Award-winning photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur has traveled the globe for the past 15 years, documenting the often unimaginably sad lives of animals usually relegated to the background or hidden entirely from view: desperate raccoon dogs on a fur farm; the cold isolation of beluga whales in small tanks at aquarium parks; a lonely performing elephant chained outside a circus; pigs destined to become meat. As a photographer whose work has helped to draw back the curtains on the often concealed industries or the very out in the open ways that living beings are turned into consumable products, Jo-Anne’s purview is specific but also immense. With haunting, extraordinary images that pull viewers in, Jo-Anne has found enough of an audience for her work to have had the unforgettable We Animals collection of her photos published and even was the subject of the 2013 documentary, The Ghosts in Our Machine. As co-founder of The Unbound Project, Jo-Anne works to shine a spotlight on women around the globe who are leading the efforts to build a more just and kind world, and she is also planning to have her next collection, Captive, published this summer. In the midst of all this, Jo-Anne has recently made her voluminous archive of photographs available for free to the public via her searchable database, the We Animals Archives. Individuals, organizations, and media outlets are encouraged to use her credited photos, which is an incredible resource for opening eyes and hearts to informed, compassionate living. (Please consider donating to help this important effort continue.) I am honored to feature Jo-Anne McArthur as this week’s Vegan Rockstar.
1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?
Short version, sorry! Longer version can be found in several interviews including this comprehensive one by Farm Sanctuary, and in the introduction to the We Animals book. Please have a look!
There were some defining moments for sure. I realized that I saw animals differently than others did. The macaque chained to a window in Ecuador disturbed me, while others took tourist photos of the poor animal. At one point my mother had 10 chickens living at her home in the country. I became friends with them; they were just like the dogs and cat. They wanted to socialize, be in the house, get attention, do things. It was then that I realized that there was no distinction between the chickens I ate, and the dogs I called family. They were all the same. I stopped eating meat, and then I became vegan on my first day as a Farm Sanctuary intern on April 1st 2003.
2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?
At the time I felt that veganism would be a huge deprivation and exertion of will power. I didn’t know any vegans, really (just one tall skinny dude from my tree planting days; he’d eschew the massive buffet after work and eat an entire watermelon). I’d have been reassured to know that I would not feel deprived, that I would still fit in to society, that dinner parties wouldn’t be a place of worry about food and food topics, that I could (and did) just chill about all that. On the one hand, becoming vegan is life changing for sure, but it doesn’t mean you have to rearrange every single aspect of your life. I’d have benefitted from being told that it’s not “deprivation” eating, it’s just “different” eating.
3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?
I have a “let them start the conversation” approach. Spend a few minutes with me and you’ll see what’s on my plate, you’ll have found out that I’m an animal rights photojournalist…and these are interesting things! I’m friendly and happy, which allows people to feel comfortable asking me questions about what I do, what I eat, and why. The conversations happen inevitably, and they can see that my choices are a joy, not a deprivation.
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
Its growing diversity. We are no longer all doing the same types of work or outreach. We are doctors, lawyers, neuroscientists, ethologists, writers, chefs, educators, comedians, influencers, high tech company upstarts and all the rest. We’re shattering stereotypes and we are making the message mainstream.
5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
We’re all very opinionated about this, aren’t we? :) My short answer is that people like to think they are coming to a decision on their own. They feel more empowered. Do your best to let them. More showing, less shoving.
6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
Why vegan? Because it’s a joy. For my body, my spirituality and my intellect, it makes sense. And because it’s a great choice for so many reasons: the animals, the planet, and our bodies.
7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?
When I started looking for veg-related materials, I wasn’t on the internet much! That was pre-2000. So I thought of the group most people did at the time. PETA! I got PETA pamphlets. From there I saw Peaceable Kingdom, The Witness, and then A Sea of Slaughter, written and narrated by Farley Mowat. That was a 45-minute documentary and I stopped eating fish after that. It was that simple. Influential authors had, at the time, been Erik Marcus and Peter Singer, as well as cookbooks by Jo Stepaniak and Robin Robertson. I read fewer strictly AR books these days, and more about ethology by scientists and philosophers like Carl Safina, Jonathan Balcombe and Lori Gruen.
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
I’m not exactly a shining example of self care. I’m just extremely driven and energetic when it comes to working long hours. The rewards are the change I see due to the work I do. What does recharge me though is being in nature, and running, and long stretches of reading in a stuffed, oversized chair or couch. And daydreaming. I need time to daydream because that’s when the ideas and plans work themselves out. It’s nice to do that on a big comfy couch as well, while drinking tea and staring at the wall, or on a plane.
9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
We tend to give up meat eating in the order from largest to smallest animals. However, if we want to reduce animal suffering, we should start with the fish and the chickens and the egg-laying hens because they suffer in vastly greater numbers. Want to make a dent in animal suffering? Start with those animals! If we all ate less and less chicken, we’d be sparing billions upon billions of lives from misery.
10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”
…a joy. It’s an easy thing that I can do to make the world a better, kinder place. It’s a way for me to live in line with my values and have a fulfilling life. As they say at Edgar’s Mission in Australia: If we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?