It’s hard not to love these animals as we have gotten to know them in very tender, intimate ways – some share the spot next to us on the couch while others jump off the page or screen and inhabit our imagination, running as free in our minds as they do across the wild savannas, tundra, and forests they call home.
Yet these animals represent only a fraction of those we share our lives with. Many others remain hidden from view — like those confined to crates or cages in fur and factory farming facilities and those who spend their lives caged and tested on for our medicine and personal care products.
Still, others are seen, but their lives do not fully register in our consciousness as their presence resembles something akin to tradition or normality, something we do not question — like the dolphins and orcas that perform leaps and tricks for marine park audiences or the penguin, polar bear, snake, or meerkat that stare back at us through the Plexiglas exhibit of a zoo.
As Canadian photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur tells us, it is “the bulk of the animals we are closest to every day” who are actually the ones that “remain invisible.”
“They are ghosts,” she says. “They are our ‘spare ribs,’ our ‘leather,’ our toothpaste. The animals who are these products are sentient individuals, not a rib but a pig, not leather, but a cow, not a resource, but a rabbit who was used in testing.”
The project is not about creating an us vs. them mentality – these are the victims, we are the perpetrators – whereby shaming us into doing good or “seeing the light.” Rather, the project is one of storytelling, illuminating the lives of animals all around us and how we fit together in these lives.
“My book is about seeing these animals and, hopefully, about people making changes so that we abuse fewer and fewer of them,” McArthur says.
The title of McArthur’s book and ongoing project speaks volumes about the connection she’s trying to make us see and understand – that we are all animals.
She tells OGP that she wanted the title to “point back to the fact that we are all the same, all sentient, all of us deserving of being here on this planet, all of us with our own desires and goals and rights” in an attempt to close the disconnect, or fissure so often present between us.
“If we can see and remember that we’re all animals, perhaps we’ll start to treat our non-human kin with more respect,” she states.
Spanning five sections from “Fashion and Entertainment,” “Food,” and “Research” to “Mercy” and “Notes from the Field,” McArthur’s new book showcases her travels as a photojournalist into the trenches of fur farms and factory farms and to happier places with free animals like Save the Chimps sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Fla., and Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y. Through her journeys, she shows us how things sadly are for so many animals, and how they could be for all, if we’re open enough to see these possibilities.
While McArthur has met animals all over the world at this point – hundreds of thousands, she writes in her book — one of her defining moments as a photojournalist came at the very beginning of her career, when she was just developing a deeper love of photography.
It was back in 1998 when she visited a roadside zoo with her family and took a photograph of a donkey, an experience she recounts in her book’s stunning introduction.
She observed the donkey’s environment – a barren enclosure wrapped with fencing and held up with wooden beams with a sign to the left that read simply, “Donkey.”
It was at this point that she saw how “nothing was learned” and that “no relationship was furthered or deepened,” that “the entire scenario was an insult to us both.”
“I wondered if anyone was really looking at the relationship, seeing anything at all. Our use of animals is so culturally ingrained, it’s virtually invisible. But not to me. And so began my work, documenting our uses and abuses of animals around the globe,” she says.
McArthur continues this work day in and day out and she tells us that she will “always be working on the ‘We Animals’ project.” It is a project she carries out through her own photography, but also through collaborations with other artists, filmmakers (like Liz Marshall of “Ghosts in Our Machine”), and animal advocacy organizations.
The project also has an educational branch called the We Animals Humane Education Program, where McArthur visits schools and does presentations on the photographs and stories she’s collected over the years featuring not just the “invisible animals of our lives” but also “stories of love and liberation.”
Additionally, there is a new book in the works, she tells us, although it is currently in the research stage.
Ultimately, through her photography work, what she’d like to invite us all to do is to “look beyond” ourselves.
“I would ask people to have the courage to look, to really see, and to not turn away.”
And so, below, please meet just a handful of the animals McArthur has encountered during her “We Animals” journey, one which you can see more of in her new book available now on Amazon.
All images: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals