- We Animals by Jo-Anne McArthur
In her introduction, Jo-Anne McArthur implores the reader to hold fast, encouraging us to hold tightly to a vision of hope before journeying with her through the dark terrain of animal exploitation (p. 11). We might be tempted to let go, if not for the power of her work and its assurance that change is indeed happening. McArthur traverses seven continents, using photographs and texts to document animal suffering in chapters titled "Fashion," "Entertainment," "Food," and "Research." Although many of the images featured are unquestionably alarming—bulls murdered for sport and entertainment and dumpsters full of piglet carcasses—McArthur brings us to our final destination in a chapter titled "Mercy." It is here that we find ourselves in a welcome respite, bearing witness to the dignity of animal life and to the human heroes who have rescued and restored the animals' sanctity through nonviolence, reverence, and love. Rather than leave us bereft in the enormity of an overwhelming global sorrow, McArthur nourishes our souls with real people and healed animals in sanctuaries and nature reserves all over the world.
McArthur's photographs document an inherent integrity within each animal by capturing their gaze and posture in the many facilities where humankind has exploited their lives. To be sure, many of the photographs, such as those of hen battery cages and mink fur farms, are disturbing, depicting physical cruelty, neglect, and pain that result in starvation, disease, and slow, untimely deaths. But McArthur's images are more complex, portraying the human/animal connection with a subtlety that challenges normative traditions. For example, photographs of an elephant and a hippopotamus reveal the humiliation and confinement extended toward them even in culturally acceptable spaces, such as zoos and circuses. A majestic elephant is bound to stanchions by her feet, relegated to a lifetime of circus acts, and a robust hippopotamus, standing upright in a plexiglas tank, provides laughs to an audience in a Calgary zoo. We Animals is not a page turner but rather gently insists that we linger on each image to observe human ignorance, indifference, and cruelty, "seeing" perhaps for the first time our complicity in the matter. McArthur doesn't criticize but rather redirects our focus with text, supporting each image with contextual knowledge about each animal, the industry featured, and her decision-making as a photographer (p. 11).
Drawn from thousands of photos taken over a 15-year period, only a hundred or so were carefully chosen to represent not only the physical component of each animal but their psychological presence as well. For me, this is the genius of McArthur's book. The power of her project is in her ability to hold a creative tension: first in binaries of advocacy and aesthetics, then despair and hope, and finally in the depiction of physical, emotional, and psychological suffering as created by two environmental extremes, crowding and isolation.
While nonhuman life cannot express psychological pain in language we can understand, many of McArthur's compositions focus not on the animal but on the surrounding objects and telling spaces where their voices can be heard. Undoubtedly, critics of McArthur's work may see this as a sort of subjective "staging," transferring our anthropocentric emotions onto nonhuman life in order to arouse emotional awareness. McArthur may consider expanding on the ethology of the animals she photographs to [End Page 111] support the pictorial conventions that embody their mental anguish. This may engender empathetic responses in readers based in scientific, commercial, and public policy communities. For example, in Humboldt Penguin, Pata Mall, Bangkok, Thailand, 2009, an empty mildewed wading pool, built atop a department store zoo, is the first thing we see before the light from an outside window directs our eye to the corner of the room where a lone penguin lives in isolation. While McArthur does inform the reader that "they partner for life and raise their young together" (p. 58), a brief checklist of their intrinsic behaviors that support their need...