Blinders, Barriers, and Bearing Witness

This morning around 7am a truck carrying pigs to their death tipped over outside Fearmans Pork Plant in Burlington. Media outlets are reporting that some of the pigs died in the crash and many others were injured. Those pigs who were able to walk were marched in to the slaughterhouse to meet their death.

Activists arrived on the scene soon after the incident occurred, and over the day their numbers grew. Tensions between the workers, the police, and protesters continued to escalate while the squeals of terrified, injured, and dying pigs filled the air. Steve Jenkins from Happily Ever Esther was on site pleading for mercy for the pigs, and offering to take some of them to his sanctuary, but his requests were denied.

I was not in Burlington this morning, but was watching this unfold via social media. My heart was heavy and tears streamed down my face. This was a horrific scene, but let us not forget – this is only in the news today because a traffic accident took place. Each and every day, truckloads of terrified and injured pigs arrive at this location except, most days, only those who have chosen to bear witness as part of the Toronto Pig Save vigils pay any attention. The routine suffering that happens at this location is not normally deemed newsworthy.

Perhaps the most striking part of today’s incident were the reports that workers were holding up barriers in an attempt to block the pigs from the view of people who had gathered at the scene. They must not be seen. To see the suffering, fear, and confusion these animals were experiencing would be upsetting for most people, so those who were in charge of the scene took steps to try and prevent people from seeing what was happening. Let’s get something straight – this is upsetting. Whether we choose to look at this or not, suffering is taking place.

tarp-rs-photo
A tarp being held up so that the scene of the accident was blocked from view. Photo by Rara Subramanyan

One set of pictures taken by activist Andrea White appears to show an injured pig being comforted by another pig. It was not long, however, until workers were holding up large pieces of cardboard to block this moment of tenderness and compassion from the sight of cameras and prying eyes. We must ask ourselves why this kind of scene was perceived to be so threatening. What would happen if people witnessed this exchange? Would they, perhaps, begin to rethink their own complicity in this scene of suffering?

comfort (andrea white).jpg
A pig comforts another pig who is injured and can not stand up. Photo by Andrea White.
cardboard barriers (andrea white).jpg
Workers hold cardboard barriers to keep the injured pigs out of sight. Photo by Andrea White.

This overt attempt to block witnessing and taking pictures is a very significant part of this story. It strikes at the heart of what Timothy Pachirat has referred to as the “politics of sight.” In other words, our contemporary food and agricultural systems in North America are sustained by carefully regulated systems controlling who gets to see what. Out of sight, out of mind. If you don’t see something, it is hard to question it.

I have a series of photographs on my desktop of a pig running for freedom. These images were not taken today in Burlington but, rather, in 1945 in St. Catharines, a city about 36 kilometers down the road from Burlington. This pig escaped from the truck that was carrying her to slaughter, and she spent some time running around Ontario and St. Paul Streets, two major streets in St. Catharines, before she was eventually caught and returned to the truck for what was described as “the last lap of her ride to the meat rationing counter.”

standard-photo-escaped-pig-1945
A pig who escaped a transport truck runs along Ontario Street in St. Catharines, Ontario in July 1945. Photo by St. Catharines Standard.

I have frequently walked down the streets that this determined pig who lived and died in 1945 travelled along and, as I do, my mind often turns to this photograph, and I think about the pig who tried to get away. I wish with all my heart that she had. The article accompanying the photograph tells us that as she was running around she spotted “some luscious grass” in a nearby park and began running towards it. While my heart breaks for this pig I never knew, the tone of the media reporting of this incident is such that this pig is granted a sense of agency. Sure, there is still a struggle between the pig who wants her freedom and those who want to eat her (she had a narrow escape, we are told, from a driver who had “a hungry look in his eye.”), but the pig here is recognized as a sentient being, one who has tried to change her fate – “This Little Pig Didn’t Stay Home,” the headline proclaims. While things didn’t work out in the pig’s favour, she is still recognized as an individual with preferences and determination. She wanted to get to that grass!

There is a decidedly different tone to the reporting going on with today’s incident at Fearmans. There was an active and deliberate attempt to shield the pigs from view. Activists were kept away “for their own safety,” we were told, and yet, was that really what this was about? How is being denied the sight of one pig comforting another going to help anyone be safer? What seems instead to be going on here is a deliberate attempt to suppress any recognition of agency or emotion in these animals. It is for our own good, we are told. You don’t want to see that. And yet if we don’t look or aren’t permitted to see, how can anything change?

The question of animal sentience is increasingly being explored in books, films, and articles in the popular press, and yet, paradoxically, there are ever-tightening restrictions on who gets to see the animals who live and die in our food production systems. From the so-called “ag gag” laws in the United States, to the makeshift cardboard barriers that workers held today in Burlington in an attempt to prevent the suffering of pigs being made visible, there is a deliberate and concerted effort to make sure that these lives and deaths remain culturally invisible.

Tonight I am thinking about the pigs who died today in Burlington and, indeed, of all of the billions of animals slaughtered for our contemporary food system. It does not have to be this way. If the footage of today’s accident outside of Fearmans upsets you, please do not turn away. As Dr. Seuss’ character the Lorax reminds us, “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

“Not a Drop to Wet Their Poor Parched Mouths”

Around 1870 Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, witnessed an act of compassion that deeply touched her. She had been on a train journey, and near Fitchburg her train pulled up alongside another train at a station stop. As she waited for her train to continue, Alcott passed the time by looking out her window at the sights — a beautiful waterfall caught her attention, but she also noticed that in the train next to hers were several cattle and sheep crammed in to rail cars.

It was a hot, sunny day and Alcott recognized that the animals must have been scared, uncomfortable, and thirsty. As she noted, “how they must have suffered in sight of water, with the cool dash of the fall tantalizing them, and not a drop to wet their poor parched mouths.” She was troubled by the very visible distress of the animals in the next train and was pondering how she might best help them when she noticed two young girls come up beside the train. The girls had been out picking berries and, upon noticing the animals in distress, one of the girls dumped out her berry pail, ran to the water’s edge and filled her bucket with water. She returned to the train and offered the water to the sheep “who stretched their hot tongues gratefully to meet it.” She repeated this numerous times while her companion picked grass and clover to feed to the animals. Alcott was touched by this kindness and wrote that she wished she “could have told those tender-hearted children how beautiful their compassion made that hot, noisy place.”

Kindness to Sheep on a Cattle Train (from THS book)

This story was repeated in a number of 19th century animal advocacy and humane education publications, often with the above image accompanying it. The actions of these two young girls became a lesson in kindness and compassion.

Over 140 years later a similar story is being told. Members of Toronto Pig Save, a grassroots organization that aims to bear witness to the suffering of animals who are raised and killed for food, have made headlines for giving water to pigs arriving at slaughterhouses on transport trucks. Their actions mimic those of the young girls that Alcott wrote about in 1870. This past summer, a heated exchange between one of the activists, Anita Krajnc, and the driver of one of the trucks has led to a criminal charge of mischief for Krajnc.

It is utterly absurd that we live in a world where kindness and compassion is criminalized. What, I wonder, would Louisa May Alcott have to say about this ridiculous charge?

*This post was also published on The Unbound Project website.

The Photograph We Are All Talking About

This week the world is talking about Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of little Alan Kurdi. This is a powerful, heart-breaking photograph, one that Demir has said she wishes she had not had to take. It has already been added to the list of the most “impactful news photographs” ever made, and for many has come to stand as shorthand for the complexity of the political, social, and cultural turmoil and tragedy that is the current refugee crisis.

There has been much debate about whether or not news agencies and media outlets should have published this photograph. Some are arguing that with this single image, much-needed attention has finally been focused on the fact that thousands of people are taking desperate measures to seek a better, safer, more stable life. People, governments, and media outlets are paying attention, and, if one reads the headlines, there is a sense that the collective outrage is growing.  Organizations working to assist refugees report a spike in donations in recent days, something that is being directly attributed to this photograph. And yet, the publication of this photograph also raises other very important ethical issues. For example, as Natasha Lennard has argued, there is inconsistency in which dead bodies are deemed acceptable to be shown in the media. Further, some have made the point that while this photograph might have sparked outrage about the circumstances of this particular death it hasn’t necessarily translated in to increased public support for assistance for the thousands of people displaced from their homes in a broader sense.

Does a single image have the power to shift the conversations and political will towards a solution to the current crisis?

Demir’s photograph is powerful and has captured global attention because of who it depicts. Alan Kurdi was a young child, and this photograph goes against all of our ingrained ideas about what childhood is supposed to look like. This photograph also focuses on an individual, someone who had a name. It is easier for viewers empathize with an individual than with a large group.

There are thousands of people who, like Alan Kurdi, have been displaced from their homes. Some of them have been photographed, many have not. As Susan Sontag asked in Regarding the Pain of Others, “what pictures, whose cruelties, whose deaths are not being shown”? (p14)

Yesterday Muhammad Lila tweeted that he spoke with Alan’s aunt who has requested that people stop circulating Demir’s photograph. According to Lila, she would rather have people remember Alan as a happy toddler.

Screenshot 2015-09-05 10.51.39

This plea is echoed in Lennard’s comments, as she notes that in images like this “the memories of lived lives are reduced to corpses.” How do we reconcile Alan’s aunt’s request with the arguments that Demir’s photograph has generated more attention on the refugee crisis than other images or reports have been able to do?

It seems there is a fine line that exists between witnessing and exploitation when it comes to photographs like this. I’m reminded of W. Eugene Smith’s powerful photographs of the mercury poisoning in Minamata. Smith’s photographs made visible a tragedy that was hard to visualize — what does mercury poisoning look like? Smith took what was for many an abstract idea and put a human face on it. Smith’s most famous image from Minamata is a photograph of Tomoko Uemura being bathed by her mother. Tomoko’s body showed visible symptoms of mercury poisoning, and her family agreed to allow Smith to take this photograph in the hopes that the circulation of the resulting image would raise awareness of the ways in which individual lives were transformed by the exposure to mercury.  This, of all the photographs that Smith took, became the iconic image of the tragedy in Minamata. It evoked anger and calls for action. However, it was also a photograph that Tomoko’s family later decided they no longer wanted circulated. Out of respect for these wishes, Aileen Smith (who became the copyright holder of W. Eugene Smith’s estate after his death), transferred the copyright of the photograph of Tomoko Uemura to her parents who have since refused to allow it to be used.

In a similar way, Demir’s photograph has taken what is, for many, an unimaginable and hard-to-fathom tragedy and made it accessible. And this is really important. But what are we doing with this newfound awareness? Will anything change? If not, why is this image being circulated? Further, if, as Lila suggests, Alan’s family is requesting that Demir’s photograph no longer be used, do we have an obligation to comply?

In his powerful book, Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen, Fred Ritchin wonders “Which kinds of image-based strategies might best engage readers, and which might manage to respect the rights, and the agency, of those depicted?” (p.7) I think this is an important question for us to keep in mind as we grapple with the complexities of Demir’s photograph. Is there a way to bear witness to this crisis and to empathically connect with those at the heart of it in a way that does not reduce someone’s life to an abstract symbol?