As part of an ongoing interview series with global leaders, I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jo-Anne McArthur, a photojournalist and the founder of We Animals Media. Through her long-term body of work, We Animals, she has documented our complex relationship with animals in almost sixty countries over the last fifteen years. She was the subject of the acclaimed 2013 documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine, and she is the author of We Animals and Captive, as well as the co-founder of The Unbound Project, which celebrates women animal advocates worldwide. Her work has been used by hundreds of organizations, media, and academics. She has spoken extensively in North America, Australia, and across Europe on the subjects of photography, animals, social change, and empathy.
HF: Through photography, the We Animals project documents the experiences of nonhuman animals in a human-dominated world. Why did you decide to launch We Animals Media, and how have your expectations for the project evolved over time?
JM: The intention of the We Animals project has always been to address a massive blind spot for we humans. We love companion animals, revere wildlife, but ignore—and intentionally make invisible—the animals we use. For over fifteen years now, I’ve been documenting those animals who we use as food, in fashion, for experimentation, for work, for religious practice, and for entertainment.
This work has now taken the team and me to almost sixty countries. I say “team” because this solo-pilot mission has grown into a small but mighty media organization, telling the stories of animals worldwide. We are called We Animals Media. We are a team of staff, journalists, photographers, and filmmakers.
This journey has not been planned, but grew out of the desire to do better, and to do more, for animals. Creating a donor-based organization, making sure our repository is available and free for anyone helping animals, and expanding our reach to larger audiences have all been part of this journey of entrepreneurship and advocacy.
HF: Can you talk a little about your approach to photographing animals, particularly when you are embedded in exploitive situations while trying to capture their lived experiences?
JM: I stick to some basic principles. I’m not there to further alarm the animals, so I keep very quiet. I make myself small in my demeanor, and I move mindfully. It’s important for photographers to not shoot from a typical human-eye vantage point, as that’s how we so often see images, and they aren’t engaging. I have a “get down, get close” mantra when photographing animals. I try to observe them close up and quietly and capture some essence of not only the individual but their experience of confinement and exploitation. That’s why my images are very much about context and place.
HF: Please tell me about the We Animals humane education program.
JM: One of the main ways we can change things for animals is to strike at the roots of the problem. That means education! I believe that we need to infuse young people with a reverence and respect for all animals. I do this through images, film, and storytelling. I want students to feel empowered to care, and to feel they can speak up. I want them to talk amongst one another about standing up for animals. Our We Animals humane ed programs are a small but necessary drop in the bucket. I remember many of the speakers who came in to my schools when I was a kid. I’ll never forget a man who worked with UNICEF who came to speak with us; he broadened my view of the world, even at the young age of nine. The students enjoy the learning and discussions, and so I do believe that humane ed is a vital part of the animal advocacy movement.
HF: You’ve also launched the Unbound Project, which highlights women on the frontlines of advocacy and activism for animals. What was the impetus behind this project, and why do you think it is so important to share stories of women advocating for animals?
JM: It’s important because women are underrepresented in positions of power in the movement, and men often get more of the accolades for work and progress. This is changing—history in the making!—and Unbound aims to be part of this history making and history recording. We want women’s work to have a home and historical footprint. In Europe and North America (I do not know about other continents), women make up the vast majority of animal advocacy work. We celebrate this!
HF: What changes have you seen—positive or negative—in the ways animals are portrayed in the media? Are you hopeful that we will see more positive changes? If so, what brings you the most hope?
JM: Animal sentience and welfare are much more visible in the media in recent years. It’s heartening. We also know, though, that the rise of veg*anism moves alongside the rise of meat-eating in growing economies. We have much work ahead of us to mitigate (obliterate!) that growth.
The investigative work I do is painful, and it takes stamina and grit to stay positive and focused in the animal movement, because the realities of mass suffering are horrifying, and it can be debilitating. Every day, I choose to focus on what I can do, and I choose to focus on the good, and on change. If I have a secret to success, that would be it. To do the best I can every day. Sometimes that’s a lot, and sometimes it’s not much. For me, action is catharsis.
HF: Would you mind sharing a bit about anything else in the works?
JM: We are excited about working with a growing number of contributors. Lots of conversations and project-building currently happening! Personally, I’m looking forward to continuing the growth of our work with NGOs in Asia, for the We Animals Media Asia series. I’m so happy that We Animals Media already has a small but really talented roster of journalists, filmmakers, and photographers.
HF: Thank you, Jo-Anne McArthur, for all you do. For all the readers out there, please check out We Animals Media.
Photo credit: Kelly Guerin (2019).