“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.

“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.

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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?