Jill’s Q&A with animal photojournalist and editor of new book “Hidden” Jo-Anne McArthur

I’ve been aware of Jo-Anne McArthur’s work for a long time now. An absolute pioneer in the field of animal photojournalism Jo-Anne captures the plight of so many animals with unflinching empathy, including bears who’ve been caught up in the bear bile trade.

Jo-Anne founded We Animals Media which helps organisations and individuals with advocacy work by making many images of animal exploitation and suffering freely available for carefully approved purposes. It’s a remarkable project which has now culminated in a magnificent book called “Hidden”.

As you might expect, much of the content of the book is harrowing and very uncomfortable to look at. It is a powerful, important and difficult collection that captures the beauty of animals even when surrounded by the ugliness of the economic appetite to use, abuse and commodify them.

The images “Hidden” contains are reminiscent of the great works of war photography which brought home the senseless violence humans have inflicted upon fellow humans. These imageskeenly bring home the senseless violence humans inflict upon our fellow animals and when presented together like this they make a very strong case for why we should always choose kindness over violence.

Here is a Q&A with the force behind We Animals Media and the book Hidden, Jo-Anne McArthur.

Why the title “HIDDEN?” What’s being hidden? By whom? From whom?

Jo-Anne: The animals we use most in our daily lives are hidden. They’re hidden away in factory farms, fur farms, and in labs that use them in research and testing. They are also hidden euphemistically; we don’t say we’re eating a calf, for example. We say we’re eating veal. And in animal research, an animal is “sac’ed” when they are finished being used. Being killed is called being “sacrificed.” These words sound much more noble. They create space between “human” and “animal,” “us” and “them,” “subject” and “object.”

We are always hiding animals from ourselves. We build walls and euphemisms to cover any discomfort we might have. If we were to face the animals we keep in crates and cages, and spend some time examining their lives there, and why they are there, we may not be able to enjoy ham or foie gras.

In addition to exposing the use of animals, HIDDEN also attempts to break new ground in the growing field of Animal Photojournalism. What is animal photojournalism? 

Jo-Anne: Animal Photojournalism (APJ) is an emerging genre of photography that captures, memorializes, and exposes the experiences of animals who live amongst us, but who we fail to see. At its core, the images in this pioneering field document the broader human-animal conflict and its resultant ecosystems of suffering. As global societies collectively awaken to the realities of our unjust exploitation of animals, APJ is of increasing interest.

From public and environmental health crises to zoonotic viruses, animals are inextricably linked to many areas of current global concern, and rightfully so. Our existence is intertwined, and the ethics of how we treat the other sentient beings with whom we share this planet are being called into question. Animal photojournalism aims to encourage swift and necessary change on behalf of the beings in the frame. APJ emphasizes the inclusion of all animals, particularly those historically underrepresented, like those kept within industrialized systems.

APJ is groundbreaking for two reasons. First, images in this genre demand radical empathy and self-awareness. Viewers must de-center themselves and consider the world through the eyes of a different species, while holding the truth of humanity’s undeniable role in the story. Additionally,  it poses a fundamental threat to deeply embedded societal systems that continue, largely unchallenged. The act of seeking out these visual stories is itself an act of resistance.

What’s the most harrowing or affecting experience you’ve ever had documenting animals in their unnatural environments? 

Jo-Anne: It’s not one experience, but the recurring experience of leaving the animals behind, once I’ve taken their photographs. I can’t help the millions of animals I’ve met. I’m trying to change the future for animals. So, the leaving comes with a feeling of guilt. I channel negative and unproductive feelings into action, though, otherwise I would not be able to do this work.

Do you relate to animals individually when documenting these kinds of scenes, or do you stay objective? How do your interactions with individual animals factor into your work?  

Jo-Anne: If I closed myself off emotionally to my subject matter, I would not take good photos. I’m fully engaged, and empathetic too. Empathy and compassion drives the work. But I’m also aware that I have very limited time to do the best possible job. Ideal images for me show both individual and context, and so engaging with the individuals who are caught in these industries is essential. If an animal is connecting to me, they will connect to the audience viewing the image. My best images are those when I am up close with a wide angle. The calf in the wheelbarrow, being put into a crate. The rabbit, ears back, visibly next in line for slaughter.

What’s it like to spend your career witnessing animal abuse, cruelty, and neglect? What is the psychological impact? 

Jo-Anne: Interestingly enough, that answer may not actually be visible to me. There has been a tremendous amount of psychological impact, both detrimental and galvanizing. Bearing witness only furthers my drive to do it again, and to mentor others to do it, and to build our strategic agency,We Animals Media, that tells the stories of animals. I’m not afraid of confronting the suffering of others, and I am fairly philosophical about my own suffering at this point. It’s my job to go towards these stories, and so I do. It’s very clear to me that we can only change suffering if it’s out in the open and if we don’t turn away from it.

How did you select and narrow down the photojournalists, and choose what work to include in the book?  

Jo-Anne: I’d been watching a lot of the contributing photographers for a long time, so I had a list of people and work that I wanted included in the book. We also reached out to individual photographers who had shot exceptional stories, or who were in the field while we were makingthe book.

And how did Joaquin Phoenix get on board? How did you get to know him?  

Jo-Anne: Joaquin and I had met a few times over the past year when we were both at events in support of animal activism in Canada, the U.S., and in England. We both bear witness to animals going to slaughter and we are fans of each other’s activism and work. I told him about the book and was absolutely delighted by his response that he’d be honored to write something for HIDDEN. I think it’s always great when people of influence use that influence to benefit others. Joaquin and his partner Rooney are role models in that regard.

What’s the most joyful and uplifting experience you’ve ever had documenting animals?  

Luckily there have been many! There are a lot of helpers in the world, and I get to photograph them. They run sanctuaries, found organizations, litigate and lobby for animals, make art, teach and practice humane education. In fact, because I saw so many women in particular doing this work, I decided to start a project which celebrates women in animal advocacy, called Unbound. To date, we've featured the pioneering and inspiring work of over fifty women.

Lastly, I'm not just writing this because of the audience (you'll see from other interviews!): one of my favourite animals of all time is the Asiatic moon bear. What a complex, beautiful, intelligent and resilient animal! It has been a joy to witness and photograph them at Animals Asia's Tam Dao sanctuary. I hope for their freedom and survival, and I'm glad that I can advocate for them when I share their stories through my work.

What gives you hope about the future for animals?

We’re on the right side of history and that gives me energy and momentum. It’s clearer than ever that industrial farming needs to end. For every reason: for the animals, the environment, humanity. More people than ever are working to curb this thing. While there is a rise in meat-eating in some of the rising economies, we are also seeing veganism explode. I’m heartened by the many efforts happening on behalf of animals these days, in food tech, law, policy. There’s much to feel optimistic about.

You can learn more about the book “Hidden” here.