The other day we decided to beat the winter blahs by taking a “staycation” at the Prince of Wales hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake. An afternoon by the pool followed by an evening of dining and cocktails seemed like a good little pick-me-up at this point in the winter.
“Have a closer look,” a woman in the pool called out to me. “What do you think the little child has in her hands?” I knew without looking that young Victoria (Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s oldest child) was holding a dead bird in her hands, but I didn’t want to seem like that kind of art historian. To be polite I walked closer to look at that section of the painting and that is when I was startled to discover a rather glaring omission from this reproduction.
In Landseer’s original painting there is a row of dead game birds laid out next to young Victoria and a few more on the floor in front of Prince Albert’s feet. Prince Albert’s clothing (including those oh-so-tight trousers showing off every detail of his kneecap!) tells us that he has just returned from hunting, so the inclusion of this detail makes sense. Further, the juxtaposition of the very dead birds with the animated and life-like dogs is just the kind of thing that Landseer, one of the most celebrated animal painters in the history of art, is known for.
At the Prince of Wales hotel, however, all of the dead birds except for the one that young Victoria holds are missing. I can only assume that this was done to make this modern day replica somehow more palatable to hotel patrons. I’ve looked up other replicas of this Landseer painting available for sale, and in all the ones I can find the dead birds remain part of the composition as the artist intended.
I’m still mulling over why this would be done. This is not an establishment nor a town that is known to be particularly sensitive towards animal issues. Indeed, the use of carriage horses as part of the tourism industry in this town often draws protests from local activists. Further, I would say that Niagara-on-the-Lake ranks pretty low in terms of vegan-friendly dining in the region — indeed, a glance at the menu of the Prince of Wales hotel, the very building where this altered replica of this image hangs, indicates an establishment that prides itself on the various high-end meat dishes it serves (including, rather ironically, a smoked duck breast dish).
I wish I knew more about the decisions that led to this edited version of Landseer’s image hanging in this hotel. It is a fascinating example of visual culture in that it seems to point to present-day anxieties around the representation of animals. As I frequently say to my students, “what is absent from an image is sometimes as significant as what has been included.”
In July 1909 police in London informed the organizers of an anti-vivisection protest that they could not use two of the banners made for this event. In both cases the images on the banners showed a dog being subjected to experimentation. The organizers made sure to point out that these images had been taken directly from publications which promoted animal experimentation. In other words, the organizers of the protest felt that it was important to underscore the fact that these images were not fabricated representations but, rather, were adapted directly from vivisection material. There was “no exaggeration” in these images stressed Louise (“Lizzy”) Lind af Hageby, the organizer of the International Anti-Vivisection and Animal Protection Congress, a multi-day event which included this high-profile public demonstration through the streets of London on Saturday, July 10, 1909.
The police were concerned that the images on these banners could potentially stir up trouble by provoking a “turbulent element” and potentially “lead to riotous proceedings.” Of particular concern was a silk banner that included an image taken from a scientific journal showing a dog who had been subject to experimentation. This image was accompanied by the words “Is it nothing to you all ye that pass by?”
A lively debate about these banners took place in the “Letters to the Editor” columns of the London papers. Dr. Stephen Paget of the Research Defence Society, a pro-vivisection organization, described the use of these images in this way as a “striking exhibition of insult and hatred” on the part of the activists, and argued that anti-vivisection societies must be losing their support amongst the general public if they were attempting to use shock tactics to draw attention to their cause. Lind af Hageby refuted this, noting that these images were not the “invention of anti-vivisectionists.”
In the end, the police’s decision to prohibit these banners was upheld. However, as a protest to this ruling, one of the forbidden banners was draped with another piece of cloth to hide the offending image, and the resulting blank banner was carried defiantly at the end of the procession.
I find this to be such a fascinating example of the role of visual culture in the animal advocacy movement from this time period! Images can, of course, draw attention to important issues, but imagine the power that this blank banner had in this context. The absence of imagery here was likely as powerful as any pictorial banner in the procession – perhaps even more so. As one eye-witness pointed out, if an image is deemed to “be of such revolting character that it cannot be carried through the streets,” then isn’t this a powerful argument against the action being depicted? As I often remind my students, when it comes to visual culture it is important to remember that what is excluded is often as significant as what is included. In this case, the blank banner was a bold statement against both vivisection and censorship, and certainly a clever use of visual culture by Lind af Hageby and her colleagues.
*I discuss this event as well as the use of visual culture in other animal advocacy campaigns from this time period in my new book, Art for Animals.
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.
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?
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.”
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.”
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.
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?
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.
I’m about to step back in to the large first year class that I was originally hired to develop, “Introduction to Visual Culture.” For a number of years this was my class, but I eventually cycled out of it. This Winter marks the first time I’ve taught it in a while and I’m quite excited about it. I really love the material and the opportunity to introduce students from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines to thinking critically about images.
To everyone back teaching today – have a wonderful term!
A huge congratulations to all involved in the making of this film, especially the Director/Writer/Producer, Liz Marshall, and the human star of the film, Jo-Anne McArthur. Countless hours went in to this project, and I hope that you are able to sit back and savour the celebrations tonight. I would give anything to be able to be at the premiere celebrating along with you!
This film will have a tremendous impact on all those who see it, and it is such an important reminder of the power of art to change the world. If you haven’t yet had a chance to see it, watch your local listings. Word is there will be more screenings in more locations coming soon. In the meantime, check out the trailer.