- Allowed to Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals from Farm Sanctuaries by Isa Leshko
I can’t recall exactly how or when I first became aware of Isa Leshko’s photography, but I do remember that it stopped me in my tracks. At that time I had only recently started to shift my academic lens toward the representation of animals in visual culture. I was very familiar with the types of images in which the suffering and abuse of nonhuman animals was front and center, the kinds of images which, while very necessary to shine a light on the cruelty so many face, can be tough to look at. In contrast, when I looked at Isa Leshko’s stunning black-and-white images, I felt myself drawn to them in a way that I hadn’t felt with other photographic work about animals. Who were [End Page 110] these animals? What were their stories? Who was this photographer?
Since that moment, I have had the opportunity to hear Isa Leshko speak about her work and the Allowed to Grow Old project a number of times. And each time I hear her speak about this project, I am as captivated by it as I was when I first came across it. The visual richness of these images is matched by the depth of Leshko’s passion for this topic and her storytelling abilities. Each animal she photographs is an individual, not simply a representative of their species, and she does an excellent job of conveying this when she speaks or writes about her work. Each animal she photographs has a unique story and unique interests, wants, needs, fears, joys, and relationships, and this comes through very clearly in her images.
I had long anticipated the publication of this book, to have the opportunity to have access to this project in a more permanent form. This book did not disappoint and was, perhaps, even more stunning than I had anticipated it to be. Allowed to Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals From Farm Sanctuaries is the kind of book you want to pull off the shelf again and again, savoring the content as you flip through it. Each time I open this book I notice something else in these portraits. The wisdom and personality of the animals that Leshko photographs shine through in these images.
In our fast-paced, social-media driven world in which the news cycle seems to change with an ever increasing rapid-fire speed, there is something about these images that encourages a lingering engagement. The photographs in this project invite a deeper look, more than a passing glance. This matches the process by which Leshko works to obtain these portraits. As she notes, there is a deliberate slowing down in her approach to photography. She recognizes the importance of taking her time to ensure that the animals she is photographing trust her and are not afraid of her camera. She uses minimal equipment and can spend hours—even days—with each animal before feeling like the time is right to proceed with the shoot.
These photographs, as the subtitle of the book tells us, were taken at sanctuaries for farmed animals. These are special places in so many ways, but perhaps most importantly for Leshko’s work, these are places in which such animals as cows, goats, sheep, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and rabbits are permitted to live out their natural lives. So many of their kin are not given this opportunity and are slaughtered at a very young age as part of the food production systems in our contemporary world. Simply put, we rarely get to see these animals in their old age. Unlike the animals in Leshko’s project, they are not given the opportunity to grow old. It is in this way that Leshko’s work takes on an activist component...