“I know it when I see it,” the controversial phrase that once gained popularity in reference to a supreme court ruling on pornography, can now be applied to photographs of factory farming.
With recent Ag-gag laws sprouting up over the country (now enacted in Utah, Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa and Missouri, making it illegal to take undercover photos or videos on farms), the question of what may be illegal to photograph is on the table. Back in April of this year, Amy Meyer became the first person charged under the ag-gag laws for filming a cow being moved on a forklift. She took the images from public property (the street) and the charges were later dropped. More recently George Steinmetz, a National Geographic photographer, was arrested for taking photos of a Kansas feedlot from a paraglider. The case is still ongoing and Finney County is denying the charges have anything to do with the material being photographed.
These incidents are most likely just the beginning, and they have brought to light the hard fact that these laws have been passed in some states with others pushing for similar legislation. Now on the radar is the photography of Mishka Henner, which shows images of feedlots around the country and have been described by many as resembling “open, infected wounds” on the earth’s surface. The images were created by the compilation of hundreds of satellite images together.
Matthew Liebman, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal advocacy group told Wired that the legal implications are unclear. Texas (where the photos were taken) has no ag-gag law, so Henner’s images are safe. However, in states that do, they could be protected by legal recognition of satellite-level altitudes as public space. Under some proposed laws, though, gathering any imagery without farmer consent is a crime. Taking a snapshot of a feedlot from a window seat in a commercial jetliner would technically be illegal!
Will the artistic bent to these images protect him and others who take similar images from legal action? For now, many of us are with the artist, sharing in his shock of the proof of what industrial agriculture is doing to the earth.