exhibit those in a smaller format, so that people will have to step closer to see what’s happening. While these stories are painful, they can pave the way for a better future.
“As long as there are people out there fighting for those who are not being taken into account, there can be hope,” Stammberger says. Despite the brutality of what he saw, the photographer says the atmosphere surrounding these containers was generally calm and quiet, save for the occasional whir of agricultural machinery or the sounds coming from the animals still suffering behind closed doors.
“Every time, it occurred to me that the lifeless beings in front of me wanted to live just as much as I do,” he tells me. “But they died due to living an unnatural life for our benefit, deprived of their most basic needs. While facing the morbid scene in front of me, I often noticed that just behind me was a beautiful, open summer landscape. It’s a setting I believe the animals would have enjoyed–and one that remained forever out of their reach.”
See all of the series Untitled here. You can follow Stammberger’s work on Instagram at @timostammberger.
All images © Timo Stammberger