Invisible Animals and Jo-Anne McArthur

Jo 1Last night the Animals in Society Working Group hosted Jo-Anne McArthur. Jo-Anne, of the We Animals and the Unbound Project, gave a talk that focussed on her work photographing invisible animals. As she explained, invisible animals are those like animals farmed for their body parts as food, or for their skin as clothing, who exist all around us but who we rarely see or acknowledge. Jo-Anne has spent a large part of her life photographing these animals to bear witness to their treatment, to make them visible, and by doing so provide a platform to advocate for their care, for a change to how we treat them. Her talk, punctuated by incredible images, was poignant and strangely beautiful given the topic. None of the images were overly gruesome, although some were terribly sad: an image of three pigs cowering in a transport crate that captured the fear in their eyes will remain with me a long time. Still other images were beautiful and happy – the picture of Large Marge, a happy mud covered pig in her post-rescue home – will also stay with me a long time, as will the close up of cow noses, gorillas with ‘their’ human rescuers having fun and holding hands, and countless others.

But what really struck me about Jo-Anne’s talk is the power of images for advocacy, especially their power in animal advocacy. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, as I have been arguing in various places of late, we need to include real, live, fleshy, smelly, fun, miraculous, wonder-ful, animals in our scholar-activism. Too often, those of us who work in the loosely defined field of human-animal studies, exclude real animals. And this supports the various cultural and social systems that render them unimportant, by colluding in their invisible status. Secondly, and more broadly than scholar-activism, animals often appeal to humans aesthetically. Simply put, many of us like them [1]. Their looks, their faces, their noses, their eyes, their hands/paws, often appeal to and fascinate us. And this can be a great starting point for advocacy on their behalf.

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How to advocate successfully for other species, in the face of the cognitive dissonance that is institutionally and culturally supported making it all the more powerful, has always been a concern for those wanting to improve animal lives. And while we want to make others aware of the horrors of life for those individuals reared solely for human consumption, we also know that people turn away from graphic images of animal abuse and cruelty (ourselves included). In response to this, we are starting to see some animal advocacy change shape and base itself on a ‘love platform’. And it is here, that I think we start to see why Jo-Anne’s talk – punctuated with stories of love for individual animals by individual humans, as well as by a clear sense of Jo-Anne’s own love for animals, humans and her photographic craft – was uplifting and inspiring despite analysing animal exploitation.

Jo-Anne also talked to us about the Unbound Project a marvellous project that acknowledges the centrality of women, their work, power, and emotional labour, to animal advocacy both today and historically. This also ties in with my thinking about love: the stories in the Unbound Project are fundamentally stories of love – the love these women have for their animal charges and, in many cases, the love they receive right back from these (animal) individuals.

You can hear and see Jo-Anne’s talk here.

[1] I realise I am skipping over difficult issues here of why it is that when so many of us like them we continue eating and exploiting them.  This is not the focus of this blog and I have written about it elsewhere, for example in this post.

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