Empathy is difficult without awareness. And the single most important reason that humanity tolerates horrific cruelty to animals–in multiple industries, from food, to cosmetics, to furs, to entertainment, to health research–is that the true experience of animals at the hands of humans is mostly, and intentionally, hidden.
Enter photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, whose life mission is to document the lives of animals–their experiences, their conditions, their emotions, their helplessness–who are subordinated to human needs and industries. It is incredibly powerful work, partly because McArthur is tireless in her efforts to get behind the smokescreens and obstacles thrown up to hide reality, partly because she is a good photographer, and mostly because what humans do to animals in humanity’s constant pursuit of profit and self-gratification is simply unconscionable.
McArthur’s mission and work is featured in an affecting new documentary, The Ghosts In Our Machine, by director Liz Marshall. That is a perfect title, I think, and I love to idea that the film and McArthur’s photography seeks to bring the ghosts, which are so easy to ignore or miss, to life. You can’t feel good about a fox fur coat after you see McArthur’s haunting photos of foxes in pens at a fur farm.
In the documentary, the cameras follow McArthur in her work, as she sneaks into facilities to photograph animals, as she tries to pitch her photos to photo editors who worry they are too shocking and unnerving for the public (well, that’s the point!), and as she recovers and draws strength from a farm sanctuary, where animals live more natural, and meaningful lives. “I feel like a war photographer,” McArthur says, and she is. There is a war on animals, and most people are in denial about it. Which is why McArthur’s photo odyssey, and The Ghosts In Our Machine, are important creative works.
Many viewers will find the scenes in The Ghosts In Our Machine shocking, and maybe revelatory (though sometimes I wonder how anyone can NOT know what is happening to animals, how anyone can remain honestly ignorant). And for anyone who really does not know what happens at a factory farm, McArthur’s photos alone are probably sufficient to open eyes and inspire questions. Still, we are a society that likes to learn via video, and I have seen the power of documentary to reach people through the Blackfish experience.
So, while The Ghosts In Our Machine does not really have a true narrative or take viewers much beyond the fact of animal cruelty (it is more like a meditation), it is critical that we first acknowledge the cruelty. So it is very powerful to see McArthur at work, and hopefully her choices as a human, and her dedication to revealing the truth, will wake people up and help them examine more closely their own lives and how their own choices affect the lives of animals across the planet.