“Do Not Refuse To Look At These Pictures”

The news about the abuse uncovered on an Ohio Dairy Farm by Mercy for Animals has hit the global media. The horrific film footage showing cows and calves being beaten, stabbed and kicked is stomach-turning.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but as anyone who has tried to learn more about where our food comes from knows all too well, abuse of animals in factory farm settings is not uncommon.

There is no doubt that this is difficult stuff to read about, look at, and discuss, but we need to know about it. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “oh, I can’t look at that stuff. I can’t hear about animal abuse or look too hard into where my food comes from.” These are often well-educated, intelligent people who I love and respect. And yet on this point I must respectfully disagree. If you care about your health, the health of your family, about animals or the fate of our planet nothing could be more important than knowing these sorts of “dirty little secrets” that the factory farming industry would rather we didn’t know.

I’m not saying we should all make a bowl of popcorn and sit down with the family to watch the Ohio dairy farm footage on the big screen TV. And yet, as Ed Burtynsky pointed out during an interview on CBC’s The Current yesterday, imagery is often what brings much needed attention to an issue. Burtynsky was not talking about the Ohio Dairy Farm case but, rather, about another horrific story, the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The point, however, is valid in both instances.

As someone who teaches about and conducts research on visual culture, this point is one that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. Right now I’m doing a lot of work on 19th century animal welfare activism and, in particular, the use of imagery in that movement. The great 19th century reformer Frances Power Cobbe began one of her illustrated anti-vivisection pamphlets with the words: “Do Not Refuse to Look at These Pictures.” She went on to discuss why it was so important for people to see with their own eyes the ways in which animals were treated behind closed doors in medical laboratories. Cobbe recognized that most people would not be granted access to these labs (just as we aren’t easily granted access to factory farm complexes) and, as such, she strongly believed in the power of visual culture to convey this difficult information to a broader public.

Things haven’t changed that much since Cobbe’s day and here I’d like to repeat her plea — “do not refuse to look at these pictures.” We can not keep ignoring what is going on.

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