Here’s Why Jo-Anne McArthur Is the Most Important Animal Photographer of our Time

When it comes to animal activism, I’ve always believed the most powerful tools we have as activists are undercover investigations. The truth is that the majority of animal cruelty at the hands of humans is done for major industries behind closed doors. From animal farming for food and textiles, to zoos and circuses, to laboratories, etc. – all of these industries know that if the public saw how they regularly mistreat animals, people would be outraged.

It’s why you can’t just walk up to a factory farm or an animal testing facility, knock on the door, and ask for a tour. It’s why states across the US have passed ag-gag laws that attempt to criminalize undercover investigations. It’s also why Ringling Bros. is out of business.

While undercover operations carried out by brave animal activists have been going on for decades, there is one activist I’d specifically like to spotlight: Jo-Anne McArthur.

Rabbit slaughter
Photo credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

Even if you’ve never heard her name, you’ve likely seen her photographs. McArthur’s award-winning, powerful and haunting work has been featured in National Geographic, HuffPost, and Photolife – among many other media outlets. Her subject? Animals in the human environment. For more than a decade, McArthur has traveled to over 40 countries documenting how animals are exploited by humans for food, clothing, entertainment, research, and more. Her photos have been used by more than 100 campaigns spanning the globe. Each campaign has a similar goal: to end animal suffering.

McArthur’s most recent images exposed the devastating cruelty inside Thailand’s pig slaughterhouses. The photos were so powerful The Guardian published them in an unflinching article that details the horrors of pig farming in that part of the world. One particularly heartbreaking photo shows a pig kneeling before she is clubbed by workers. In response to this image, McArthur commented on her social media:

Everyone asks how I can handle bearing witness to so much violence. It is brutal – words are hard to find – but I find catharsis in action, and momentum surges through people who choose to look and not turn away. Fifteen years ago, it would have been near impossible to get this image seen but we’re amid a global rise of engagement in animal journalism, a collective seeing. This photograph, her story, can foster change, and that is what keeps me grounded.

Personally, I’ve always seen McArthur as less of an investigator and more of a war photographer. Her images don’t just document abuse, they transcend, allowing the viewer to peer into the souls of animals. In one image we see despair, grief, and aguish. In another we see fear, terror.

An emaciated fox on a fur farm
Photo credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

The term anthropomorphism has historically been used to criticize animal activists for falsely attributing human emotions to animals. That’s rubbish. Anyone who’s lived with a dog or a cat knows that animals have rich emotional lives. Looking at McArthur’s images, it is impossible to deny the pain we cause animals. We know it because we recognize it. It’s right there in their eyes.

A pig being transported to a slaughterhouse
Photo credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

McArthur’s unprecedented access to some of the most hellish places on Earth and her extensive photo catalogue arguably make her the most prolific and seminal animal photographer of our time. That’s why it’s all the more extraordinary that she’s made her images free through her We Animals project to any individual or organization who advocates on behalf of animals. All she asks is a simple credit.

We Animals is a publicly funded endeavor that allows McArthur to do her vital work. If you’re financially able, I’d urge you to help support it. You can do so here. McArthur also has two books in print, We Animals and Captive – and she was the subject of the documentary The Ghosts In Our Machine (2013).

A penguin on display at a mall in Thailand
Photo credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

McArthur’s groundbreaking work forces the world to bear witness to scenes most would rather not know exist. But bearing that witness is essential. As she put it in own words in an interview from a 2013:

We can’t change or care unless we know. Unless we’re told, shown, explained. Exposing the truth is the only hope for animals.

Main image: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals