Animal Photojournalism: Seeing from Another Species

Tourists watch an Asian elephant forced to swim underwater for performances. Khao Kiew Zoo, Thailand, 2019. Adam Oswell / HIDDEN / We Animals Media

The human condition is photojournalism’s central focus. It makes art and history of our behaviors and cultures, contextualizing us in time and space. Included in photojournalism are street and conflict photography, capturing us at play and at war, creating proof of our humanity as well as our political and individual violence. We are visual anthropologists making images of ourselves.

Photojournalism has amazed me since I was a kid, and endlessly curious about people, art, and stories. Picking up the camera to emulate my photographic heroes felt like my all-access pass into the lives of others. Later as a young adult, I talked of going to Afghanistan during an internship with a Magnum photographer; I wanted to be a conflict photographer. This plan didn’t come to fruition, and my mentor’s gentle guidance pointed me toward the stories I cared most about. Though I did focus on humanitarian stories in my early days, I eventually turned my lens to a largely hidden war. The one waged against non-human animals. With this, I did, in fact, become a conflict photographer, and this animal-focused work has taken me to over sixty countries.

Inside these windowless sheds at a chicken farm, more than a million broiler hens endure their short lives. Germany, 2015. Timo Stammberger / HIDDEN / We Animals Media

There is an emerging genre of photography–animal photojournalism–in which other animals are not viewed peripherally or relegated to the margins of human stories. In animal photojournalism, animals and their lived experiences are the focus. The primary differentiation of animal photojournalism is that it is not exclusive to any animal. It deliberately includes those with whom we coexist and yet fail to see. They are the billions of animals we eat, wear, and use for research, entertainment, labor, and in religious and cultural practices.

In my two decades as a photophile, photojournalist, and now as a photo editor and image jurist, I’ve paid close attention to how animals are portrayed and displayed. Outside of wildlife and conservation photography (genres that exclude the species closest to us), animals are an appendage, an afterthought, an anecdote. Looking through stock sites, agency archives, and print, here are examples of animal othering in photography:

  • Cattle grazing in the Amazon is about deforestation or land tenure disputes.
  • Grazing sheep on a hillside is a story about soil erosion.
  • Ranching is about the romanticism of rural life, dust, and sunsets, but the photos are populated with horses and cattle.
  • Roadkill is about the dangers that animals pose to drivers.
  • Fishing stories are about subsistence, trawling, overfishing, or oceanic pollution.
  • Fox hunting is about class and tradition.
  • Animal sacrifice is about culture and religion.
  • The last rhinos are about human efforts and failures.
  • And refugees fleeing with their companion animals is about war and human compassion.
  • Most startling are images of violence and death at slaughterhouses – ground zero of confusion, agony, and fear for animals – focusing solely on human rights.
A room with a view. Pigs in the modern meat industry are totally isolated from the outside world — and too smart to be fooled by a painted mural of a rural scene. Netherlands, 2016. Sabine Grootendorst / HIDDEN / We Animals Media

It is challenging to portray animals as subjects in their own right, and many of the world’s finest photographers show animals contrary to their interests. The VII Photo archive contains hundreds of images with non-human animals. I was keen to sift through these files and read their descriptions and captions.

There is newer animal-centric photojournalism by Nichole Sobecki and John Stanmeyer and examples that highlight what I call a collective blind spot of photojournalism. Some examples include Stefano De Luigi’s moment of action as cattle are jostled inside an auction ring. The captions reads, “Country life in Bourgogne, France.” Ilvy Njiokiktjien’s tender image of a child petting a kid (young goat) who is being held in place at a petting zoo reads, “Julian turns six and celebrates his birthday party at the petting zoo.” Ed Kashi captures a stunning moment along the Ganges River: a frail, mangy street dog looks right into his lens through the incense smoke. Though the animal dominates the frame, the caption reads, “Incense burns while locals perform puja along the Ganges River, or Ganga River, in Varanasi.” In images like these, when animals are so present and yet still objects, viewers are not challenged. Animals remain looked at but unseen.

Photojournalism can influence the media, public discourse, the arts, policy, and science. Its stories shape our worldviews and stir our very hearts. I love its power. When images de-center or even erase animals, we solidify a long-standing anthropocentric narrative that needs toppling. Sidelining animals in our visual stories confirms our ingrained belief that they should be sidelined.

I eventually came to see the differentiating features and similarities between photojournalism and animal photojournalism worthy of some explanation and contextualization. My agency, We Animals Media, and I sought to organize our thoughts in a short essay. I want to explore some of these points with you.

Animal photojournalism exposes and memorializes the experiences of animals who live amongst us but who we fail to see. At its core, the images document the broader human-animal conflict and its resultant ecosystems of suffering. As global societies collectively awaken to the realities of our unjust exploitation of animals, animal photojournalism is of increasing interest. 

Steers hung and bleeding out while another steer is stunned before slaughter. The name of the slaughterhouse in Turkey is intentionally withheld. Jo-Anne McArthur / Eyes On Animals / We Animals Media, 2018.

James Nachtwey’s Inferno is one of the most inspiring conflict photography books I have ever seen. It’s unflinching. Searing. Imposing. I was inspired by Nachtwey’s commemoration of people’s suffering in a place and time. I decided to create someday a book inspired by Inferno but about animals. We Animals Media published this book in 2020–HIDDEN: Animals in the Anthropocene. Like Inferno, it aims to capture the painful experience of others, and it’s an indictment of what is and should never again be. 

Animal photojournalism is, in part, defined by what it is not. We often look at animals through the familiar lens of wildlife and portrait photography. In recent years, conservation photography has emerged as a prominent field, documenting wild, endangered, and threatened species impacted by humanity. Animal photojournalism emphasizes the inclusion of all animals, particularly those historically underrepresented but with whom we have very close contact, named by their product, not as they once were. A meal, a coat, a sacrifice for science, a tool for education, and so on. Animal photojournalism acknowledges their being – who they are and who they were before coming into our custody – and brings their stories to light.

A dead rabbit that was asphyxiated while trying to escape their cage. The tragedy of animal resistance in an industrial rabbit farm. Italy, 2011. Stefano Belacchi / HIDDEN / We Animals Media

From public and environmental health crises to zoonotic viruses, all animals are inextricably linked to many areas of current global concern, and rightfully so. Our existence is intertwined, as we have seen with COVID-19 and the ongoing and worrisome avian flu. Animal photojournalism foregrounds the ethics and consequences of how we treat the other sentient beings with whom we share this planet. It aims to encourage swift and necessary change on behalf of the beings in the frame. And I love that about this genre. It is unabashedly action- and results-oriented.

Like photojournalism and conflict photography, animal photojournalism often takes the form of an in-depth reportage or photo essay. It is relevant to current news and shapes conversations about its subject matter. Additionally, animal photojournalism is used to further political, philosophical, and scientific pedagogy and campaigning. Many animal photojournalists are invested in contributing to current worldwide campaigns to lessen and end animal exploitation.

Animal photojournalism is similar to conflict photography in that the photographer exposes a story hidden from the public through political and economic agendas. Thus, their images are necessary catalysts for change.

Fish heads and candy on display at Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, Israel, 2018. Jo-Anne McArthur / Eyes On Animals / We Animals Media

As with conflict photographers, animal photojournalists put themselves at physical and psychological risk to document a practice or an event. In common with humanitarian and conflict photographers, animal photojournalists can also suffer long-term psychological ramifications such as post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of bearing witness to violence and injustice towards others.

Because animals used by humans are often caged and concealed, animal photojournalists may need to gain access surreptitiously to a place of animal exploitation. Examples are industrial farms, fur farms, and laboratories where animal experimentation occurs. In recent years and in response to animal photojournalists, activists, and whistleblowers exposing animal industries, powerful lobbying efforts on behalf of large corporations have ushered in what are known as “ag gag” laws, designed to dissuade and criminalize the documentation of animal use.

Day-old chicks sit packed into transport crates at an industrial hatchery. During transport to farms, they are often unprotected from heat and cold. Poland, 2019. Konrad Lozinski / HIDDEN / We Animals Media

Now comes my favorite part. Animal photojournalism is groundbreaking for two reasons. First, images in this genre demand radical empathy and self-awareness. Viewers must de-center themselves and consider the world through the eyes of a different species while holding the truth of humanity’s undeniable role in the story. Additionally, it poses a fundamental threat to deeply embedded societal systems that continue largely unchallenged. The act of seeking out these visual stories is an act of resistance.

That may be the most significant commonality with photojournalism. We go to where the stories are because we care an awful lot and are willing to take risks to make a difference. The work we produce is confrontational and demanding. It lays bare resilience, resistance, and utter vulnerability. It asks that we look and not turn away because the being in the frame matters.

In animal advocacy, we talk a lot about widening our circles of compassion. This widening is the call of animal photojournalism. To seek out animals for our frames, to literally and figuratively center them as the story. And though it may be uncomfortable, we ask, like you ask, for our audiences to stay there. To look. And to not turn away.

Related resources:

Jo-Anne McArthur, “What is Animal Photojournalism,” VII Insider (video), 6 October 2021.

Photojournalism and Animal Rights Advocacy, with Seb Alex, VII Insider (video), 10 January 2023.

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