Jo-Anne McArthur on love, concern and hope

Dairy veal farm in Spain. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals.

Dairy veal farm in Spain. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals.


Research by Louise Pomfrett.

Jo Anne McArthur is the award-winning photojournalist, author and educator behind We Animals, a celebrated archive of photographs that documents animals in the human environment. The name is significant: highlighting our shared attributes with the sentient creatures we use for food, clothing, research, experimentation, entertainment and more.

McArthur has been documenting the plight of animals on all seven continents for over a decade. Her work aims to break down the barriers that humans have built which allow us to treat non-human animals as objects. Over one hundred animal groups have benefited from her photography, many of which continue to work closely with Jo-Anne today on stories, investigations, campaigns and humane education. Her work has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, the Huffington Post, and Earth Island Journal. Jo-Anne is the subject of Liz Marshall's acclaimed documentary The Ghosts In Our Machine (; her first book, also entitled We Animals, was published by Lantern Books in 2013. Recent awards include the Institute for Critical Animal Studies Media Award; Farm Sanctuary's 2010 "Friend of Farm Animals" award and HuffPost WOMEN's "Top 10 Women trying to change the world". She is one of 20 activists featured in the book The Next Eco Warrior. She spoke to hownowmag about her work. 

I first met you at a Lush Studios Soapbox event. Do you find yourself giving more talks now?

That wasn’t the plan but yes, it’s a big part of my work now. It’s a great way of reaching people. I remember people who came in to speak at my school. There was a man who worked for UNICEF who had just got back from Ethiopia and I remember looking up to him so much and thinking maybe I could do something that cool. So you can plant a seed …

A bull dies after a bullfight in Spain. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals.

A bull dies after a bullfight in Spain. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals.

You’ve spoken about the Institute of Humane Education, a philosophy which links human rights, environmental sustainability, and animal protection.

I’m so inspired by what Zoe Weil, the founder, has done. She’s built something fantastic that more and more people are studying. What she identified is that, of course, maths and sciences and arts are important but what about social responsibility? How do we learn to be kind people? It’s not often a focus in the home or at school and it’s a skill that needs to be learned and developed. More and more schools are implementing these programmes. Some call it humane education, others call it social responsibility criteria. It’s one branch of the We Animals’ work.

How has the animal rights movement has changed in the past decade?

It’s grown dynamically and that’s exciting. We’re not all doing the same things as before. From clean meat to arts and journalism, it’s multi-faceted [which also means] we can be less pigeonholed. For example, animal law is a growing field - and the more lawyers and scientists we have on board, the more people are going to say, “Ah. Those people have a point.”

We can all take part ….

You can have any kind of career and passion and use it to make the world a better place, not just for animals but for people and the environment. There are so many ways we can contribute.

One of the reasons for the growth in animal rights is the work of undercover investigators like yourself.

We Animals is growing into We Animals Media, so that we have many more content creators, journalists, filmmakers and photographers involved - because the demand is there. For decades now, the kids have been prying open that door to the media and to public consciousness, getting them to look and to not turn away. That is slowly happening and one of the pieces of the puzzle is certainly proof that the images and film [work].

What else needs to happen to improve the rights of animals?

We need to be making friends, not enemies, collaborating with other organisations that intersect with animal rights. And there is a lot of intersect. We can work with labour rights groups, humanitarian groups, environmental groups. Look at deforestation which ties into animal rights; look at all the horribly underpaid people working in slaughterhouses who are susceptible to injury. That should not be happening - and neither should the killing. And we can also work with corporations, not against them, to reduce the amount of animals they’re killing for public consumption. I was a typical animal rights activist, extremely combative and feeling like it was me against the world. There are legitimate reasons for that but, on the other hand, the more I learn to work with media and with organisations in a more transparent and objective way, the farther our reach.

It’s frustrating when people can’t accept the sentience and intelligence of animals. 

I wish that the subjective arguments would weigh on people the way they weigh on me. They’re not subjective, they’re objective arguments about sentience and cruelty. But just talking about those things does not equate a conversion to a more empathetic person with more compassionate choices. It doesn’t work that way for most people.

Macaque breeding facility, Laos. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals.

Macaque breeding facility, Laos. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals.

What are the challenges of what you do?

As I approach a mink farm or chicken farm or a zoo, a familiar gravity and stress sets in. I’m going to a place where I’m facing hundreds, even thousands of animals in a single night who I’m photographing but I cannot help. My work helps to reduce the amount of suffering but it doesn’t reduce their suffering. That’s a very high cost for anyone to pay emotionally. There’s guilt but I don’t carry it because that would have just burn me out and I would have quit years ago. There’s a lot of gravity that one carries as a witness. I’m sure war photographers would say the same thing. 

In terms of physical challenge, sometimes, my team and I go a long way with very little information. We went to the macaque breeding facilities in south east Asia. There was this story we wanted to tell for a film called Maximum Tolerated Dose. We did a lot of research but we couldn’t find the location. It was getting down to the last minute so we just said, ok, let’s go. Sometimes,  you have to hit the ground running. You invest time and finance and then you put yourself at great risk because you’re trespassing and you’re lying. We did get into three farms over the course of a month and, because of the work we did there, we were able to help close two of those farms.

Pig farm in Italy. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals.

Pig farm in Italy. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals.

But, at one of those places, we did not know we were dealing with a kingpin in poaching in Asia. And life is very cheap for this individual. We could have been in massive danger if he’d found us out. We get chased out of properties a lot and most of my investigator friends have been incarcerated at least for a couple of nights or beat up while doing an investigation. We put ourselves at great risk but we’re also extremely determined to reveal the hidden truths so we take these risks again and again.

How do you put aside memories of what you’ve seen? 

We are confronted with awful things. I needed therapy eventually. Even those bearing witness on Facebook are traumatised. There are some fantastic books out there. Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World by Pattrice Jones, is a hand guide for animal activists. And it’s important to nurture joy, whatever shape that takes. For me, it’s a certain amount of solitude, reading and writing. Other people need to immerse themselves in community. We have to do those things because animal rights is a revolving door of people. After two years, [activists] can get exhausted and tired and then they leave animal rights. That’s terrible for the animals so people need to be happy and stay.

I was struck by the extraordinary generosity of the We Animals Archive, which makes so much for your work available for free. 

[That’s because] the work is fundamentally and truly about helping animals. They’re not for me to make a living from. We’re slowly moving towards different models of funding - through monthly donations but also donations.

Why are animals important to you? 

People assume immediately that it’s about my love for them but primarily it’s my concern for them. Certainly, I am in love with and amazed and enthralled by animals but the driving force is the concern for how we treat them, how we neglect them, how we abuse them and how invisible and unconsidered that is in our world. It’s a huge undertaking to expose that. Some people are never going to love, or be amused or be enthralled by animals but we can try to reach their rational side and instil a care and concern which could, potentially, lead to action.

Donkey sanctuary in Nepal. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals.

Donkey sanctuary in Nepal. Picture: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals.

You’ve begun working more in Asia. 

The BRIC countries including Indonesia and India are growing economies and that means increased meat eating. [But] it also means increased activism so this is interesting to us because we’d like to be able to contribute to that activism. We don’t need to go in as white people, pointing the finger and coming back to North America and Europe with photos for Europeans and North Americans. We want to be able to contribute to the really excellent groups who are working there and who are also producing great media. We’d really like to curb the rise in meat eating through our skills. It’s getting more challenging across the world because of animal enterprise terrorism acts and ag-gag laws. These industries are much more savvy now to animal activism and our tactics but that’s also why we need to be increasingly creative in how we tell stories, what we do, how we reach people.

You’ve been vegan for 15 years. Tell me about that journey.

[At the beginning] I thought that I would be craving all the time but it’s a joy. Intellectually and spiritually and emotionally, I’m living in line with how I want to be in the world. That’s such a prize. I became vegan during an internship at Farm Sanctuary where you have to be vegan out of respect for the animals. I was vegetarian at the time and I thought ‘oh, veganism, that’s so extreme. I’ll go back to being vegetarian in a month when I’m done.’ But, even after 24 hours, I felt so aligned that I knew I would never go back. They say veganism seems extreme, but what’s extreme is killing billions and billions of animals for our massive over consumption. If everyone were to move further away from meat consumption, the world would be a better place. That’s why we need to work harder. But this is actually a nice way to live. So many people live for their own pleasure. That’s not the mark that I want to leave on the world. I want to leave a mark that says, ‘I tried to make this a happier place for everyone.’ A photographer asked me recently ‘how do you get happiness from your work?’ And I said, ‘well, that’s not the point for me.  It’s a pleasure to contribute to society.’ Hopefully, with education, that’s what we can instil in people.