Photos Stress Unsettling Relationship Between Humans and Animals

Project documents "use, abuse, and sharing of spaces" with animals worldwide.

Tima the brown bear of the Gran Circo Holiday circus poses for a photo with children
Tima the brown bear poses with children at the Gran Circo Holiday circus in Spain .

Aitor Garmendia

Jo-Anne McArthur was first driven to document the experiences of animals when she was in Ecuador and saw a chained monkey performing for tourists. While they laughed and took photos of the monkey, the animal reached inside their pockets. Everyone laughed but McArthur, who thought it was humiliating for the monkey.

McArthur is now a photojournalist, focused on the relationship between humans and animals around the world. She is the creator and co-editor of "Hidden: Animals in the Anthropocene" which just won two noted photography awards. It earned Photography Book of the Year by Pictures of the Year International, and the Gold Medal for Outstanding Book of the Year - Most Likely to Save the Planet by Independent Publisher.

The book features more than 200 images taken by 40 photojournalists on six continents. The images document animals being used for food, clothing, traditions, entertainment, and experimentation.

The book features a forward by actor Joaquin Phoenix, who is an animal rights activist and environmentalist.

“The photojournalists represented in HIDDEN have entered some of the darkest, most unsettling places in the world,” said Phoenix. “The images they have captured are a searing reminder of our unpardonable behavior towards animals and will serve as beacons of change for years to come.” 

McArthur talked to Treehugger via email about her road to becoming an animal photojournalist and the horrific, haunting images in the book.

Treehugger: You were inspired to become a photojournalist when you were backpacking in Ecuador and had an interaction with a chained monkey. What did you see? 

Jo-Anne McArthur: It’s not so much about what I was seeing but how I was seeing. Our relationships with animals are fraught. For the most part, we see other animals as here for our use, our entertainment. This is ingrained and unquestioned because this use of others is normal in many cultures.

When I came across the chained monkey, people were photographing him because they thought it was funny or cute. I took the same photo they were taking, but because I thought this was a really sad treatment of someone, and I wanted to share my point of view on it through an enlightening photograph. I wondered if the animal could possibly be helped if I had proof. I wondered what the image could change and how it could educate.

This was the birth of what is now my life-long project, We Animals, which documents our use, abuse, and sharing of spaces with other animals worldwide.  

puppy mill in Canada
Globally, millions of dogs live in filthy puppy mills, where they are kept in cages and give birth repeatedly. Their puppies are sold to stores and breeders.

Jo-Anne McArthur

Since then, where have you traveled to document animals being exploited by humans? What are some of the things you’ve witnessed?

I’ve been to over 60 countries now, to document and speak about our relationship with animals. As an animal photojournalist, I bear witness; it’s my job to go to the front lines of our animal use and bring back images that are eye opening. We are only now starting to get a glimpse of just how bad it is for the animals we use.

I’ve been to countless factory farms, fur farms, and places where animals are exploited for entertainment or for their labor. Animals in industrial farming are considered to be inventory and dispensable. I’ve brought back thousands of images that are made available for free to anyone helping animals.

Yes, I’m a photojournalist, but with a mission to educate and to help animals, which is why the We Animals project became a small but mighty photo agency, We Animals Media. We’re now very busy disseminating these stories, and the work of many animal photojournalists (APJs), to media, NGOs, academics, activists. To people who need strong imagery to advocate for animals.

Day-old chicks are packed into crates at an industrial hatchery in Poland.
Day-old chicks are packed into crates at an industrial hatchery in Poland.

Konrad Lozinski

What is the We Animals Project? How is “Hidden” part of that mission?

"HIDDEN: Animals in the Anthropocene" is a historic archive of what is and should never again be. We Animals Media published HIDDEN in 2020, a compilation of work by APJs and other photojournalists who are covering animal stories.

I see this period in history as truly insane. Why mince words? We will look back and be shocked at how we systematically tortured billions of animals, every single day, for decades. This book is a memorial and a testament. It’s proof.

HIDDEN also helps solidify the importance and relevance of APJ in history. APJs document what needs to be seen. HIDDEN helps get these stories out in a consolidated and reputable way. Books have longevity in a way that many social media posts and media can’t obtain, so it was important for us to make a book. And we aren't alone in that thought: HIDDEN has already won two major awards for daring to expose and compile animal mistreatment.

dairy farm in Poland
Steel barriers, concrete floors, and tiled walls at a dairy farm in Poland.

Andrew Skowron

How did you choose the photographers and the subjects for “Hidden”? Was there a goal for each image?

I’ve been paying close attention to the work of APJs for a long time. Squirreling away really strong and poignant images into a folder as I came across them for years. I’d been planning a book for some time, one that would incorporate the work of many photographers, not just my own work. Keith Wilson is my co-editor, and we ended up with thousands upon thousands of images to sift through and edit. We’d also found many images on social media that were anonymous and wanted to track down. This was an intense labor!

Once we’d narrowed down our selects we crafted a narrative that would pack a punch, each image playing its own role to unveil the scope of our relationship to animals. With David Griffin at the helm of the design, it was bound to be a strong final product.

animal ear tags
Ear tags are removed and stored after animals are slaughtered in Spain.

Aitor Garmendia

Do any of the photographers typically take beautiful portraits or lovely landscape images?

Some might do, as a reprieve! I know most, if not all of them, to be dedicated in a really hardcore way to exposing not just animal stories but stories of the human condition and the environment. Photojournalists tend to be compelled to be out documenting hard stories.

I balance the harder work with stories of change and progress, like with our Unbound Project, which is about women on the front lines of animal advocacy worldwide. There’s a lot of good happening in the world and I like to inspire people by sharing those stories too.

So many of the photos are horrific and hard to look at, but they are so skillfully photographed that it makes them have even more of an impact than, say, PETA footage. Why do you think that is?

Getting people to look at cruelty and sadness is an uphill battle for sure, especially as the images inevitably ask us to confront our own complicity in the depicted suffering. It’s important that images that challenge us be made skillfully, and some would even say artfully or beautifully. The image has to be poignant, engaging, and arresting. When they are, it’s more difficult for an audience to turn away from the suffering—skillfully crafted photographs, like all difficult art, can coax a viewer into a longer look. Those are the images you see in HIDDEN.

silver fox at a fur farm in Poland
A silver fox in a fur farm in Poland where all caged foxes and dogs were rescued and the farm was closed down.

Andrew Skowron

How difficult is it for photographers to capture these images?

In many cases, most people wouldn’t go to the lengths that animal photojournalists and conflict photographers go to to obtain an image. Unfortunately, it often requires us to obtain access surreptitiously. I don’t like sneaking around but my loyalty is to animals, and sharing their stories, and not to human niceties, especially in the face of so much unimaginable suffering. So sometimes we pose as people we’re not. Sometimes we trespass, sneak in at night. Sometimes majorly elaborate plans are hatched. And sometimes we just buy a ticket to an event. We do go to great lengths not just to get the images, but then to publish them (which can also be a challenge).

Were there any photos that were just too gruesome to make the book?

We crafted the narrative very deliberately. Gruesome images—that is, those which show extreme violence, and the act of killing and the process of dying—were all considered with great care. Nothing in the book is gratuitous.

kangaroo and joey in burned-out plantation in Australia
A kangaroo and her joey stand in a burned-out eucalyptus plantation after the 2019-2020 bushfires in Australia.

Jo-Anne McArthur

What is the goal of the book?

The point of the book is to expose our treatment of animals, memorialize their stories, and consolidate proof in a format that won’t soon disappear. It’s why photojournalists make books. We care deeply about an issue and we want the world to see. Seeing is just one step though, of course. We want people to see so that we can create change.

The animals you’ll meet in HIDDEN were sentient, aware, and wished for a better life than the one we have given (or taken from) them. The conditions we keep animals in, the torture we subject them to for our taste buds, our tastes in fashion and cosmetics, our need for entertainment, need to be seen so that we can continue to reconsider our relationship with them. This can and should be a much kinder world for all. HIDDEN is one small part of making it so.