Photographing the Ghosts: Interview with Jo-Anne McArthur

By on September 19, 2013

Jo-Anne McArthur

Award-winning photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur has been documenting the plight of animals on all seven continents for more than ten years. Her project, We Animals, represents her mission to photograph animals in the human environment: “We Animals aims to break down the barriers that humans have built which allow us to treat non-human animals as objects and not as beings with moral significance.”

She is also the subject of the acclaimed documentary film The Ghosts in Our Machine, which follows her in the U.S., Canada, and Europe as she photographs the hidden victims – the ghosts – of our modern machine producing food, clothing, entertainment and biomedical research. Jo-Anne has contributed her artistic and technical skills to campaigns and investigations by more than 100 animal organizations around the world, including Igualdad Animal, Sea Shepherd and the Jane Goodall Institute. Her first We Animals photo book will be released later this year.

Behind the gorgeous and gripping photographs is a thoughtful and passionate activist for animal liberation.

 What does your veganism mean to you?

I thought it would be a difficult thing until I’d done it for just one day. To my surprise, a weight had lifted. I felt better about myself and my place in the world. More at peace. I could look an animal in the eye and know that I was not exploiting them in any way, that I was no longer responsible for the suffering of so many sentient individuals. Veganism is one of the kindest ways to navigate this world.

How did you get involved in photography and what caused you to decide to focus on nonhuman animals?

I don’t plan much. I’d always loved taking photos and looking at photos. Photography 101 was something I could take as an elective at university and by the end of that first class, I was totally enthralled. I’m a story-teller by nature and the camera is a great tool for story-gathering. After a few years of shooting random stories both near and afar (travelling is also in my bones. Thanks Mum!) I learned that I could use this amazing tool, the camera, for social change, and I could also combine my two loves – taking photos, and helping animals – to help make the world a better place. Somewhere in that process, my long-term photo project, We Animals, was born.

Many of your photographs portray such pain and suffering. They can be difficult to look at. I can’t imagine the trauma you must suffer being in the presence of that pain and suffering and not being to alleviate their suffering. How do you deal with the emotional and physical trauma you experience? Can you share some tips on self-care and avoiding burnout?

The last thing this movement needs is to have activists burning out! I thought I was invincible…until I wasn’t. A few years ago, after almost a decade of being an activist, I realized that I was waking up in the morning and the very first image in my head would be that of a pig in a gestation crate or some other awful scenario; the stuff that traumatizes and haunts so many people who care for and work on behalf of animals.

What I’ve learned is that we need to balance the bad with the good, and try to have balanced lives. I used to think “How can I make time for balance and joy, when billions of animals are suffering? There’s work to do!” And work I did. Until I became seriously depressed. Therapy helped. Finding tools to manage stress and pain was essential, and I actually learned a lot of those tools from the amazing Pattrice Jones and her book “Aftershock.” Every activist should own this book! Also, going back to the basics of self-care are crucial: adequate amounts of sleep, good food, lots of water and quality time with loved ones. Truth! And celebrating the good, rejoicing in the wins and the rescues and the changes we also bear witness to. This too is essential.

In addition to photographing and documenting animal exploitation, you also focus on farm sanctuaries. Can you talk a bit about the importance of farm sanctuaries? (Please see Jo-Anne’s blog “The Crucial Role of Sanctuaries in the Animal Liberation Movement”)

It’s extremely important that I focus my camera, and message, on the good as well as the bad. There are so many incredible efforts to help animals, happening globally, every minute of every day. Documenting these efforts gives them visibility and more support, and also gives up all hope and inspiration.

Strategically, this is also about a diversity of tactics in the We Animals project. While some people will look at the investigative photography from the project – the images of animals used in factory farms, fur farms, and in research, for example – and be moved to abdicate their involvement in these industries by changing their consumer habits, others might only be moved by the stories of rescues and companionship between us and non-human animals. We’re all moved to act and change by different motivators. Some of us are motivated to change by witnessing the horrors of animal industry. Others are moved by stories of beauty, love and rescue.

Tell us about your upcoming book, We Animals. When will it be available for purchase?

The first We Animals book (published by Lantern Books) is already available for pre-order on line here. It’s a 208-page hardcover photo book, accompanied by the written stories of the animals within its pages, and explanations of animal use, and abuse, around the globe. The last chapter, Notes from the Field, is a short collection of journal entries, written while in the midst of investigative work both at home and abroad.

I’ve been shooting these photos, collecting these stories, for well over a decade and I’m thrilled that they are finally in book format. It’s just one more venue for getting the message out.

The hard copies of the book should finally arrive at the publisher’s warehouse in early December. I’m counting the minutes til I can get the orders out and into the hands of everyone who is anticipating its arrival!

The upcoming documentary film The Ghosts in Our Machine documents your work. The film opened up to rave reviews throughout Canada. As we speak, venues are being set for the US world premieres. Can you talk about what the film means to you and how The Thinking Vegan readers can support it, such as funding the film’s Indiegogo campaign?

It’s an honor that the film’s Director, Liz Marshall, asked if I would work with her on this amazing film. Liz crafted a truly beautiful, gentle and important film that will help people understand how animals live, suffer and die at our hands. Like We Animals, the Ghosts film also weaves a narrative that is neither based in shock value footage nor wallows in the darkness of animal exploitation. Again it comes back to balancing the bad with the good, and learning from both.

Our work is a good match because we not only have an appreciation for the same sort of aesthetic, but we also strive for the same messaging. We don’t want to turn people off or hit people over the head with what we’re trying to say, and we want our message to be accepted, and useful, to the mainsteam.

The film has done incredibly well in Canada. It was voted one of the Audience Favourites at Hot Docs festival and has received many great reviews, along with a good run in theatres which continues, still.

Liz and the Ghosts team have been gearing up for a highly visible and Oscar-qualifying film launch in the USA. We want The Ghosts in Our Machine to also be a huge success in the USA and then again in Europe. In order to make this happen though, funds are required. We are trying to raise $30K and wonderfully, we are finally so close to making that goal a reality through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. There are only a few days left in the campaign and we need people not only to donate anything they can, but share the campaign as well. Liz and the team made a really comprehensive video to accompany the campaign which explains why the funds are needed and how they will be used. I hope everyone will take a look and support the film’s much-anticipated launch in the US!

Trailer for The Ghosts in Our Machine



  1. Thomas Ponce
    September 19, 2013

    Leave a Reply

    Ms. McArthur- your photographs are so moving. They capture the life and spark in each of the animals eyes. My Mom just pre-ordered your book We Animals for me and I am really looking forward to seeing Ghosts in our Machine. I can’t wait to share both with my family and with my club at school. I shared your pages on Facebook and I hope you reach your Indiegogo goal. I think what you are doing is wonderful and in such a gentle yet straight to the point kind of way. Thank you for everything you do in showing both the beauty and the suffering of all animals.

  2. Melissa
    September 19, 2013

    Leave a Reply

    Thank you Thank you Thank You Thank you, thank you, Thank you
    Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you thank you, thank you,
    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Thank You, Thank you, Thank you
    Thank you, Thank You, thank you, ThANk you, thank You, thank you
    Thank you Thank you,

  1. Fotógrafa canadense registra a vida dos animais criados para consumo - Vegazeta - […] Gary Smith, do The Thinking Vegan, Jo-Anne McArthur disse em entrevista publicada em 19 de setembro de 2013 que…

Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>