Capturing Ghosts: Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur

Jo at Farm Sanctuary with Julia

I was fortunate enough to see a screener of the powerful new film, The Ghosts in Our Machine, as it gets ready for its United States debut this year. The film tells the story of our relationship to animals and how invisible that often is. Through the lens (literally) of a photojournalist, we see the struggle with how to live in a world that exploits animals at every turn. I reached out to the protagonist, Jo-Anne MacArthur, to discuss her role in the movie, and how she copes with seeing atrocity after atrocity.

Sam/TNTSU: I was first exposed to The Ghosts in Our Machine at AR2013 – there was a screening, but I missed it – so the whole premise took me by surprise. I thought it was going to be like  Earthlings, exposing the hidden animals in our world with a deep-voiced narrator telling us in gory details about the plight of these animals. Much to my surprise, and delight, as I began to watch the story of a young photojournalist. How was the idea pitched to you originally?

Jo-Anne McArthur: “Young photojournalist”. I am 36 years young :) Liz Marshall had been a good friend of mine for years. She’s a seasoned film maker and brings a lot of diverse skills and experience to all of her projects. After her film Water on the Table, she wanted to make a film that would tackle the animal question in such a way that would be reflexive and not directive for the audience. We are similar in that regard: we don’t want to tell people what to do, we want to present them with information, ideas and alternatives. So we we’re a good fit to work together. We also both wanted to produce work that would be visible and embraced by the main stream, rather than preaching to the choir about animal rights. She asked me if I would be the central human character in her next film. And the rest, as they say….

You’re often the one behind the lens, trying to artistically capture the sorrow and joy of the animals that we so often get to see. How did it feel to be on the other end of that relationship, having your actions front and center, and knowing that quite a few people are going to be watching them (in HD!)?

Haha! Well, it was a learning curve, but a short one I think (ask Liz, I suppose!). Actually Liz made it very easy because she works with cinematographers and sound technicians who are extremely unobtrusive. For the most part, I got used to it and eventually more or less forgot that they were there.

You mention in the film you have PTSD, and I believe many activists could empathize with the struggle we all feel; seeing, hearing, or knowing of countless animals who die every day for no good reason. How have you coped with the animal exploitation of the world since the filming? Have things gotten better for you?

I think that feeling traumatized by all we see and know about animal abuse is actually the correct response, not a strange one. But living with trauma every day isn’t sustainable and so we need to find ways to cope with that trauma. For many people, a great way to cope with the problems of systemic animal abuse is to become a part of the solution in a way that us sustainable for them.

The Ghosts film helps with coping, as you’ve suggested, by virtue of it being out there in the world, by it being seen and knowing that it’s making people think about animal abuse. We Animals has been getting positive feedback for years as well, which inspires me to keep pushing with the work. There are lots of heartfelt emails and positive messages each day about how the project or even just a single image has moved and changed someone.

Things are better now, yes. I had to work at it, and I had help as well. Peace came from taking better care of myself than I did in the past. It came as a surprise to me when I discovered that I don’t actually have any superpowers! I, too, was susceptible to becoming depressed in the face of so much suffering. I had to go back to some very healthy basics, like eating well, working a bit less, sleeping more, spending time with loved one and, most importantly, celebrating change and being thankful for all the hope and change I see in this world. I also read an illuminating book which should be required reading for all activists, called “Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World, A Guide for Activist and Their Allies” by pattrice jones.

Pigs at a slaughterhouse in Canada. Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Pigs at a slaughterhouse in Canada. Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Has there been progress in the area of pitching these ideas to large magazines or news outlets since the filming? Have you been able to secure, as you mention in the film, an assignment-based position that makes the best use of your talents?

I wish I had a great answer for you. We Animals is more visible than ever, through campaigns and through the Ghosts film. I haven’t been assigned any great shoots from mainstream media, but I’m doing more than ever for animal organizations and images from We Animals are shared worldwide on social media. At least they are getting out there more and more. One of the issues is that I don’t make time to get images out into magazines. I’m kept hugely busy with working with organizations, the Ghosts film, the upcoming We Animals book. When I *do* make the time to do outreach to mainstream media outlets, there is some success. There have been a few 8- to 10-page spreads in magazines of the We Animals work. And I have some help now in getting the work visible. Redux Pictures represent me as a contributing photographer but I don’t think my business model – giving away all images for free to anyone helping animals – works in their favour! But I do this because I am an animal activist first, and a photographer second. Mind you it would really be nice to not have to fund We Animals through shooting weddings and events. Someday soon it will be self-sustaining. It’s on its way to becoming that.

Since I often discuss technology issues on the blog, can you talk a bit about what’s in your camera bag? We saw Lightroom used in the film (on Windows, no less!) and I’m sure you employ an arsenal of lenses, bodies, and so forth. How has your rig changed over the years?

No arsenal, that’s for sure. Nice and simple. And yes, PC, not Mac. I really dislike Mac. Gasp! I used both PC and Mac for years and really can’t stand Mac systems, or their monopoly on gadgets these days, or their unwillingness to make their products compatible with other tools. ANYWAY. Lightroom is the greatest product Adobe’s ever made. Love the filing and the all-in-one suite that it has become.
I always have on me 2 bodies, 3 lenses, a flash and a whatsitcalled… the thing you see me holding in the fur farm, the light. It’s called LitePro or LitePanel or something. The bodies are Nikon (gasp!), the D800 is my love, the D700 is my ex-love but still really useful. The lenses are also Nikon, sharp and fast. Wide: 17-35mm f2/8. Mid: 50mm f1/8 (swoon!). Long: 135mmf2 (swoon again!). I sometimes bring the “boom stick”, which is my very long lens: 100-400mm f4-5.6, like when I was in the Antarctic with Sea Shepherd, for example, or when I’m shooting chimps running around outdoors at a sanctuary. Generally though I use the 50mm the most, and get nice and close to the animals I’m photographing.

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Hens from an open rescue by Igualidad Animal. Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Your photo policy on We Animals reflects a Creative Common license, allowing photo use for organizations wishing to promote an animal rights message. How does this policy intersect with your professional goals and pitches to major news outlets? Do you spend much time monitoring copyright usage of your photos?

I covered some of this in the last question, not realizing this one was waiting for me. It’s a different financial model for sure! Some photographers don’t like it – it puts not just my career in jeopardy but theirs as well; we are so often expected to give all of our hard work away for a pittance, or for free, for “the chance to be published”. It’s awful. However, my work is to help animals, and I will do that in any way that I can. I’m happy with this route for We Animals, most of the time. I used to avoid watermarking because it just ruins the integrity of the image, and yet, people can’t be trusted to give a photo credit, though almost all the organizations I work with now are being great about that. Photo credit is in part what allows the We Animals work to thrive, become more well known, and helps the project grow. I monitor usage but can’t at all keep up with it, so I am sort of resigned to knowing that often the photo is being used without credit but at least it’s being seen. As you saw on the We Animals site, this gesture of free usage is granted to those helping animals, not to for-profits. I have started asking organizations who use We Animals images heavily to make a donation to the project if they are able, to help me continue the work, and they often do. There is a lot of good will and willingness to help the project thrive.

In the film, the idea of telling a story versus using statistics comes up. Have you found that in terms of effective activism, using these personal connections is better than the macro-approach of “we have to save the world because of X, Y, and Z?”

I think there are many forms of effective activism and story-telling happens to be mine. It’s what I’m good at. Some people make changes based on stats, health, direct cause and effect, etc. Others will eschew all animal products in a heartbeat when they hear my stories about Julia the pig or Miracle the moon bear.

Toronto Pig Save was kind enough to send our local group some “Why Love One and Eat The Other” signs for a demonstration we did at a local slaughterhouse. Their challenging message makes people confront the issue, and I’d like to use that as a springboard for a discussion of how “aggressive” you think vegan outreach should be:

Speaking only for me, I try to be gentle and non-directive in my animal rights work. It’s just how I roll, it’s what I’m comfortable with, and I find that it allows people to open up to me and ask questions without fear of being judged. Some people are great at being more assertive and remaining positive. I think that aggressiveness, in general, scares and alienates people. Not just with vegan outreach but as a general life thing! It’s a huge topic. I will leave it at that.

As the film begins to debut around the country, what are you most looking forward to?

Now feels like the time that we (the Ghosts team and I) get to reap some of the rewards for all the work we’ve put into making this film coming to life. We’re touring with the film, meeting amazing people, having great conversations and seeing people be moved by our efforts. It’s encouraging to know that people are eating fewer, or no, animals, because of the film. They tell us this daily, it’s just so wonderful. People ask us “What can we do to help improve this situation?” By them asking, the film has done its job.

The film also gives much more visibility to my work and so far it’s been an opportunity to expand the We Animals Humane Education Programs and it was also the push I needed to get the first We Animals book finished, which will be in hand in North America by the first week of December.

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Bullfighting in Spain. “This is a photograph of the bulls last breath. His head then sank and his eyes closed.” Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Thank you for your time, and for everything that do you for the animals. Anything else you’d like to add:

The We Animals book that you see me writing in the Ghosts film has now been beautifully designed by Paul Shoebridge of The Goggles fame (think Adbusters magazine), edited and published by Martin Rowe of Lantern Books. It’s a 208-page, hard cover book with over 100 images and stories about the animals I’ve met over the last decade or so, and the predicaments the find themselves in because of humans. There are also stories of mercy and hope, and the book ends with “Notes From the Field”, a section which details, through a small collection of journal entries, what it’s like to do investigative animal work. The book can be pre-ordered at amazon.com.

People can read more about the book here: www.weanimals.org/book, or reach me for information about the Humane Ed programs here: info@humaneeducation.ca.
I’d like to thank Jo-Anne for doing this interview, and encourage all of you to find a way to see The Ghosts in Our Machine! It’s screening in NYC and LA in a couple weeks, and should be hitting theaters around the country by the end of the year. Local screenings (through local veg groups, etc.) will start up in 2014. Check out their extensive website, too!

Photo (top): Anita Krajnc

  • Erin

    Thanks Joanne for everything you do.