Align | In Conversation

Jo-Anne McArthur

Photographer for animals and animal rights activist, CA

January 1st, 2021


Jo-Anne McArthur is a photographer for animals and an animal rights activist. Through her haunting photographs of animals, Ms McArthur makes visible the exploitation and cruelty hidden from our sight. Individuals worldwide are guided out of denial and ignorance and led towards education to empathise, respect and treat animals as sentient beings. Ms McArthur’s accolades include the Wildlife Photographer of the year; the Alfred Fried Peace Award, Australia and the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Italy. Jo-Anne McArthur’s published books include We AnimalsCaptive and Hidden.


Thank you for being a highly empathetic individual and genuinely caring for animals. Though I am not living your life, when you say witnessing cruelty affects you, I can identify with you—because observing pain and trauma becomes part of my DNA. 

I spent 18 or 19 days (in the near past) photographing day and night in Israel and Turkey, focusing on animals’ export-import situations through live (export) transport, which left me feeling emotionally exhausted and unhappy. I was photographing The Bahijah, an Australian ship in Israel, which was coming in after all most two weeks at sea, transporting between 20 to 30 thousand animals, mostly cows and some sheep, on board. We saw three different boats at three different ports dock in Israel. The animals go from sea to trucks. Animals are crowded into those trucks, transporting them straight to slaughter. I had to photograph the same in Turkey.

I am honoured that I got to do this work and appreciate having these opportunities to do this work. But the emotional toll that you are talking about is very, very heavy. After such trips, I am so grateful to be home and have the small pleasures of life, working quietly at my kitchen table and have my tea with soymilk.


What do you aim to tell with the images you capture?

My job [photographing animals] is to create connections with these animals in a beautiful and interesting way. The very point of what I do is to make eye contact with these animals. And of course, they are looking at me, and looking at other people with their eyes full of questions: “What’s next? Where am I going? What are you doing to me?”

My images try to capture what we put these animals through. If we think about animals—if we think about them at all—we might think it’s a pig on a farm, it might even be a beautiful looking farm. Animals go through so much suffering, and a big part of their pain is how they are transported. We don’t know, and we don’t consider looking into those transport trucks; I have been looking into those trucks to see how animals are suffering and to show animals reality to the world.


I heard you say: “I photograph the predicaments animals are in because of humans.” How does photography serve your purpose to show animals as sentient beings?

People refer to me as an animal photographer or a wildlife photographer; I am certainly not that at all. I am a photographer for animals. I take photographs to help animals, which is different than what a lot of other people are doing. For the most part, I don’t do pleasant portraits because the world is saturated with those images.

We know animals are beautiful—their colours, feathers, fur and eyes, they are all beautiful, but those images don’t serve animals very much.

So, my job is different in that I am photographing the construct in which we keep these animals. In most of my images, you will see the background—the barns, the fences, the slaughterhouse, the caging and the filth, all of those things that create these environments in which we keep and kill animals.



What makes you sensitive to animal sufferings? 

I wish I could give you one concrete answer for others to tap into and emulate, as that’s what we are trying to do as empathetic animal advocates.

My earliest recollection is that my parents didn’t discourage me from demonstrating empathy. Our neighbours kept a dog outdoors all through the year, even winters. This dog would bark and cry. And I would go over to the neighbour’s house and ask if I could play with the dog and take it for a walk. Picture a little girl with a huge Shepard-Rottweiler mix. I kept going back because my parents allowed me to express my empathy. And I suspect empathy is stamped out of a lot of kids, thought of as unimportant.

My parents encouragement might be one piece of the puzzle, but living in the countryside with my mother is what led me on the path to working on behalf of animals and veganism. My mother had laying hens that would wander around the property, and were friends with the dogs and the cats, and wanted to come inside just like the dogs. I saw animals had different personalities, and I became very uneasy that these animals were treated so differently by society as a whole.

It took me a while to transition, as chicken was my favourite meal; I would eat it five times a week. And I thought by not eating meat I was going to suffer.

Through the process of turning vegan, I learned that I didn’t feel deprived;

instead, I feel intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually aligned with my beliefs.

In the documentary, The Ghosts in Our Machine, you say: “Leaving is always the hardest thing. Leaving is the reason I am haunted. I am closing the door as I leave this factory farm or the slaughterhouse. I am closing the door and leaving them behind.” What does animal activism cost you on a personal level?

The emotional cost [of being an animal rights activist and educator] is undefinable. A great deal of sadness lives in a black hole inside of me—stories of individuals, traumatic sights and suffering; I don’t know what to do with that, and I can’t put it into words. Therapy helps. What also helps me is reading Buddhist texts on mindfulness, meditation and finding happiness, and not taking part in one’s dramas. Dramas can play out repeatedly in my mind, and I can choose to focus on getting work done, instead of existing in all the sadness.


How would you describe your mental state when you are functioning as both a human being who genuinely empathises with animals as well as an animal photographer capturing stories of animal cruelty?

My empathy is at the forefront but with a strong emotional barrier between what I see right in front of me and what I photograph. I often have just moments to shoot; for instance, when I photograph a moving truck, the truck might stop for 10 seconds. Moreover, I work hard to get things in place to travel around the world, and when I am there, I have to do the best possible job in front of me. I am focused on the photo aspect–composition and lightning — because if I cannot achieve important and poignant images, then I haven’t done the job.

Capturing the truth is definitely at the forefront.


What are the roadblocks and inherent dangers connected to undercover infiltrations?

Undercover infiltrations come with dangers for sure because sometimes I am trespassing. I would say that almost all of my investigative friends have either been jailed or beaten; I have figured that it’s a matter of time before the same happens to me. The dangers of physical violence, significant legal fees and jail time are the price that many of us have to pay for doing what we do [exposing animal cruelty]. There is also the physical danger, for example, I was trying to get images of animals in a transporting truck, and the truck swerved. Moreover, these trucks are massive vehicles that take off quickly and can crush into you instantly.


Is there a difference between animal equality and animal rights?

I can say that there is no respect for animals on earth—animals are exploited for entertainment, food and wildlife. We hunt animals, and we encroach on their territories. We have hierarchies, and we place humans right at the top, which translates into animal suffering and death.

All that we call rights and liberations is about learning that animals deserve a place just like we humans. Animals have rights inherently. We have a long way to go before we understand that [inherent animal rights], and once we realise that, my hope is we will give animals space and respect they need, which means no violence and no suffering.


Can you explain cognitive dissonance in the context of animal cruelty?

Most people if asked, “Do you like animals?” will claim to love animals, but this love does not translate to respect or empathy for animals or to taking action to ensure that the other animals whom “we love” have a decent life. And so, we do all sorts of questionable things to be near to the “animals we love.” An example of this behaviour is our actions towards dolphins with smiling faces (whom a lot of us love); we enslave them to swim in the dolphin industry or aquariums—because we feel we have the right to see dolphins or swim with them. So we take this admiration or love that we have, and we entirely bastardise it for us to benefit. And all the while we are incarcerating animals.

I visited a bullfighting school many years ago, with a group called Animal Equality. There were a lot of young boys training to be bullfighters, and I asked one of them: “Why do you want to be a bullfighter?” And he replied: “Because I love bulls.” This attitude shows cognitive dissonance instilled at a young age—a child is taught that he can love a bull, but he can also horribly slaughter a bull.



Would it be accurate to state that the inherent nature of animal cruelty is designed for profit and that our conditioning feeds right into that destructive cycle of exploitation?

You said it [animal cruelty designed for profit] better than I could.


Do children get desensitised when exposed to various forms of animal confinement and degrading, like dolphins in small enclosures, chimpanzees in zoos, elephants in circuses and donkeys used as entertainment?

Yes. Children believe that degrading and confinement of animals is the norm. Not every child is insensitive; as a child, I would go to a zoo and feel bad for the animals. As you know, for my book, Captive, I went to zoos and spent hundreds and hundreds of hours; I heard children commenting on being sad watching animals go back and forth in their enclosures; children also observed animals looking sad. But when we go to see animals on display, we are not going to think critically or to be clear, to use our minds about these things—we are going there only because we want to be entertained. And so, when people ask the hard questions—what makes the inevitable observations questionable, the parents will say: “Yeah, but let’s keep walking; let’s go get some ice cream.”

Whether it’s at zoos or circus or rodeos, we may find some objection with what we see, but because everyone participates, we figure it must be okay. And we have seen that with genocide, and we have different examples of slavery—when an act is regarded as the norm, it continues. That is why we need the protestors; we need people speaking out because they will get the ball rolling and be the change, and this is something we see right now. It’s an exciting time in history now to be part of the animal rights movement. So much is changing from science to lab-grown meats to veganism to laws.


Do children have the power to say no to participating in animal cruelty (as food, entertainment and amusement)?

Even though many children may want to eat fewer animals or no animals, their parents are often not open to listening to them and insist their children eat animals. Children don’t influence their parents, so, unfortunately, it’s usually only later in life that children choose not to eat animals, and by that point, they might have changed their minds.

Kids are genuinely empathetic, and when you tell them that the bacon you are eating was a pig, it affects them. But that’s not usually the information we give children.


How is your We Animals Humane Education Program tailored to educate children on animals as feeling beings and what role does photography play in children’s understanding of animals?

All of our talks are age-appropriate—we can get into the harsh realities of factory farming for the older groups while ensuring not to traumatise younger students through the imagery. Sometimes the conversations introduce children to individual animals: this chicken’s name is Jolene or this pig named Juliet was rescued from factory farming. We educate children on factory farming, focusing on the individuality and quirks of the animal.

We want children to realise that these animals [chickens and pigs] are just like dogs and cats, and that we know and love that calves have complex emotions.


Is there a common thread in the nature of questions children ask you?

During my talks with young children, they would comment: “What can I do? I am just a kid.” So, I make sure to address this concern: we all can make the world a better place for animals. Children don’t have the finances, and neither do they cook in the house. So I offer children some choices: “When your family goes on vacation, you can choose not to take part in entertainment that involves animals, and you can ask your parents to visit a sanctuary instead of a zoo.” I also educate children on trying Meatless Mondays and speaking to friends about being kind to all animals. These tools for children make them feel empowered.

The point of these conversations is to widen our circle of compassion to include all animals. I want kids to feel empowered to act kindly and speak up. I also give children examples of different skills they can use in various jobs they will come to pursue, from neuroscientists to lawyers to make the world a better place for a lot of animals.


What is the reality of cows depicted as happy on product packaging? And what is veal farming?

I am glad you asked me this [dairy and veal farming] because I am very passionate about cows, and to shed light on the dairy industry is crucial.

We don’t realize that it’s incorrect when we say: “I am a vegetarian, and I am not killing any animals.” A lot of people who consume dairy will be appalled entirely by veal farming where calves are taken away from their mothers, put in crates, and killed.

The fact is the veal industry exists because the dairy industry exists.


When people reduce meat and animal consumption, they often start with bigger animals like cattle, pigs, and then maybe chicken. But if people change their animal consumption from the perspective of reducing animal suffering, they would start from the animals that suffer the most—laying hens and dairy cows.

Most people usually assume that cows continually lactate; people don’t realise that cows are constantly re-impregnated and their babies are taken away for slaughter so we can drink the milk. I want people to understand cows’ suffering, especially female animals, who are kept in cramped conditions and eventually killed. Cows have a lifespan of 30 years, but dairy cows are killed by the time they are around four years old; it’s awful.


Taking into consideration water consumption and carbon emissions, how destructive is the footprint of animal agriculture? And can a supporter of animal agriculture be a friend of the environment?

It is a contradiction to eat factory-farmed animals and be an environmentalist.

Until now, animal agriculture has been left out of the environmental movement, which is an absolute shame; and I think this has happened because we are addicted to eating animals. Factory farming causes much destruction from the methane produced by cows to the damage of land, and deforestation, affecting climate change. It’s a significant oversight. I hope it will change and continue to improve.


Which fields of research and vivisection typically use animals, and what types of animals?

In the name of research—from finding cures for cancer to testing cosmetics—we sacrifice animals. Research and vivisection are conducted on a broad range of animals, mice to chickens to chimpanzees (who are being phased out). Research is still performed on animals from monkeys to rabbits, to fish and fish embryos; they run the gamut of research.


What are some practices involved in animal testing?

Stress testing—to study flight or fight response—is a big part of animal testing. Also, during emotional and behavioural testing, animals are kept away from their family and community members, in small cages. The “enrichment” provided to animals is substandard and in an entirely unnatural environment, whether they are mice or monkeys; animals have no quality of life.



Does cruelty—from captivity and isolation—disfigure animals emotionally and psychologically?

We can’t ask the animals what they are feeling, but we can see and understand the visible signs of the cruelty to which animals are subjected—swaying back and forth, self-injury and self-mutilation.

We do a great deal of harm to animals because we don’t share a common language. If pigs could speak in our language, and if monkeys or mice could tell us how they feel, we would not disregard their interests so easily.


Your photographs of animals have the potential to impact humans profoundly. Why does mainstream media hesitate to publish such images?

Mainstream media might perceive that they would lose their audience credibility because not many people think it’s an important issue at this point. And they [media] could also lose funding—it’s probably hard to put out an anti-dairy story when you are being funded in parts by the dairy industry. There are many barriers, but that is changing. The Guardian, for example, has a vast series called “Animal Farmed,” which looks at welfare and sentient problems. It feels good to see that change in the media industry.


How do you deal with rejection, especially knowing you are contributing works of significance to society?

Rejection used to be incredibly frustrating; now, I am not only used to it, but I also deal with rejection by finding other homes for my work. So my response to not being published is to create the We Animals Archive, which has over 10,000 photographs and videos available for free to anyone helping animals.

We put up the archive over a year ago, and we have had over a thousand requests. These images of animals are used from as far away as South Sudan to New Zealand. And we know our endeavour is highly successful as we get requests for photos every day, and they are quick to be utilised by animal advocates of all kinds, worldwide.


How did you arrive at your books, Captive and We Animals?

My book, Captive, was timely—the subject of ethics of animals kept in captivity is in focus right now, and I wanted to contribute to the conversation. During the same time, I had been commissioned by the Born Free Foundation to visit a cross-section of zoos across Europe. So I had adequate material to create Captive.

We Animals is a visual book with lots of photographs from countries all over the world. I saw that no one had created a book of this nature—looking at the individual in the system that we have designed—and created a book that raises topics from research to farming.


How do you get yourself to part with moments that are intimate between the animals and you?

These poignant moments—where the animal is engaging with me thus looking into my eyes, looking into my lens, and looking into the audience—are precisely what I strive to capture so that I can get them out into the world.


Do specific humans qualities foster respect and kindness towards all animal beings?

Most of us are born with these finer qualities [respect and kindness], but they are often not cultivated. And though we have the ability, it’s not a priority to lead kind and empathetic lives—people are busy, hungry, or don’t have money. When poverty, stress and violence dominate, we over concentrate on making ends meet and getting through our day-to-day life, whether that’s in Toronto or rural Uganda.


Who and what contributes to your continuing evolution?

I continue [being a photographer for animals] because I see how my work affects other people and how they change every day. My team and I have to reply to an overwhelming number of requests for images, mentorships, and interviews as people are now interested in learning about animals as sentient beings. And it’s so incredibly important to me that it keeps me going forward, knowing there is a growing audience. My work has influence and now is certainly not the time to stop.


How has turning vegan influenced the way you interact with the world?

Being a vegan is kinder to others, but it’s also kinder to myself. I chose to be a vegan as my way of living happily in the world and interacting kindly. And knowing what I know, I would have felt like a hypocrite had I continued to eat animals.

I feel much more peaceful by not eating animals;

I am living in alignment with my philosophy of kindness in the world.

Learn more about Jo-Anne McArthur.