Bearing witness to suffering is one of the most powerful things we can do

June 21, 2024

Jo-Anne McArthur is a Canadian award-winning photojournalist, animal rights activist, photo editor, author, and the founder and President of We Animals Media. She has documented the situation of animals in over sixty countries and is the initiator of Animal Photojournalism, mentoring photographers all around the world in We Animals Media Masterclasses. She joined Toronto Pig Save in its first year of activism in 2011. 

Jo-Anne McArthur describes how, as a child, she would go to zoos, but at the same time felt sorry for the animals.  

“I think a lot of kids feel that way, and a lot of people as well, but we are not supposed to. When we go to these institutions that put the animals on display for us, like rodeos, circuses, and bullfights, we think that this is kind of sad that the animal dies in a bullfight.” 

Jo-Anne recently had her 21 year vegan anniversary. She explains how her insights developed through contact with chickens in her early twenties. Suddenly it struck her how they all have their different personalities and behaviors and she felt she could no longer eat them. 

“I wish more people had the opportunity to meet the animals we eat. Many only see them packed in the grocery store. We don’t give them much thought. But I stopped eating chickens, and I stopped eating other animals. It was in the early days of the internet, and I emailed PETA for some pamphlets. The more I learned, the more I knew I didn’t want to participate in the abuse of animals.”

Jo-Anne always had the activist spirit in her and a lot of empathy for others. From a young age, she volunteered for humanitarian causes and walked dogs at shelters. She always wanted to help others. 

“I didn’t have fully formed thoughts about the ethos of giving back to the world and didn’t put it into any sophisticated words. I just had an idea of my privilege, and a strong idea that many people were suffering in the world and needed help. I can see that many people that start to give want to give more and more. We do it for others and the payback is that you feel more involved in the world, contributing to cleaning up this awful mess we have made.” 

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Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media. An Eastern grey kangaroo and her joey who survived the forest fires in Mallacoota. Mallacoota Area, Australia, 2020.

In love with photography

    Jo-Anne describes how she has always been in love with photography. When she realized that her pictures could create change in the world, by helping people, raising awareness, and raising money, she felt amazed. This was something she wanted to pursue for the rest of her life.

    “I did humanitarian work first. Then I realized that there was this huge population of “others” that no-one was photographing: the animals we keep hidden and on farms. Animals we eat, wear, use for entertainment, research on and so on. There was wildlife photography, conservation photography, pet portraits, all these things for some animals. But not all animals were included. That was when I realized I have my life’s work set out for me.”

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    Jo-Anne McArthur (right) at a Toronto Pig Save vigil

    Activism and photojournalism

    It has been important for her to influence other photographers, as photographers are influential people. They take a picture and get it published, and many people see it, sometimes globally. People doing animal photojournalism are changing the narrative. Suddenly, an image of a pig is featured instead of an orangutan, or a chicken instead of a tiger. 

    As an animal rights activist, she has covered many different areas with her pictures and has seen much suffering and extreme abuse of animals in factory farming and other forms of exploitation worldwide over the years. 

    “It has made me someone who will never quit my activism. Even if my activism changes shape over time, I am someone who will never quit. And we need more people to not quit animal activism, because there are so few of us doing it. It’s hard because it’s such a slow battle and so much suffering. It’s very daunting.”

    She emphasizes how the movement needs great advocates of all kinds. Everyone has something to contribute. 

    “I am hopeful. I am very aware of the bad and focus not only on the good, but want to empower people to do good. I do photography as my activism. But if you are a lawyer, you can use that as well. Or if you are a journalist, an artist, or a teacher.  Anything you are interested in you can use towards making the world a better place for others.”

    Part of her success she attributes to being a people person and a people pleaser, someone who wants to bring people towards her and make people happy. 

    “And because of my personality, I do bring people into my subject matter in a way that isn’t so alienating. It can even be inviting. I am thinking very much, often, and deeply about who my audience is. And not just what I feel and what I want to say. And how angry I am about how animals are treated. Of course, I am angry. There’s a lot to be angry about. Anger works sometimes, for a certain audience. But largely people need to feel empowered and supported and able to answer questions without being attacked.”

    Jo-Anne feels good when she is working and has always worked a lot. Taking action gives her energy. 

    “Taking action gives me more energy to take more action. When I come home from a slaughterhouse or an industrial farming complex, and edit the images, seeing that I have taken beautiful images, and put them on our stock site and make them available to the world. And then seeing them out in the world. That gives me the energy to keep going.”

    Her advice to others is to act in whatever way we can. “Helping others feels good. Action feels good. That’s energy raising.” 

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    Jo-Anne McArthur bearing witness at a Toronto Pig Save Vigil.

    Go close to suffering

    Jo-Anne says that we should not assume that our empathy will make us into activists. Sometimes we have a lot of empathy, but we don’t do much with it in terms of helping others. We Animals Media has the motto “Please don’t turn away”, echoing the mission of Animal Save Movement. 

    “We as humans don’t have a good relationship with suffering. We do everything we can to avoid it, largely with entertainment. But I think it is extremely important for us to look at suffering. And not turn away from it. You witness life and death in suffering. And that’s galvanizing.”

    She finds Animal Save Movement’s focus on bearing witness to suffering is one of the most powerful things she can do for others and for herself. In not turning away there is also the transformational aspect. 

    “At my first Toronto Pig Save vigil [in 2011] I was completely overwhelmed by how bad it was. Seeing the animals crammed into trucks. Fearful. Full of injuries. They go to slaughterhouses in hot weather and in cold weather. It’s much more shocking than you can imagine.”

    She believes that every action we take matters, however big or small it is. 

    “We might think it’s not even created a ripple, in terms of change, but it creates a change within us. Every time we sign a petition, write to a politician, take part in a protest, go to an animal vigil or say no to eating an animal product, it changes us for the better. Just take part, even if it can be daunting. But do it one step at a time. The more you do it, the more you strengthen that muscle. And the more you see how good it feels to play a part in making this a kinder world.”

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    Written by Anne Casparsson

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