Book Review: We Animals, Jo-Anne McArthur (2013)

February 17th, 2014 11:11 am by Kelly Garbato

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“It will change the world, for the better, for us all.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free pdf copy of this book for review.)

“What you see on these pages may surprise or disturb you. My aim is not to turn you away but to draw you in, bring you closer, make you a participant. I want my photographs to be beautiful and evocative as well as truthful and compelling. I hope you’ll take the time not just to look but to see — if only as a mark of respect for the billions of animals whose lives and deaths we don’t notice. To look at this book is to bear witness with me, which means also that we confront cruelty and our complicity in it. As a species, we have to learn new behaviours and attitudes and unlearn the old ones.” (page 9)

Photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur has spent the last decade and a half traveling the world – both on her own and in the company of animal activists – documenting our complicated relationships with nonhuman animals. Relationships that so often boil down to objectification, exploitation, and consumption. If you’ve been involved with animal advocacy for any length of time, no doubt you’re familiar with some of McArthur’s images. She’s photographed open rescues conducted by Animal Equality; documented the affecting actions of Toronto Pig Save; and set sail with the crew of the Sea Shepherd. McArthur bears witness through the lens of her camera, exposing atrocities that many of us would prefer remain invisible.

Recently featured in Liz Marshall’s The Ghosts In Our Machine, We Animals features 100 of McArthur’s photos – some taken for the film, others on behalf of various animal advocacy organizations, and the rest during the artist’s travels. The result is a stunning portfolio that’s as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. From the Calgary Stampede to the Tam Dao Bear Sanctuary in Vietnam, McArthur brings us examples of unimaginable cruelty – and selfless compassion.

She documents the exploitation of nonhuman animals for fashion and entertainment (mink farms in Sweden; greyhound racing in Australia; aquariums in Europe and New York), food (a photo depicting a dumpster full of dead piglets at a factory farm in Spain, followed by a photo dominated by hunks of charred meat at a five-star Kenyan restaurant), and research (the pictures of the now-abandoned Coulston Foundation are among the book’s most haunting) – and then counters these inhumanities with images of mercy. Activists at work, picketing and protesting and providing much-needed care. Nonhuman animals – turkeys and goats and gorillas; refugees, living out their lives in peace on sanctuaries or with their human guardians. Not the way nature intended, but far, far better than the alternative.

Some of the images in this collection will stay with me forever: That of the white minnow, body suspended motionless in a barren tank in Havana, Cuba. (“I told the woman that I thought he was dying. ‘No, she replied. ‘It’s been like that for two years.'”) The dying bull, tortured and slain for the amusement of a Spanish crowd, portrait placed to the right of a photo of a young boy attending bullfighting school. (“I asked him why he wanted to become a matador. ‘Because I love bulls,’ he replied.”) The lone Humboldt penguin, imprisoned in a dilapidated “zoo” located on the seventh floor of Pata Mall in Bangkok, staring forlornly at the filthy, child-sized pool that represents his “habitat.” The chimpanzee restraining jackets, also child-sized and stained with blood and other bodily fluids, found in the rubble of the Coulston Foundation in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Each photo is accompanied by a caption; a few of them are almost painfully brief, but many are more like mini-essays, detailing the indignities both obvious and hidden within the images. The result is a sort of animal rights primer, making We Animals an excellent “sneak attack” gift for non-vegans. While McArthur is herself a vegan and animal activist, We Animals is anything but “preachy”: McArthur both informs and questions the reader, challenging us to reexamine our attitudes and suppositions concerning nonhuman animals. Her photos are filled with unspeakable atrocities, and some are terribly difficult to look at. Yet look we must: “Ron’s inherent dignity, his individuality and the gravity of his gaze are shared by many, if not all, of the animals in this book. […] At the very least, we owe Ron and all the others the respect of meeting their eyes and not turning away.”

But We Animals is so much more than a collection of gruesome images of animal suffering. McArthur’s work is tempered by strength, humility, and beauty. She manages to capture the dignity in these animals – so much more than just cogs in a machine – even as they are incorporated into a very undignified system. While the first three sections of the book are very dire indeed, these images are counterbalanced by the more positive and hopeful pictures included in Part 4, “Mercy.” We Animals documents what is – and explores what might be.

I also appreciate McArthur’s international emphasis and her focus on language. She uses gendered pronouns to describe her subjects – even when their gender is unknown – thus stressing the point that animals are someones rather than somethings. She’s also quick to point out that, just as animal abuse doesn’t just happen “over there,” in foreign countries, the United States and North America do not hold a monopoly on compassion and animal advocacy. On a photograph of a Vietnamese “food puppy,” she observes: “We in the West are conveniently outraged by the selling of dogs or cats for food, forgetting that the choice we make between petting and lavishing affection on one group of creatures, and killing and eating another, is just as arbitrary and cruel.”

For art lovers, McArthur offers copious notes on technique: camera angles, perspective, framing, and the like. Through her commentary, I emerged with a greater appreciate and understanding of the hows and whys behind the photos in We Animals.

An unexpected surprise, Part 5, “Notes from the Field,” is a sort of journal/travelogue/would-be (please be!?) ‘zine recorded while documenting conditions in fur farms, presumably somewhere in Europe. Notes of how best to photograph injuries on differently colored mink coexist with anecdotes about dumpster diving. Of her guests, Arthur writes: “Amazing, gorgeous strong women, tattooed and not. Vegan. Friendly. There is so, so much peace in this house, It makes me teary.” Should that all animals – human and non – find such refuge.

Give it to: your very best vegan friend. Family members who claim to love animals – but still eat them. Students of photography and art aficionados. Basically, everyone you know. I adore this book!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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