Nineteen years ago, while backpacking through Ecuador, I passed a house where someone had tied a rhesus macaque to a windowsill with a rope. The monkey was small enough to be able to move back and forth between the security bars on the window and had been trained to pick the pockets of passersby and drop the loot inside the house.
Tourists would stop to take photos while the monkey reached inside people's pockets. Everyone seemed to find this hilarious except for me. I thought it was humiliating and belittling for the macaque and the humans around him. Surely there could be ways to relate to animals such as this monkey that were more honest, less exploitative and more informative than this.
My interaction with the monkey and the humans laughing at him started my career in photojournalism. Since then, I've travelled to over 50 countries, shooting images of the way animals are used in the human world. I've documented the stories of tens thousands of animals: animals in zoos and on factory farms, at animal fairs and in puppy mills, in sanctuaries and circuses; as well as images of those who stand up for animals. I truly believe that when we look at an animal chained to a windowsill, we aren't just seeing the animal, but our own morality reflected back at us.
The more I looked at the animals humans use, the more I saw how invisible they were. The couple walking their husky through the park who don't see the coyotes who were trapped and skinned to make their fur-trimmed jackets. The family pulling into a fast-food restaurant for hamburgers who don't see the transport truck full of frightened, freezing cows pass by them as they turn off the highway. The parents pointing out the lions in the zoo enclosure to their small child who don't see the bars and concrete walls for what they truly are.
Animals are present in almost every aspect of human life: our meals, our clothing, our entertainment industries, and yet they live their lives in the dark. Sometimes their suffering is hidden behind the walls of factory farms, where billions of animals live short, painful lives every year. Sometimes, our callousness towards animals is hidden in plain sight: the orca trapped in a tank that he can circle in a few seconds before starting the same, monotonous loop over again. So often, we look but do not really see.
During the years I've spent documenting invisible animals, I've also focused my lens on the individuals who work to protect them. We are living in a new age of activism and the stories of those who are giving -- and risking -- everything to defend animals need to be told. So many activists first realized the impact that an individual could have when they met a sanctuary manager, a campaigner, a lawyer, and saw the real change that just one person could achieve. I tell the stories of activists to highlight their compassion and their courage, and to inspire others to stand up and make their voices heard.
After my experience in Ecuador, I started We Animals, a photo project that documents our relationships with animals. I wanted the project to help people see what I had seen that day: not an entertaining act, but the rope around the monkey's ankle.
I want my work to be used to start dialogues and create change. That's why I have launched the We Animals Archive as a resource for animal advocates and journalists around the globe: to fight the invisibility of the billions of creatures we share this planet with, in the hope that one day we will change. That we will not only look, but also truly see animals and make more compassionate decisions on their behalf.
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