Photography, the American public and animal activism

Photographing animals isn’t easy, particularly when you see cruelty or euthanasia is involved. I haven’t seen the movie, “The Ghosts in our Machine,” which is about photographer Jo-Anne McArthur. McArthur is an animal rights activist photographer and according to the view by Scott Jordan Harris, posted on, she travels the world and is often rebuffed by magazines when she attempts to get her photos published.

This reminded me of my time as a volunteer photographer at the Pasadena Humane Society. I grew up wanting to photograph animals, but you have to start somewhere. Animal shelters have plenty of dogs and cats–too many as most people know.

I once photographed their whole calendar, but the cost of digital equipment eventually killed my photography aspirations. Yet the experience was both eye-opening and heartbreaking. I also volunteered for a breed rescue. More recently, I got my certification in small animal (cat and dog) massage. I know something about animals and I thought I could provide context for Harris’ review.

According to Harris’ review, “Early on there is footage of a meeting, frustrating for us and maddening for her, at which she is told what she is always told: Her pictures are excellent and her work is admirable, but the images she submits are too upsetting to be printed by most magazines.”


At my volunteer orientation at PHS, the shelter vet began uncontrollably sobbing. He would quit soon after. Summer might mean beach and a breezy nightlife to most people, but to animal shelters and rescue workers and volunteers, it is the high season for animal turn-ins and puppy and kitten euthanasia. One of my friends reminded me, “You can’t save them all.” Those that try, of course, become animal hoarders.

During my years volunteering, I did get to visit two sites being raided after the animal hoarders were served warrants, I followed the trial of a woman who kept 13 cats and 13 dogs in a Dodge mini van, I saw investigatory photographs and went on a couple of ride-alongs, including one where the dog owners’ relative brought a gun. I saw trash cans filled with carcasses of cats and dogs. I listened to volunteers and others who had reached their emotional limit. I also learned a lot about the squeamish American public.

Photos of starving dogs are too upsetting. Dark-colored dogs are harder to adopt. Attempts are made to never have a row of kennels with all black dogs for that reason. Photos of snakes (and other reptiles) will turn away donors.

By the time I was volunteering, I already knew Americans were more squeamish than the rest of the world. In Japan, where I took aim with my first 35 mm camera, I saw death on nature films–graphic depictions of animals hunting and killing. I learned that at the time, nature documentaries for general audiences had to be softened for the American market. How far we’ve come from our pioneer and farming origins.

(To be fair, I should also note that when the Japanese animation “Astro Boy” was translated into English, all references to death were also taken out according to the original translator who I interviewed years ago. )

Animal deaths in public view are more common place in other places such as Hong Kong where I saw a man gutting a life frog, or Japan where people want their fish and seafood really fresh or Nepal where animal sacrifice is still practiced (as graphically shown in the 2008 documentary “Living Goddess”).

The reality is, the American public doesn’t want to see the horrors of an animal shelters. When I was going to the animal shelter every other day, I, too, became depressed. For a while, I was taking photos of six dogs and six cats, getting the film processed and then picking up the photos, finding out which animals were still alive and then taking the photos to be published in a local weekly. I knew which animals I had chosen and played with  had been put down. No one wanted to hear my sorrow.

I also had the opportunity to see a PETA protest at a small circus in town as a fundraiser for a local school. The protesters were so concerned about the treatment of a single Asian elephant, they overlooked clear violations in regards to the other domestic animals (in terms of availability of water). Since public school grounds are not open access to the public, the protesters were across the street. When their protest didn’t seem to have the desired effect, they decided to stage an arrest by choosing someone to invade the school grounds and get in someone’s face. The protester strode on to the grounds, was told to leave, refused and was carried out, face down, by four police officers. The whole incident was caught by the PETA photographer.

As an ethnic Asian, I thought perhaps people forgot that in some areas elephants are used as domestic animals still and historically they were even used in the military (e.g. Hannibal, son of Hamilcar Barca and not the Hannibal of cannibal fame).

McArthur covers many animal rights topics. The documentary has apparently provided that extra push (along with an Indiegogo campaign) and she is publishing her first book, “We Animals,” so her mission for publication has been accomplished.

Yet as Harris points out with so wide-ranging a topic, there is no room for specifics. Harris noted that beagles used in medical experiments could potentially save lives and this is very different from mink and fox fur farms.

The foxes and minks must be killed. The beagles often do survive and can be adopted through such organizations as the Beagle Freedom Project. This may be true for other lab animals because one of my college housemates had an old lab rabbit. On the other hand, the protest against the usage of primates for experimentation argues that these animals have a greater level of intelligence than others as demonstrated by Washoe and Nim. (You can read my review of Project Nim).

From viewing McArthur’s “We Animals” website, I cringed when I saw she included zoos. Growing up in San Diego, with the San Diego Zoo and Animal Park always in the news, my family has always been concerned about animal welfare. Yet like research with beagles, some good has come from zoos and with the recent declaration of the extinction of the Western Black rhino subspecies, they might be the only hope for some animals. Having traveled and seen other zoos, I know that not all zoos are created equal, but for some animal rights activists, all zoos should be closed. If all animals are given the same rights as humans, would zoos become extinct?

San Diego is also the home of the original SeaWorld (opened in 1964). A recent visit to SeaWorld made me feel it was less about conservation and education and more about merchandising and feeding and entertaining a captive audience with captive animals. The recent documentary “Blackfish” only strengthened my distaste for one of San Diego’s signature tourist attractions although SeaWorld has been celebrated in the past for rescuing animals in distress.

As a fledgling photographer, my experiences with rescue and animals shelters taught me the American public is squeamish, so upon reading Harris’ review, I thought using such a meeting in the documentary was a bit gratuitous, but I suppose it works better in the documentary to show instead of tell, but a documentary should be careful to tell and not mislead.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.