A Bold, Blank Banner

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.[1]

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.”[2] 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?”

This image was reproduced on one of the prohibited banners for the July 1909 procession.

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”[3] 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.”[4]

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?[5] 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.

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Lind af Hageby is the woman in the centre of the front row in this picture. The other women in this photograph are: Mrs. Clinton Pichney Farrell, Mrs. L.B. Henderson, Mrs. Florence Pell Waring, Mrs. Caroline E. White, and Mrs. R.G. Ingersol.

*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.

*This post has also been shared on The Unbound Project website.

NOTES

[1] “The Anti-Vivisection Procession” The Times (July 8, 1909), 3.

[2] “Prohibited Banners” The Standard (July 3, 1909), 8.

[3] “Anti-Vivisection Processions” The Times (July 9, 1909), 4.

[4] “The Anti-Vivisection Procession” The Times (July 8, 1909), 3.

[5] “The Anti-Vivisection Agitation” Saturday Review of Politics, Art, Literature, Science and Art (July 17, 1909), 83.

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.

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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?

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A pig comforts another pig who is injured and can not stand up. Photo by Andrea White.
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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.”

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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.”

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?

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.

Introduction to Visual Culture

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!

NYC Premiere of The Ghosts in Our Machine

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Tonight is an important night for animal rights, the red carpet premiere of The Ghosts in Our Machine in New York City. This incredible film is hitting the big time!

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.

Upcoming talk in Guelph

I am really honoured to have been invited by Dr. Sally Hickson to speak at the University of Guelph later this month as part of their art history speaker series. The event takes place on Tuesday, November 19th at 5:30. More details below.

If you are in the Guelph area, please drop by and say hi!

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