Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

images as advocacy

Prepare for some rambling – I’m writing this as much to figure it out as to explain what I think to others.

The general topic is images of animals, and the message they convey.

Included in this topic are issues of what or how people see things, as depends on their own education. (A term I am not using in the traditional sense.) That education might be in images, so that they look deeper at images, in a general sense, and this is something common in people who have spent time making images, looking at images, or both, and also quite a bit of time thinking about images. That education might be in animals, so that they can read animals more deeply, in a general sense, and this comes from experience.

A coworker once told me that she doesn’t eat cows because she imagines their big brown eyes looking at her.

A friend’s mom saw a picture I took of a chicken and said something along the lines of “I didn’t think chickens could ever be anything other than ugly. I’m not sure I can ever eat a chicken again.”

A complete stranger said of a picture of Harley, that what she liked about the picture is that it took something (yes, she said something) normally seen as unclean and ugly and made it beautiful.

The first two comments are very closely related, in terms of what drives their reaction. I would judge that the first comes from an “education” standpoint of having cats, being able to read expression and personality in them, and transferring that to reading expression and personality in cows, and having a crisis of conscience that leads her to eat chickens, but not cows.

The second comment appears to me to be from a similar perspective, though I don’t know the individual at all, and I am pretty sure she eats all animals.

The third comment is speaking from an image-education standpoint. A statement was made about the lighting, and her comment is really about the message of the imagery. This person likes that I’m looking at something in a “new” way.

Where am I going with this?

I am wondering, I suppose, what message we can expect to convey with images. Most of my animal pictures are from sanctuaries, particularly Poplar Spring, because I spend a few hours most every Saturday at that particular sanctuary. My own perspective on these photos is that they tend to portray both idealism as well as realism. Idealism because I consciously try to capture their individualism, their freedom, their environment that allows both. Realism because I don’t necessarily avoid the mud, the worn spots, the reality of a place that is lived in, rather than a stage set.

I bring this up because of certain images, stock images I would assume, that are commonly used by various groups in The Movement. I’ll go ahead and pick on one group, though they are not the only ones to have used this image. F.A.R.M. has a postcard featuring an itty bitty baby piglet (no more than a few days old) touching noses with an itty bitty eyes-barely-open kitten (guessing around 4 weeks old). They’re both pristine and fluffy, and the environment that is visible is pristine and lush green grass.

It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It is staged, folks, let’s be perfectly honest about that. And, assuming it is a stock photo from someone who is not an animal rights person, which I think it is safe to assume, it was created almost definitely through the purchasing of animals. How unlikely is it, after all, for someone to just happen to have a days-old piglet and a weeks-old kitten in a place where they can be photographed together.

Maybe that isn’t the point. I could be completely wrong about the animals used to create the image, after all, and there is only so much you can do to stage a shot like that – much of it will come down to luck and perserverence. Maybe the point is to have something so cute that everyone can’t help but to ooh and aaw, and say “how cute!” I’m not immune, despite my reservations about that particular image, and that reaction in general.

If it seems staged to me, I imagine it seems staged to most everyone else.

And if it seems staged, is it really conveying a message, or do people come away thinking that it is cute, but not how things really are?

Obviously I prefer a bit of grit in my own pictures, since that’s what I’m drawn to in the pictures I take. Not that I actually have that much choice – do you know how rare it is for pigs to not be muddy? Rare, I will tell you that. But I would love to be able to convey that muddy and “unclean and ugly” are entirely different concepts.

Overwhelming cuteness bothers me on another level – I intensely dislike the idea that we have to find attractiveness in another to agree to do them no harm.

Yet that is what I feel I am “selling” in images of these animals, based on the reactions I get from people sometimes.

I am not sure how to resolve this. On one hand, being able to show someone who is not inclined to see the beauty in a pig or a chicken that these individuals are actually beautiful, well, that seems like an achievement. To break through a wall and show personality…hopefully it makes people think.

But am I reinforcing an idea that personality, or worth, is only present in conjunction with some level of attractiveness? Does that leave them room to continue to eat all the remaining ugly (to them) individuals?

Obviously, there is only so much an image can do, in any case, no matter if it is “worth a thousand words” or not. I’m not suggesting that all text/logic based advocacy can be ignored in favor of finding The Right Images, but as I’m working on a calendar, I’m clearly needing to focus on what I can or should do with the images.

I’m a bit thrown for a loop by that third comment I mentioned. I first felt a bit sick to my stomach when I read it, and then I felt like it could make me cry. And then I wondered if I shouldn’t be celebrating – didn’t I get her to see pigs in a different way? And then I doubted myself…because her comment could also have meant that I reinforced her pre-existing view of pigs as unclean and ugly by showing her The Exception.

So, yeah, I am rambling and likely incoherent. How can images be advocacy? I’m not sure this has an answer; a great deal of our reaction to images will depend on context, both of our life, and in the presentation of the image.




4 responses to “images as advocacy

  1. Kelvin Kao November 8, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    I don’t have a coherent answer for this either, but I’ll tell you what came to mind. When I read this, I was reminded of the situations that documentary makers or journalists face. There are messages that they want to convey (even if there wasn’t one to begin with, there would be one once they are smoothing things out in editing). There are messages that the subjects are experiencing and want to convey. And there are the perspectives of the people actually watching. There’s never going to be a simple answer for any of those.

  2. nothoney November 9, 2008 at 7:24 am

    Holy piglet, look at Harley! He’s grown out of his baby face – already! I miss being out there on my alternate Saturdays and I miss hanging out with y’all, but Miss Mina needs me home …

    Your post is very interesting, but I don’t have an answer. I know what affects me when I see it, but how to convey what I see to others? Beyond my powers. For example, my Dad is 73 years old, raised on a dirt farm in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, and pretty much thinks of non-human animals as food or too inferior for him to consider. A while back he was poking around my blog and found the videos from the Hallmark/Westland Meat undercover operation. His comment was only that he watched them.


  3. Deb November 9, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    @ Kelvin – thanks, that actually helps! And your comment about the journalists/documentary makers helps me see the issue more clearly as well. No easy answer, but at least I feel like I have a better handle on the challenges. Funny how you were able to say in a couple sentences what I struggled to say in a too-long post! heh.

    @ Sheryl – it’s funny because my mom grew up on a small farm too, yet she’s the one who most easily sees animals as worth of consideration. Not that she’s taken any action on that, ever, unless you count adopting a few cats and dogs over the years, but she’s still more open to it. And then there is the mad cowboy. Maybe your dad would listen to Howard Lyman?

  4. nothoney November 9, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    That’s a thought. I’m giving him “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” for Christmas. I haven’t read it, but a couple of other vegans and one “ominvore” recommended it specifically for people such as my Dad. So we’ll see …


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