“We Practice the Convictions of our Minds and Hearts”

As the weather starts to turn colder, many of us are thinking about getting a new winter coat. I love that there are so many cruelty-free fashions to pick from! Imagine my delight, then, when during the course of my research I learned about a woman who was making cruelty-free alternatives to fur coats, silk scarves, and “kid” gloves over 100 years ago! Her name was Maude (“Emarel”) Freshel, and she was the co-founder of an organization known as the Millennium Guild. The Guild advocated for a lifestyle that included a vegetarian diet and hosted lavish meat-free Thanksgiving dinners in Boston in the early years of the 20th century. The sale of the cruelty-free outerwear that Freshel sewed helped to fund the activities of the Guild. A number of these fashions were featured in the Boston Sunday Post on November 17, 1912.

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Freshel told reporter that members of the Millennium guild “have found splendid substitutes for furs,  feather hat trimmings and kid gloves, and know we are better off without eating meat. We practice the convictions of our minds and hearts.”

Freshel was also the author of The Golden Rule Cookbook, a vegetarian cookbook promoting the abstention from meat eating for ethical reasons. Freshel defined a vegetarian (remember, the term “vegan” didn’t exist until 1944) as someone who “for one reason or another condemns the eating of flesh.” She saw this as occupying “a very different place in the world of ethics from one who is simply refraining from meat eating in an effort to cure bodily ills.” Freshel’s dog, a terrier named Sister, was also a vegetarian and reportedly enjoyed such foods as lentils, peas, apples, oatmeal, and buttered toast.

*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.

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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?

Time Machine

I’ve been spending some time in the library, working with old newspapers on microfilm. It has been many years since I’ve used a microfilm reader and it took me longer than I care to admit to get the thing up and running the first time. In my defence, there was a bit of a connectivity issue between the reader and the computer that scans and saves pdf versions of the pages. (I don’t recall this additional bit of technology from the last time I used a microfilm reader!) I was very grateful to the staff at the James A. Gibson library at Brock for helping me get this sorted.

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I love reading old newspapers. They are so interesting and so bizarre. I often get distracted by the ads and articles other than the ones I am trying to track down. In some ways it is kind of like I’m playing with a time machine!

Undercover Investigations

Today a new undercover investigation in to cruel practices on veal farms in Canada hits the mainstream media – the Toronto Star has this story on the front page of today’s paper, and tonight CTV’s W5 will air an investigative report. This is the latest in a string of mainstream media attention focusing on cruel practices that are considered “industry standard” on Canadian farms. Thanks to undercover investigations by Mercy For Animals Canada, a number of mainstream media outlets have run prime time/front page stories about the horrific ways in which farmed animals are treated in this country.

The response from industry has been predictable, that these are “isolated incidents,” and yet mounting evidence pointing to the fact that this kind of behaviour is routine undermines this defence. Workers in this industry have come forward to share their stories, and their testimony makes it clear that there is a larger pattern at play here. In addition, these scenes captured by undercover cameras are strikingly similar to scenes uncovered by undercover investigators in other countries.

The footage obtained through these investigations is, undoubtedly, disturbing. It is hard to look at, and many people don’t want to watch it. “Don’t show me that,” they say, “I can’t stand to look at it.” These abuses take place out of sight and, as the industry hopes, out of mind. This is precisely why film footage and photographs taken during these undercover investigations is so important – they make visible what is otherwise culturally invisible. This also speaks to the important role that visual culture plays in activist efforts. There is a long history of activists using imagery in this way, a history that dates back to the 19th century.

I will be writing more about this for an upcoming column for Our Hen House, but for now I just wanted to acknowledge the significance of today’s breaking news and to thank both Mercy for Animals Canada and the media outlets who are brave enough to run these stories for all they are doing to make these stories front and centre.

Niagara VegFest News

Great news on the Niagara VegFest front! We have received funding from the City of St. Catharines. This will help us continue to build and promote the festival for 2013. A huge thanks to the City’s Cultural Investment Program for this grant.

It may be a cold and gloomy day in Niagara today (apparently it is Blue Monday), but before we know it, Niagara VegFest will be upon us! We are working away getting things ready–much excitement here at Niagara VegFest headquarters! Registrations are starting to come in, the list of speakers is nearly finalized, and we are busy working on other plans for the festival. Stay tuned!

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Trains vs. Planes

I’m in Boston for the NEASA conference. The theme of the conference is “The Arts and the Public.” Should be good.

I opted not to fly to Boston this time. With each recent flight I have found myself growing more and more fed up with airline travel. I realized that even “short flights” become agonizingly long by the time one factors in security, customs, weather-related delays, over-crowded runways, etc.

For this trip I decide to take Amtrak down from Niagara Falls. It was a lovely trip, but the goddesses of travel wanted to make sure that I understood loud & clear that things like weather-related delays are not just limited to air travel. Ho hum. I was hours late getting into Boston because high winds knocked out power on the rail lines between New York and Boston.

Ok. Message received loud & clear. Travel can be a royal pain in the butt no matter what form of transportation one takes. I get it.

Having said that, I still think I’d opt for a train over a plane in the future if circumstances permit. It is just a more pleasant way to travel. On both the Niagara Falls – NYC and the NYC – Boston journeys the cars I rode in were nearly silent. It was quiet and peaceful, and I found the gentle sway of the cars relaxing. (so much so that I had a few naps along the way. I can’t recall the last time I was able to sleep on a plane!) The autumn scenery whipping along outside my window was beautiful to look at, and the dining car (yes, there was an actual dining car!) had vegan burgers and Sam Adams. I wouldn’t say it was the world’s best burger, but it sure the heck beats any airline food I’ve had recently (oh wait, that is because they generally never have anything I can eat!). Even the several hour delay in NYC wasn’t so bad — I mean, really, there are worse places to have to kill a few hours! I was thinking about how easy it was to just walk out of Penn Station and go for a stroll. Compare this to when you are stuck at an airport — airports are generally in the middle of nowhere and even if you decided to take a cab from the airport to another part of the city, there is the whole matter of having to go back through security, customs, etc. upon your return.

Plus, it is just a whole lot more fun to take pictures along the rail lines, and, really, doesn’t it always boil down to visual culture in the end anyhow?

“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.

Animal Body Worlds

Gunther von Hagens has launched another sensational exhibition, Body Worlds of Animals. Like the original Body Worlds, this exhibition uses plastination to preserve and exhibit dead bodies. Unlike the original exhibition, however, these bodies belonged to nonhuman animals before they became part of this exhibit. (Although I do recall a horse being included in the original Body Worlds, however, the focus there was most decidedly on human anatomy.)

There are, apparently, a wide range of animal bodies included in this exhibition. According to The Telegraph, several of these animal bodies were donated to the exhibition by the Neunkirchen Zoo. Through this donation we are encouraged to keep gazing upon these animals for our own entertainment, education, and enlightenment, even after their death. Unlike the dead humans in the original Body Worlds, these animals did not (could not?) give consent for their bodies to be used in this manner any more than they gave their consent to have been put on display in the zoo in the first place.

On the website for this exhibition Dr. von Hagens states that: “The more the individual thinks about the fragility of his or her body, the more respectful he or she will become toward other people and animals. BODY WORLDS of ANIMALS makes a valuable contribution to animal welfare and to increased appreciation of endangered species. The exhibition strongly supports the educational mission of the zoo and animal welfare organizations.”

The argument, it appears, is that this exhibition makes viewers realize the “fragility” of their bodies and, in turn, this leads to a heightened sense of appreciation of other species. This is a pretty tenuous link, one that echoes numerous arguments that have been made in favour of public zoos and animal theme parks throughout their history. According to this line of thinking, seeing animals in captivity or as “performers” somehow will make humans better appreciate nonhuman animals. The abundance of animal cruelty cases, the extinction (or near-extinction) of species and the destruction of habitats seems to be evidence to the contrary. Further, the notion that continued exploitation of animal bodies somehow supports animal welfare initiatives is very troubling.

PS: Is the giraffe on the Body Worlds of Animals website blinking!?? How many different kinds of creepy is that? Compare this to the stoic-looking splash screen for the original Body Worlds, with its visual nod to the very serious business of science and technology. A dead, blinking giraffe? Really?!?

Jane’s Walk

I just heard about this weekend’s “Jane’s Walk” initiative (thanks CBC!) — I love this idea! Even though St. Catharines isn’t listed as an official participant (yet), I’m going to get out my walking shoes and my camera and explore my new adopted neighbourhood in downtown St. Catharines today.

Updated — photos from my walk.