The Ghosts in Our Machine

That is the title of a documentary a friend invited me to watch with her back in August.  The film follows photographer Jo-Anne McArthur for a year as she travels the globe documenting animals in a variety of different places, from fur farms to animal sanctuaries.  It was filmed as she was working on her first published book entitled, We Animals.  Her photographs are stunning and they tell a tremendous story.  The devotion to her subjects – animals – is not limited to just showing the cute, cuddly and happy ones either.  She documents animals as they are being trucked to slaughter, animals sitting bored in a zoo or aquarium and animals cowering in the corner of a cage, injured and frightened after being captured in the wild and waiting to be shipped to North American labs for experimentation.

Early on in the film we see Jo-Anne meeting with what I assume are publishing editors from Redux Pictures (their names and titles are not indicated).  Redux Pictures is a photo agency based in New York who meet with Jo-Anne as she discusses her activism and photography.  As Jo-Anne explains in the film, her photographs reach far more people when they are in conjunction with a campaign, such as a fur farm location she shot in Sweden, where several hundred thousand people saw her photos because they accompanied a campaign highlighting the cruelty and neglect that animals in the fur trade endure. The three people sitting at the table at the Redux office are openly responsive to her work and I would say quite stunned by her photographs, as anyone would be.

When one of the people at the table sees a photo of a monkey in a cage looking down at the emaciated corpse of another monkey sharing the same space, he flat-out says, “That…that’s disturbing.” The photos continue.  Another person at the table pipes up and says, “You see the conflict here…these images are so difficult. Consumer magazines are not going to publish them.”  While everyone at the table agrees her photos should be published because they are not only important but obviously have “social impact”, one of them flat-out says, “The less graphic it is…I mean, this is still a PG-13 society.”  In other words, they won’t publish her work. But at least they do tell Jo-Anne that, “All three of us will try to get your stuff out there.” (In the acknowledgements page of We Animals, there is a thank you to someone from Redux Pictures so presumably they did.)

From a business perspective, I understand why the execs at Redux declined to publish.  I get it: they’re not going to publish something that won’t sell or people won’t want to see. But when I think of the disturbing images we do take in on a daily basis, I think our PG-13 society disappeared awhile ago.  Between the news, the Internet, social media, television, film and video games, I’m pretty sure society can handle a few photographs of animal suffering.  I find it almost comical that in the Information Age where we insist on knowing every little detail about things that don’t even affect us and spend so much of our day documenting countless insignificant moments, we don’t want to look at a much larger and much more urgent issue that is directly affecting our planet, our health and the lives of millions of helpless animals.

Anyone watching HBO has seen far worse things on a regular basis.  Even if people aren’t watching graphically fictitious television, there’s all kinds of real-life shit people are happy to watch online.  Shootings, fires, natural disasters, car wrecks, riots, war, bullying, assault. But God forbid we show the public a photo of a pig, ears pinned back and eyes wide with fear as they smell the blood of their slaughtered comrades and see the carcasses behind them. God forbid we show a rabbit in a lab with puss oozing out of his eyes because someone wanted to test oven cleaner.  God forbid we show people images of suffering and then tell them what they could do to help end it.

People may in fact not be ready to see these images.  But if that’s the case, I don’t believe it’s solely because they are “too graphic”.  I think that’s another convenient excuse we’ve come up with so we can keep living in denial about how our daily food choices require the continual suffering and death of other living beings. I don’t disagree that images of animal suffering can be disturbing and graphic but I don’t see those images as any less disturbing than some of the things that make the headlines everyday.  I believe that what really makes images of animal suffering “too disturbing” is that it’s also a little “too close to home” for most people. Anyone with a conscience and a brain is going to have to reconsider their food choices once they see images of a slaughterhouse or a factory farm.  THAT’S the truly disturbing part for society – it’s witnessing what we have been contributing to all this time.

The executive at Redux Pictures who said to Jo-Anne McArthur, “Consumer magazines are not going to publish them…” irked me because it put the responsibility on Jo-Anne McArthur, as if she could possibly tell a different story through the photographs she takes. Yes, some images in films and photographs about animal treatment are graphic.  Some of them you will never forget. Sometimes you have turn away. But if people are serious about compassion and serious about making the world a better place and finding out about how food gets to our plate and clothes get on our back, then we will have to bear witness to some of those images at some point. From there remain two choices: change our lives because of what we have seen or rationalize our lives in spite of what we have seen.

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3 thoughts on “The Ghosts in Our Machine

  1. Marisa says:

    Fantastic post. My head is aching from nodding so heartily in agreement with everything you wrote.


    • NcSark says:

      Thanks, Marisa. And thanks for introducing me to Jo-Anne McArthur’s work. Prior to writing this post late into the evening last night, I curled up on the couch and read “We Animals” from cover to cover. Her work is incredible and I completely lost track of time and became immersed in the photos. The photo of the penguin standing alone in an empty tank in a mall in Thailand, looking down at the dirty pool…wow. I must have stared at it for 20 minutes.


  2. Marisa says:

    I know!! That’s one of the photos that stopped me in my tracks too. Nothing graphic…but so incredibly sad. There were photos I had to skip over chanting “No, no, no”…some things I just can’t handle. But Jo-Anne’s work is incredible and her photos carry such great impact. I just wish more people would look at them.


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