Widening Our Circle of Compassion: An Interview With Animal Rights Photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur

Jo-Anne McArthur’s love of animals began when she was a child. She says, “The neighbour had a backyard dog who didn’t live a very exciting life so I would take him for walks, despite his enormous size and my small stature.”

In her 20’s, Jo-Anne realized that she could combine her empathy with her photography skills and help make our treatment of nonhuman animals more visible.

She founded the We Animals Project, a photo archive reflecting our conflicting relationships with nonhuman animals (her work was featured in the recent documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine). Jo-Anne travels around the world, documenting the plight of animals. Her work has been featured in publications worldwide.

Recently Jo-Anne launched a We Animals Humane Education Program, offering presentations in Canada and beyond.

One of Jo-Anne’s current projects is the Unbound Project, which highlights “the inspiring women around the globe who are changing the world for animals.”

Jo-Anne’s recent awards and accolades include the 2014 Institute for Critical Animal Studies Media Award; one of CBC’s Top 50 Champions of Change; Farm Sanctuary’s 2010 “Friend of Farm Animals” award; HuffPost WOMEN’s “Top 10 Women trying to change the world,” and one of 20 activists featured in the book The Next Eco Warrior.

I spoke with Jo-Anne about her work.

ZW: What are the best and most challenging parts of being an animal rights photojournalist?

JM: Let’s start with the challenging parts!

I photograph the invisible animals in this world. Those we eat, wear, and conduct research on. Those we use in entertainment and keep in zoos and aquaria.

We actually have a very close relationship with them, but we don’t think of them as individuals, as sentient beings with families or needs or opinions.

If we think of them at all, we think of them in parts. Bacon, instead of a pig. Leather, instead of a cow.

One of the great challenges of documenting these animals is access to them, first of all. These animals are kept by industries in horrific conditions. They don’t want photojournalists documenting how animals are treated, because most would agree that the confinement and conditions are morally wrong.

The second challenge is getting people to look, and really see, these images. To confront animal cruelty is to confront ourselves and our complicity in that cruelty.

My images ask a lot of their audience, I understand that. The images ask us to reflect on things that are upsetting, and ask us to question our support of these industries, which means questioning how we eat, what we wear.

That is the main challenge: how to get people to look, to really see, and to not turn away.

We Animals also aims to offer hope and solutions, so that we can not only understand, but care, and act.

The best part of my job is seeing the change for good happening around the world every day. My work has taken me to 50 countries thus far, and I feel as though I have friends and families in so many of those countries.

Working hard with people to create change is exciting. It’s an exciting time to be a photojournalist, covering animal issues, because more than ever, these issues are in the media and hitting the main stream. So I love seeing change and being part of the change.




ZW: What made you decide to engage in a project about women in animal advocacy (the Unbound Project)?

JM: Over the course of working on the We Animals project for years, I’ve noticed that it’s mostly women who are on the front lines (and sidelines, and under the radar!) of animal advocacy. I thought I’d do a project that celebrated these people, which would inspire others to take part as well.

I do what I do, in part, because I had people like Dr. Jane Goodall to look up to. I wanted to use Unbound as an additional platform for women changing the world for animals, so that other people could see what they are doing and be inspired to also use their own skills to help make the world a better place.

I’m thrilled to be working on this book with my co-author Professor Keri Cronin, who is bringing her many skills and historical knowledge of women in the animal rights movement, to the project.

ZW: What has most surprised you about the women advocates you’ve encountered thus far?

JM: I’m not sure whether it’s surprising, but, they are all quite humble. Beyond their dedicated care for animals, they certainly have that in common. It’s hard to get them to speak about their accomplishments so that we can write about them. We have to ask their colleagues, partners, and friends!

ZW: You’ve talked in previous interviews about striving to meet people where they are. How does the Unbound Project do that?

JM: Unbound features women from many countries (I think over 20 thus far!) doing visible work, and under-the-radar work. They are leaders, lawyers, writers, artists, educators, leafletters, trail-blazers, quiet revolutionaries, bakers, rescuers, you name it.

I think that, in showing people the many roles we can take as animal advocates, it helps people see themselves in the women and see how they can use their own skills to help animals.

We don’t all need to be leaders, and we shouldn’t be. We can be solutionaries in many different ways.

ZW: Often you’re photographing horrific instances of cruelty and exploitation. With the Unbound Project you’re focused on people working toward positive solutions. What have you noticed about the impact (psychological or otherwise) of this shift?

JM: I think that if people are hit too often and too hard w/ the cruelty stories, we’re at risk of paralyzing them, and we’re definitely all at risk of compassion fatigue and news fatigue.

Stories of hope and change are important. I love that you talk about creating solutionaries. I agree.

I also love journalist David Bornstein’s focus on Solutions Journalism (he coined the term). People want solutions, and We Animals and Unbound need to offer those as well.

ZW: You also implemented the We Animals Humane Education Program. How has that been going, and how will you bring these stories of women advocates to that work?

JM: “The greatest danger to our future is our apathy,” said Jane Goodall. The We Animals Humane Ed programs aim to combat our apathy!

The humane ed programs are always well received and successful, and the plan is to make more time for them sometime soon.

I need three of me, that’s the problem! But I do speak regularly in schools and universities in order to inspire people and empower them in regards to thinking about, and acting on their concerns for, animals.

Keri and I have already started speaking about the Unbound women and for sure they will be a part of the humane ed programs. I’ll develop a talk solely about them as well. To be continued!

ZW: What gives you hope for a more compassionate and just world for people and animals?

JM: Seeing change, one person at a time. And I see every day that, through education, people’s hearts open up.

People are compassionate. I know that. That compassion just needs to be nurtured. We need to know that it’s ok, and right, to care, and to feel for others.

I also see more and more activism worldwide. The time is now to help save the world. The whole world. The animals, the environment, we humans, the whole package.

There’s not a minute to waste.

More and more people are doing creative and innovative work to help change things. I have hope.