Photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / March 31, 2021
“I’m an animal photojournalist”
(Credit: Kelly Guerin)
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
Jo-Anne McArthur: It’s a way to satisfy my curiosity about the world & be a storyteller at the same time. A way of living adventurously & creatively. I also love that photojournalism shapes opinions, shapes history. The camera is a tool for change. Photojournalism allows me to live my life out there in the world, to get to know and be integrated with communities, and gives me endless ideas to learn about and work with.
Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
Jo-Anne McArthur: I’m a Nikon gal. I’ve had my D4S a long time and still adore its creamy quality. I prefer my 17mm-35mm f2.8 over just about everything because it drives me closer to my subject. My animal work demands to be shown up close.
Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?
Jo-Anne McArthur: You can find We Animals Media on the following social media platforms:
Facebook — www.facebook.com/WeAnimals
Instagram — www.instagram.com/weanimals
Twitter — www.twitter.com/WeAnimals
LinkedIn — www.linkedin.com/company/weanimalsmedia
YouTube — www.youtube.com/weanimalsmedia
Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?
Jo-Anne McArthur: I prepare with a lot of research about the location because my work is often at industrial farms. How do we get in and out safely? Who are the team members or NGO I’m with? What are the laws in the country I’m shooting in? My camera bag is pretty lean: 2 bodies, 4 lenses, a few hand-held LEDs, a headlamp, extra batteries. Water. A mask so that I’m not breathing in so much of the dust and germs at industrial farms.
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
Jo-Anne McArthur: I’m an animal photojournalist. This is an emerging genre that my NGO, We Animals Media, coined. It has evolved from conservation, conflict, photojournalism and street photography. It stands apart from conservation and wildlife work in that it includes all animals, and how their stories overlap with important issues of our time, like climate change, human rights, the destruction of the environment. Animal photojournalists (APJs) believe that the stories of all animals deserve to be told. When I say APJ covers all animals, I mean those we eat, wear, use in experimentation and for labour, those we sacrifice in religious practice, and those we use for entertainment I love that APJ is resonating with a lot of photographers who do investigative work into our treatment of non-human animals. We are a small but growing community. We expose what is unseen. The work is timely and necessary. I’d love to invite you to read our definition of APJ here: https://weanimalsmedia.org/about/what-is-animal-photojournalism/
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
Jo-Anne McArthur: During investigative work I tend to shoot a lot. Adrenaline is high and I don’t know how long I’ll have access to a place, which is often dark, full of moving animals. We need to get our lighting right and move carefully but also quickly. Sometimes I have the luxury of doing a shoot over the course of a few days. That’s when you can sink into a better dance with light, move around more, compose with a bit more ease. Those shoots yield fewer images.
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
Jo-Anne McArthur: My last big trip was to the Australian bushfires to document its effects on wild and domestic animals. One of the images from that trip won Best Photograph in the Man and Nature category at Nature Photographer of the Year. My last small trip was within Canada to document turkey farming and pig farming. The pig farm was absolutely macabre. It’s hard to believe it’s possible that we can treat others so badly. The images I brought back defy sense, they defy words.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
Jo-Anne McArthur: I’m putting a lot of muscle behind my latest book, called HIDDEN: Animals in the Anthropocene, which just won Photography Book of the Year by PoYI. This book was created with my co-editor Keith Wilson and published by my NGO, We Animals Media (WAM). In addition, the WAM team is working hard to build a world class stock site which will be home to thousands of images and video; work shot by me & many other APJs. It’ll be a big step forward from our current archive, www.weanimalsarchive.org
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
Jo-Anne McArthur: My strongest images are those shot close up and wide. They show the experience of the animal in the frame while also showing the constructs and confines in which we keep them.
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
Jo-Anne McArthur: That all animals are worthy of consideration, care and respect. That our behaviours towards them, our neglect, our oversight, are problems that need fixing. Glad I get to shoot stories of change and hope, too.
(Courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur)
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be great in your eyes?
Jo-Anne McArthur: I want us to see what, and who, is unseen. That’s one of the steps in thinking critically and creating change. It needs to be well-composed, poignant, revelatory, engaging, empathetic. Surprising, even. It should stir our compassion. What makes an image memorable? It’s an important question to ask when you’re growing as a photographer. The magic and the tragedy, of course. What undercurrents need to be heard and captured, so that others can feel your images on a deep level? The story that accompanies your image is also very important. Being a photojournalist is also about listening closely and finding the magic in what’s going on around you, and conveying that to others.
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
Jo-Anne McArthur: Other than consistently strong composition and high technical quality, work can have better staying power when it’s part of a long term project, or a consistent narrative on a subject. That’s part of the success of We Animals Media. We’ve been focused on exposing animal stories for a very long time in a consistent manner.
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
Jo-Anne McArthur: I’m motivated by the knowledge that there’s a lot of suffering out there in the world, and photojournalism plays a part in exposing and illuminating what needs to change. It’s really an honour to do this work. We work very hard, I will say. And because spending a lot of time amidst the suffering of others can cause us a lot of trauma, I think it’s important to see action as catharsis. I take action every time I get one of my images out into the world where it belongs. Seeing the incredible responses that our WAM work receives every day is also motivating. It’s proof that we’re doing work that is necessary in the world. We get tonnes of use of our archive as well. 0ur images have been used in over 133 countries, from what we can see.
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
Jo-Anne McArthur: I think that sticking with animal photojournalism when a lot of editors didn’t want or believe in it, was a risk. If you believe in something, stick with it. Giving up my income from my commercial and event work so that I could build We Animals Media was a risk as well. WAM relies on donors. But all of that is going well!
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
Jo-Anne McArthur: My dream assignments are for WAM’s Unbound Project, www.unboundproject.org, which is about women on the front lines of animal advocacy worldwide. These are stories of change, hope, and progress. Here are a few of those stories.
Elsie Herring is an environmental activist who stands up against the pig farming industry in North Carolina, USA.
Seble Nebiyeloul is the co-founder of the International Fund for Animals, based in Ethiopia.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
Jo-Anne McArthur: Empathy, deep listening, non-judgement, determination and drive, a willingness to go an extra mile, an extra day, to keep searching. An adventurous spirit. The ability to witness the suffering of others without letting it destroy you.
Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
Jo-Anne McArthur: That it should be reserved for other genres of photography. Now that I’ve been on the World Press Photo jury, I can see how serious the rules are about manipulation. Err towards not doing it, especially when submitting images to competitions. Read and follow the rules. They are strict! Many great images get culled in photo competitions due to unnecessary manipulation.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
Jo-Anne McArthur: To show the world as accurately as possible. I understand that photography can be both objective and subjective. Be factual. Be clear in your captioning. Work with integrity.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
Jo-Anne McArthur: The camera is a brilliant invention and, like writing as a primary means of communication, it’s not going anywhere. Photojournalism is on the rise, not on the decline, because it’s a necessary tool for education and change. I encourage more photographers to get into, to practice, and to improve their photojournalism, so that we are capturing the important stories of our day, so that we in turn capture the hearts and intellects of our audiences. Animal photojournalism in particular is growing, and more important than ever, due to the number of animals we use globally every single day. These animals, their stories, must be seen and addressed.
Photojournalism News: What is it like to be a female photojournalist in a male-dominated field?
Jo-Anne McArthur: The misogyny is still apparent, though less pervasive than when I started photography over twenty years ago. As a female photographer, people so often assume you are a dilettante. In my corporate & event work I can’t tell you how many times someone in the room asked me if I was a friend or niece of the client. You can imagine how annoying that is! An interesting thing about being a female APJ is that some editors will write you off as emotional or sentimental, because of the subject matter — animals, who are often seen as not a serious topic. That’s also changing though, as I get older and my work more well known, and as more APJs are doing it. I love how many efforts and organizations are popping up which support and promote women photojournalists. It’s essential that we keep making space for the work of female-identified photographers.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Jo-Anne McArthur: You need to put in the time to get good at it. Shoot a lot. Be adventurous. Push your limits. Stay longer. And very importantly, show your work to editors and to photographers who are better than you. Critical feedback is essential for growth. Additionally, being an entrepreneur is part of it. The hustle of showing, sharing and promoting your work is important, as you don’t want your work sitting on a hard drive. Reach out to media for collaborations constantly. Finally, seek mentorship. The mentors in my life, like Larry Towell (Magnum) and Margaret Williamson (Canadian Geographic) have helped me grow as a photographer. I mentor photographers, ongoing, but WAM also has a masterclass for those who want to learn a lot more about animal photojournalism. https://weanimalsmedia.org/learning/masterclass/
Jo-Anne McArthur is an award-winning photojournalist and founder of We Animals Media. For nearly 20 years she has been documenting the hidden lives of animals in the human environment – those used for food, fashion, entertainment, work, religion, and experimentation. McArthur's work has been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Feature Shoot, LensCulture, DAYS Japan and many others. In addition, her images have been used by hundreds of organizations, publishers and academics on the subject of our complex relationship with animals. Recent awards include 2020 Nature Photographer of the Year, Man and Nature category winner; 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year, photojournalism category; Italy’s Festival of Ethical Photography award, Single Shot; Austria’s Alfred Fried Peace Award in 2018; and the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year, People’s Choice category. In March 2021, HIDDEN was awarded “Photography Book of the Year” by Pictures of the Year International (PoYI).