Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville: Jo-Anne McArthur
Meet Jo-Anne. I’d first heard of her about 18 months ago, when I made the decision to cut meat & dairy out of my diet. After watching many films on the subject, some gory, some educational/environmental, one in particular stood out: The Ghosts in Our Machine, a Canadian production helmed by another Leslievillian, Liz Marshall. Jo-Anne was the featured ‘human’ in the film. It focused on her going undercover to expose animal abuse/exploitation around the world, taking photographs of her findings and publishing them. It was compelling, sad and intense. I had joined a few animal advocate/vegan FB groups shortly after and noticed her name/videos/work popped up on several of them. Recently I shared one of her videos to my personal page and it was no surprise a few FB friends knew her. Jo-Anne is not only a force in the animal advocacy world, she’s also a well-known photographer. I knew I wanted to know more about her, and when I heard she lived in the neighbourhood I looked her up online, and emailed her about doing this story. When she replied with a ‘yes’, as a huge fan I was happily stunned. I felt like a groupie!
The eldest of two, Jo-Anne grew up in Ottawa, studied English & Geography at Ottawa U and while there, took a black & white photo printing course as an elective. She was addicted and after graduating, interned as a photographer. It wasn’t long before she was working full time at it. Her passion for photography is equalled only by her love of animals and travel. From a young age she had pets & birds who ran/flew freely in her home. “At the age of 10 I began to notice that what was amusing or entertaining to most people – tricks, begging etc – seemed merely sad to me.” In 1998, Jo-Anne’s love of animals found her drawn to photographing them in her daily travels in a way that was not typical: a meat counter, a sad zoo mule with a sign ‘donkey’ next to it, and later in her overseas travels, more exotic pets who are chained/trained to steal from tourists and/or who are exploited for profit where tourism is a major source of revenue, for eg; elephant riding. It was then she realized, “there had to be a way to relate to animals that was more honest, less exploitive, more informative”. She began bearing witness (operating undercover in factory & fur farms etc.) and other high risk activity to get photographs – and the word out. She worked (and continues to) in teams worldwide accompanied by security. “It’s risky business, and illegal. What do we do if we’re caught? RUN!”
Shortly after her round-the-globe travels documenting her findings, We Animals was born. “Animal, a term used to describe something negative, cruel and unclean in our vernacular – ‘You animal!’ – We Animals turns the accusation back to us, affirming the obvious and frequently forgotten fact that we are all animals; sentient beings with a will and desire to live and thrive, free from harm”. Jo-Anne’s distinctive style of photographing them is different to anything I/you’ve seen before. She wants us to “look and not turn away”. And her photographs do just that. They are beautiful and sad at once, not gory/extreme as some activist agendas can be. The result is a stunning book filled with inspiring/moving text and photos; both which make us think. And feel. We Animals was published in 2013 and covers over 20 countries. It also serves as a resource for hundreds of rescue and animal advocacy groups, and individuals. Jo-Anne generously allows anyone/organizations helping to raise awareness about the plight of animals to use her photos free of charge.
Because of her generosity, Jo-Anne used her skills as a commercial photographer in order to make a living. She has 600 wedding shoots under her belt plus countless other work in her portfolio (food/fashion). But today, she smiles as she announces she’s given that up to concentrate 100% on her three loves; animal activism, photography and travel. She travels constantly, and is booked up with speaking engagements worldwide, year round; organizations, schools, festivals, events – most recently speaking at Veg Fest this past weekend and working on the Anita Kranjc case here in Toronto, which has been getting worldwide attention. Her work has been published in countless print and online magazines including Canadian Geographic, Nat’l Geographic Traveler, the NY Times, Globe & Mail and the Jane Goodall Institute. Ghosts in Our Machine was a multi-award winning film and received world-wide attention. Part of her being able to give up the commercial work is her involvement in Patreon; a crowd-funding platform for content creators, musicians, and artists. It allows artists a platform to obtain funding from their fans or patrons, on a recurring basis vs a one-off campaign. In the first 3 months, Jo-Anne was stunned by the response. “I now get a paycheque, and have funding not only to do the work, but to hire people to help me do it and help me run aspects of the many projects I’ve taken on”, she smiles. Deservedly so.
For someone so relaxed, natural and seemingly in a good head space, I ask how she copes with the work she does. I can barely watch a documentary on this subject without feeling sad, sick, and sometimes furious. I can’t imagine seeing it happen. “There are definitely times I feel hopelessness, depression and heartbroken with humanity. In the past I’ve suffered from PTSD due to this work and see a psychotherapist who arms me with tools. One that I use often is ‘observe but don’t participate’. Baby steps. I know my work is getting my message through and that helps enormously, but it’s a constant struggle”. Although Jo-Anne’s been vegan for 14 years her main objective is to shed light on the issue, open eyes, open doors, get people to see, and start a conversation. In recent years, there’s been a massive surge of interest/awareness in food and where it comes from. She’s been instrumental in this shift. There are now over 50 ‘Animal Save’ groups and they are now coined, by her, the Save Movement. Her next book, Captive, out in April 2017 focuses on animals captive in zoos & aquariums for entertainment/amusement. Anyone familiar with the film Blackfish, the recent death of Arturo the polar bear, the Bowmanville Zoo closure and the Marineland debacle around Kiska the orca understands the horror of animals in captivity. She is also involved in a new project, Unbound. “Our goal is to recognize and celebrate women at the forefront of animal advocacy. The project will evolve over a few years, as we meet, photograph and interview inspiring, hard-working women around the globe, hoping to inspire our audience to do what they can to make the world a kinder, gentler place for all species.”
To learn more about Jo-Anne check out http://weanimals.org/, http://www.unboundproject.org/ and https://www.patreon.com/weanimals
Top 5 photos & the Unbound photo are compliments of Jo-Anne McArthur