A team of investigators and photojournalists look for accessible entry points into an industrial pig farm. Windowless rooms with long rows of gestation crates held pregnant sows lying on wet concrete, who could not turn around in their small spaces. © Jo-Anne McArthur / Essere Animali / We Animals Media

When entering a factory farm without permission, the photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur always has her lawyer’s phone number written on her arm. That way, no one can take it away from her. She is never alone. 

She and an experienced team have already researched the property, and they have an exit plan in place. They have backup plans in case that plan goes wrong. They also have someone on the outside who knows what they’re doing and expects them to make contact on the other side. 

“Investigations require lots of planning,” she tells me. “Mitigating risk. Teamwork. Escape routes. Caffeine. And often making use of my runner’s legs.”

Over the years, we’ve interviewed several animal photojournalists from We Animals Media, the pioneering organization McArthur created to amplify these hidden stories. Some of the time, they’re working in locations where cameras are not welcome—whether it’s a lab, a farm, or a slaughterhouse. 

In the United States, for example, we have ag-gag laws, which prohibit and punish journalists and undercover activists for sharing what happens inside factory farms. Animal photojournalists always work within the law whenever possible, but sometimes exposing the truth means working around the rules—and putting themselves on the line. 

When embarking on these risky but vital projects, what steps do photographers take to stay safe? What does it mean to access places that are inaccessible by design? Sometimes, it means entering farms without permission in the dead of night. Other times, it might mean having a cover story that opens doors. 

“I hate that we have to put ourselves at risk to do this work, as all animal industries should be completely transparent to journalists and the public,” McArthur says. “But they are, of course, not—because if they were, many people would revolt.” 

© Jo-Anne McArthur / Essere Animali / We Animals Media

What has been the most difficult story for you to gain access to thus far in your career?

S. Chakrabarti: Because a lot of these industries around animals used for food have many irregularities and unchecked activities, getting access has to be an “in-the-moment decision” after getting a quick understanding of the temperament of the people around. 

I always try and begin by asking questions as a curious passerby, and I never walk into any of these areas with the camera in hand. The camera comes out only once there are some establishing conversations with the vendors or workers. 

Recently, while on assignment to document the shrimp industry in India, I had to present myself as a student doing a survey, as there was no other way to get access to the shrimp processing units. 

There was another assignment about the wet markets in and around Delhi. I wasn’t allowed to enter, as women are not allowed in that space. So I presented myself as someone who is researching the post-COVID impact on the meat industry and asked a lot of questions regarding how the business was hampered because of the lockdowns. 

Andrew Skowron: Each story is difficult—each of them. For each story, I come face to face with the animals—the victims—-and after taking a picture and walking away, they die. Aside from the difficulty of getting inside these spaces, we also have to face the emotions brought on by these places.  

There is no magic wand that opens all doors—that would be too easy. But for me, the most important thing is to do everything I can to show what is on the other side of those doors. The topic of animal rights reportage is a difficult one, and not everyone is able to face it. Doing this work requires flexibility, (sometimes) physical fitness, and a lot of fine-tuned social skills.

Jo-Anne McArthur: I have a lot of wild and risky stories, and the question itself conjures still-crisp memories. Here is a glimpse of what comes to mind. Leaning ladders against tall corrugated fencing to enter a fox farm, a mink farm, and a raccoon dog farm. Adjusting headlamps to point downwards and on the infrared setting so as to diminish our visibility to others. Tip-toeing past a sleeping guard in a narrow hallway in broad daylight to obtain a precious few minutes filming at a bear bile farm before getting caught and swiftly talking my way out. Ankle deep in mink shit in order to get through, in, and then out. Swearing under my breath while trying to focus my lens through caging in difficult lighting and air thick with dust while hundreds of thousands of hens try unsuccessfully to stretch.

An investigator tries to open a door leading to the inside of an industrial pig farm. © Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

What are some of the risks that come with accessing places where journalists aren’t allowed, such as factory farms?

Victoria de Martigny: When trying to document fur farms, one of our team members was tipped off by police that the farm owner had put bear traps on the property to dissuade trespassers. This is an extreme example, but some of the more common risks include guard dogs, electric or barbed wire fences, angry farmers with weapons, injury (physical and psychological), and exposure to disease or parasites. 

The animal agriculture industry is extremely influential and has lobbied governments to create “ag-gag” laws prohibiting filming on farms or exposing animal cruelty, making this work even more dangerous in places where these laws exist. Animal photojournalists risk arrest and prosecution for simply wanting to show the reality of how animals are treated.

How do you stay safe while working on these investigations?

Jo-Anne McArthur: I advise animal photojournalists not to go alone when doing investigative work at farms. And anyone doing this work should be informed of the worst-case scenario financial and psychological consequences if they are caught.

My preference is to work in groups where we establish that we listen to all members of the team equally. If one of us four has the heebiejeebies, for example, we wait, talk it through, or leave. 

Safety means not doing the work if something is amiss; an unanticipated variable should be assessed for danger. Investigations are dangerous, and you want each team member to feel as secure as possible. 

Victoria de Martigny: Staying safe starts by making sure I know what I am getting into—that I understand the plan and the risks before making a decision. Next is making sure I am working with someone I trust. If emerging animal photojournalists can take one piece of advice, it is to never go into a potentially dangerous situation alone. 

You’re dealing with people who can be extremely volatile and who work in a violent industry—they won’t hesitate to inflict that violence on you if they think it’s justified. If I know I may have to trespass, for example, I’ll want to have a lookout—and someone in a vehicle nearby in case we need to make a hasty exit.

It’s also important to be prepared. This goes beyond meticulously planning how to access a location to having a reliable communication system, extra batteries and chargers, water and protein bars, a well-stocked first aid kit, a full tank of gas, and directions to the closest hospital. 

Protective gear is also critical (shoe covers, coveralls, masks, and gloves) because we have a responsibility to protect not only ourselves but the animals we are there to document. We must take biosecurity precautions to ensure we don’t bring in any contaminants with us. Usually, the biosecurity measures that we take are far more extensive than any “protocol” they follow at farms.

Andrew Skowron: I never enter into a physical confrontation with a breeder or farmer. I do not make my beliefs immediately apparent. And sometimes I try to be invisible, appearing and disappearing without a sign of a visit.

As animal photojournalists, are there any other things you keep in mind when navigating these challenges and covering these stories? 

S. Chakrabarti: I feel that it is important to understand that just as we are doing our job by documenting such stories, the workers in these industries are also doing a job. They are the lowest in the rung and work under inhuman conditions to earn a meager amount. Keeping that in mind is important. 

Why is it important to you to tell these difficult stories, despite the risks?

S. Chakrabarti: There is a huge amount of misinformation and a lack of awareness regarding these industries. People believe that cows in dairy farms produce milk all the time and are incapable of giving birth or that chickens in poultry farms lay eggs that will never hatch and so they are sold for consumption. Such a basic lack of knowledge and understanding has to be countered with the work that animal photojournalists do. 

We have commodified living, breathing, sentient beings because that’s how they have been presented—as a product. Nonhuman animals that we farm for food are as capable of feelings and emotions in their own way, as your pet dog or cat is. Why wouldn’t an image of another living being, terrified, bleeding, writhing in pain affect you and make you think again about your food choices?

Victoria de Martigny: I believe that we all have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable among us—and no one is more vulnerable than animals who have virtually no rights and are treated as commodities to be exploited for our taste, fashion, or pleasure. 

I also believe that most people would not choose to hurt animals, yet they make choices every day that result in tremendous harm. If I can share the experiences of the animals and tell their stories, my hope is that I can help people see and understand—and then ultimately make more compassionate choices.

Andrew Skowron: Is it a risk to show the truth? I take risks, but only because I do not agree with the suffering of animals. While working, the consequences are of little importance to me; I do not think about it. The most important thing is action—focus on your work and mission and have in the back of your mind why you are there. 

It doesn’t matter to me if we reveal the truth undercover, behind the scenes, or by breaking the law. Any form of inflicting suffering on an animal must be exposed. When the law allows for inflicting suffering on animals, I will break them as a form of civil disobedience. I do not consent to accept the suffering of animals. 

A team of investigators and photojournalists look for accessible entry points into an industrial pig farm. © Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

Do you have any rules (ethical or practical) that you follow when it comes to gaining access to closed-off or inaccessible places?

S. Chakrabarti: One ethical rule that I try and follow is to not villainize the workers or the local communities whose lives and livelihoods depend on these industries—whether it’s by not showing their faces in the visuals or making sure that the caption has all the details from their perspective as well. 

While getting access to inaccessible places, one practical rule I follow is to never bring out the camera from the get-go. And also using the phone to document some aspects where it becomes clear that taking the camera out might create an issue. And keeping safety in mind, I never share any details about myself that can be traceable like a phone number or a government ID, especially in places that are closed off for photojournalists.  

Victoria de Martigny: Ethically, I never deliberately cause damage to persons or property. Practically—and this is the more difficult one—I almost always have to acknowledge before I go in that I will not be able to save those animals. By the time I share their photos, they will most likely already be dead. 

At one pig farm, we discovered a dying piglet lying alone on a cold concrete floor (sadly, this is not an uncommon sight). I so desperately wanted to scoop him up and bring him to a vet, but I knew that doing so would alert the farmers to our presence and jeopardize the entire project. All I could do was leave him with a gentle touch and a promise to share his story.

We Animals Media is able to do this essential work thanks to support from the public. Please visit their website to see how you can help.

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