Human choices

Prior to starting on the MA program, I had not spent a great deal of time reflecting on the intent of my practice. Mostly I have been looking at the work of others, increasing my knowledge of photography theory and experimenting with what I want to photograph and why. I am interested in place and the sense of presence & absence they create. Industrialized landscapes and the processes they support/enable is where I spend most of my time and energy photographing. This is a rather broad spectrum of interest, and I have not really put my finger on a specific part I want to focus on above others.

Two sides of my work that I was not previously aware of that are now coming into relief as I read more, look at the practice of others and discuss with my tutor is a fascination for the mundane and non-places. This guides my choice of subjects and themes to photograph. Living in an area of intense agricultural industry, I have no shortage of subjects to choose from while the high-tech industries are also close by.

Recent work looks at aspects of the meat industry, its practices and the visible traces it leaves on public display. One of which is the disposal of animals that die during factory farming and then left outside of production facilities awaiting pickup and disposal. I combine images of these collection points with iconography from the renaissance artwork of Hieronymous Bosch to create the allusion that we should reconsider how we treat animals. Many people are unaware of what happens in the meat industry, as it is secretive and protective of how it works. By taking and showing these images it can bring some awareness to the reality of consuming meat and what the consequences are for animals when production is on an industrial scale.

The work has had limited exposure, so judging its success or otherwise is a bit early to say. Although I can see the weakness in the choice to use montage and that it is unlikely to connect with viewers as they do not recognize the work of Bosch or the implied meaning. That interpretation aside, unceremoniously dumping cadavers at farm gates should make one wonder what is going on behind the scenes that lead to such a thing. There are so many things wrong with factory farming and industrialized meat production, it’s difficult to know where to begin.

This next image I consider more successful for its composition than the allegory created by montage. The container is used to cover dead pigs (deadbox), it’s right beside the family letter box. Through the gap in the hedge is a neatly kept house and garden. I find this a bizarre juxtaposition.

Animal rights activist and artist, Sue Coe is fiercely critical of the meat industry and much of her work graphically exposes the reality of how animals suffer in factory farms and slaughterhouses. In an interview with Matthew Clay-Robison for her Porkopolis exhibition she states, ‘Animal Agriculture will end us before we end it.’ Seeing where we are today with COVID-19 and the link to wet markets and the consumption of meat this may well be a prescient observation.

Her harsh visual aesthetic captures the grim horror of how the meat industry operates behind closed doors, your imagination left to complete the scene. These are disturbing images designed to move the viewer to reconsider meat and its consumption. The style of representation fits with the theme, dark shadows and things left unsaid create an unsettling effect, the humanising of the animals connects them with our lives and values. Imbued with a childlike questioning innocence, they challenge our complicity in the fate of all the animals that trudge trustingly through the doors of a slaughterhouse, the end of the road in every sense.

Sue Coe, Its a Picnic. 1992

Mishka Henner uses satellite imagery to draw attention and highlight the environmental damage caused by factory farming and the meat industry in the USA. The high definition images trace out feedlots with cattle as tiny specks, multicolored lakes, the by-products of animal waste mixed with the chemicals and antibiotics used to accelerate growth and eventually break down the waste.

I like this high level top-down perspective as it creates a sense of scale that would be very difficult to achieve from ground level. However, it is difficult to grasp the reality of what is transpiring on the feedlots with the animals, it’s too detached to connect to without a supporting narrative. We can appreciate the place and how it interacts with the landscape, but the human connection that Sue Coe brings to her work is absent. It does not grip you in quite the same way.

Mishka Henner, Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas. 2012

I find his short video ‘Precious Commodities’ more engaging, and the swapping from satellite to ground imagery brings the narrative together more effectively than the still images alone. Although after viewing the movie the stills are better appreciated, understanding the context creates a whole new level of meaning.

This combination of aerial and ground level shots is something I may experiment with later on as I image the factory farms & meat processing complexes here in the Netherlands and look to ways to represent their place in the landscape and the oppressive atmosphere that hangs over them.

Precious Commodities by Mishka Henner

In Henners Op-Ed article in the LA Times (2015) he states:

The meat industry is a subject loaded with a moral and ethical charge. But when I think of these pictures, I don’t just see gigantic farms; I see an attitude toward life and death that exists throughout contemporary culture. These images reflect a blueprint and a horror that lie at the heart of the way we live.

The scale of the meat industry is difficult to comprehend, the blueprint a complex web stretching across the globe, Sue Coe illustrates the very personal experience in the slaughterhouse environment while Mishka Henner pulls back to the edge of space to create his perspective and interpretation of the industry.

Farmaggedon, is a book and short movie by Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming. In contrast to Coe & Henner he visits multiple countries to examine differing factory farming practices, their environmental & social impact and to draw attention to the practice of feeding animals’ food fit for humans in order to create meat. Often at ratios that defy all logic.

Each of the approaches to representing industrial meat production use different mediums to reach their viewers, screen printing, satellite imagery, video, written word; I suspect that this combination has the furthest reach in connecting to people and raising awareness. Being realistic about my work, it is a tiny contribution, but I can see where it fits in the broader effort to make people aware of the impact of the meat industry.

I plan to continue with the ‘bring out the dead’ series of images and to expand the iconography used for the montages. The initial set of images I have completed show that this is a viable project (including the research project proposal). I have identified several books that I need to complete to further help in contextualizing the work and provide me with the depth of knowledge about the meat industry necessary to talk about my work with any authority.

In parallel to this I intend to experiment with imaging the factory farm complexes and in conveying the disturbing sense of disquiet that emanates from them. Having seen quite a lot of complexes recently, they are strange non-places reminding me of Camera Lucida and Roland Barthes impression of Lewis Payne ‘I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake‘. (Barthes, 81, p. 96)

As the module progresses, I expect this theme to take shape building on the context of the ‘bring out the dead’ work and providing another perspective on factory farming and intensive meat production. The idea and first attempts at visualizing are there, but it needs much more work to bring it together in context and aesthetics.

Bibliography

AUGÉ, Marc. 2008. Non-Places An Introduction to Super-Modernity. London: Verso Books.

CLAY ROBISON, Matthew. 2016. ‘Sue Cole, Porkopolis, Animals and Industry’. [online]. Available at: https://yorkcollegeartgalleries.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/sue-coe-catalog.pdf [accessed 4th Jan 2021].

CROSWELL, Alexis. 2013. ‘Is This Shocking Satellite Image Of A Factory Farm Illegal?’ One Green Planet [online]. Available at: https://www.onegreenplanet.org/news/is-this-shocking-satellite-image-of-a-factory-farm-illegal/ [accessed 3 Jan 2021].

‘Electric Stunning System, Midas’. 2021. Marel [online]. Available at: https://marel.com/en/products/electric-stunning-system-midas [accessed 11 Jan 2021].

HENNER, Mishka. 2015. ‘How The Meat Industry Marks The Land — In Pictures’. Los Angeles Times [online]. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-marks-on-the-land-html-20151222-htmlstory.html [accessed 3 Jan 2021].

HENNER, Mishka. 2021. ‘Feedlots — Mishka Henner’. [online]. Available at: https://mishkahenner.com/Feedlots [accessed 3 Jan 2021].

LYMBERY, Philips. 2014b. Farmaggedon, The True Cost of Cheap Meat. Edited by Isabel Oakeshott. Bloomsbury.

LYMBERY, Philip. 2015. ‘Farmaggedon — The True Cost of Cheap Meat’. Compassion in World Farming [online]. Available at: https://youtu.be/MkmSB51lSf0 [accessed 3 Jan 2021].

‘Pig Slaughter- Comparison of Different Stunning Methods Used’. 2014. YouTube [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch/adtjQDW9rVE [accessed 11 Jan 2021].

‘See America’s Factory Farms Mapped Out’. 2020. Food & Water Watch [online]. Available at: https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/news/brand-new-see-americas-factory-farms-mapped-out? [accessed 3 Jan 2021].

THE NEW SCHOOL. 2012. ‘Artist In Residence: Sue Coe | Printmaking | Parsons The New School For Design’. YouTube [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qC5A-qJgFWU&feature=emb_logo [accessed 3 Jan 2021].

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