Our Privilege to Look

A link going around Facebook is asking:

Should animal advocates use graphic images of animals suffering or cute pictures of happy animals to get their message across? What simple techniques make people twice as likely to donate money or volunteer their time to help animals?

And come to  think about it, that’s mainly what one sees in animal advocacy: graphic images of animals suffering or cute pictures of happy animals.

Meanwhile, in real life, animals are doing much more than suffering and being cute. In their countless and varied communities, they lead lives of infinite richness.

Consider the “simple techniques” question, posed by someone in another area of social justice. By way of illustration, imagine someone in an immigration advocacy group asking:

Should refugee advocates use graphic images of refugees suffering or cute pictures of happy refugees to get their message across? What simple techniques make people twice as likely to donate money or volunteer their time to help refugees?

When I worked in migrant advocacy, I noticed a photo of the same emaciated child and mother on various fundraising websites. Refugees and asylum-seekers live and move in many roles. They might be homeless; they might be teaching international law. How do they feel when seeing refugees portrayed over and over as mouths to feed, while the fundraising campaigners who use the images have no idea what their lives are like or what their talents are?

Maybe the child and mother whose faces keep appearing, if they are alive somewhere today, are highly skilled people; in any case, these refugees are more than their victimhood.

I’ll get back to the “cute pictures of happy animals” in a later post. But real quick: For an advocacy group or sanctuary to depend on baby-faced animals to solicit funds parallels the conduct of zoos. Circuses, commercials and comedy hours often show chimpanzees smiling, though the smile on the chimpanzee’s face is a signal of fear. Pandas’ big eyes are there not to attract human caregivers; rather, as George B. Schaller writes:

The eye patches enlarge the panda’s small, dark eyes tenfold, making the stare more potent. In addition, a staring panda often holds its neck low, a position that not only presents the eye patches to an opponent but also outlines the black ears against the white neck, in effect presenting two pairs of threatening eyes. Conversely, to show lack of aggressive intent, a panda averts its head, covers the eye patches with its paws, or hides its face…

In other words, pictures that signal vulnerability, whether intended to raise funds or to move people to join a campaign, may inadvertently defy reality and respect for beings, or whole groups of beings, who are represented as helpless, perpetually needing rescue.

MasksThe “simple techniques” for drawing donors and supporters involve short-cutting: The animal advocate who uses shocking pictures and employs emotional words that require no thought (a high percentage of alerts include “cruel” or “horrific” or “barbaric”) can get by with limited understanding of ethical, environmental or political issues. That can be convenient when membership drives, a petition full of signatures, or fundraising take over as goals. It can also fail to respect the audience, and fail to accord genuine respect for the individual or population with interests at stake.

Even the gentlest, most painstaking and studious advocacy films interpret others’ lives through the camera’s lens. Often, the photographer or videographer was a passive witness to a harrowing event, infusing a disturbing element to the very process of obtaining the imagery.

Watching animals is normal for us. We were carefully and frequently taught as children to regard other animals as spectacles. So it takes a conscious awareness to question our privilege to look, and our prerogative to do what we like with the images.

image source

17 thoughts on “Our Privilege to Look

  1. I would assume that the horrific images are the better motivators for donations. I, for one, cannot look at them. (But, then again, I don’t require that motivation.) I have thought a lot about this. How could I personally help with advocacy within my own comfort zone? One thought comes to mind — another kind of campaign. A campaign to show that animals are “just like us”. Photos not of cute baby animals (after all, they grow up…and are still beautiful!), but of animals being parents, families, communities. And, especially photos of, for example, farm animals (food sources) interacting with family pets. The Friend Not Food correlation.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Tyme. Could advocacy be empowered through regarding other animals as independent, rather than defined by their relationships to us?

    • Here is the transcript for that talk: http://dotsub.com/view/63ef5d28-6607-4fec-b906-aaae6cff7dbe/viewTranscript/eng Thanks for noting it, Michelle. I ran into someone in the law library one night living out of a hidden suitcase. A former Liberian ambassador, a lawyer who had presented a case before the International Court of Justice. Many times, even in the wee span of my own life and relationships, I’ve witnessed the most remarkable changes in fortune. Those who have experienced those changes are, perhaps, better able to feel both empathy with and awareness of the complexity and fluidity of others’ lives. Living as a `foreigner` for an extended period of time might offer insights into what nonpersonhood is like, but of course nonpersonhood itself is a life experience regarded within the human context…

  2. Not trying to cause trouble here… but what is your point of view? I’ve read your piece twice and I’m not sure… I think both the cutesy and horrific animal photos have their place… and of course the photos are manipulative… and encouraging people to support causes/sign petitions of necessity I think has to take a simple, direct approach or you lose people… I am honestly not sure what you are getting at here…

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Michael. Certainly people are directed to support a cause or sign a petition if the presentation is simple: Supporters of animal-related non-profits, by and large, generally follow their particular issues and kinds of animals.

      I didn’t discuss free-living animals because they are so rarely discussed at all in animal advocacy, which usually portrays animals as food (vulnerable and harmed) or pets (vulnerable and cute). But let’s consider the “wildlife” charities. If they find that their donors are especially attracted to the sight of animal faces with juvenile-looking features, and that then influences environmental policies, we’d be protecting the animals we perceive as cute or vulnerable and thwarting natural evolution in quite a weird way. To some extent, could that already be happening? Should we not examine and address rather than exploit these biases if the advocacy effort is based on real circumstances rather than human whims?

      I’ve noticed that the people who want to protect deer often have no interest in coyotes. Yet focusing specifically on deer because they draw easy support will backfire, for to ignore the persecution of coyotes is to set the stage for human schemes to exert control over deer.

      You acknowledge that advocacy in the U.S. has a manipulative approach to activism. Do you find it on some level sad that advocates teach techniques such as getting donations by offering to send a cuddly toy? Are human beings encouraged to understand and in turn teach respect for the rich variety of living communities on this planet? Or has advocacy too been reduced to the methods used by cereal brands?

  3. Hi Lee… thanks for your very thoughtful reply… I guess you have a point here, I honestly have not gone as far in my thinking as you have before this… I suppose what you are discussing here is in play, but do you think it’s as rampant a problem as you suggest? Generally, I find that most people who stand for animal rights don’t just stand for the “cute” ones or make exceptions for certain animals… they stand for ALL of them. It is generally the people who in my opinion are “disconnected” from their own diets–the meat eaters–that perhaps treat animal causes in this way… and thus we also get the logic that says that cats and dogs are “cute” and we don’t eat them and they’re our pets… whereas cows or pigs I guess aren’t as cute and so we do eat them. In my (limited) experience I find it rare that true animal activists act in the manner you describe. And as for the “disconnected” ones… I just don’t know. To my mind, they’re moving out of their comfort zone to help even if it’s for manipulation or for a “cuddly toy”… and so what’s wrong with that? They are making some effort to help, and perhaps this action can trigger something greater. But animal activists–the only issue I see with them sometimes is that they have their “pet” causes and may be blind to other ones. Thanks for your post and your blog :).

  4. Thank you so much, Lee, for this thought provoking post. I suppose the type of image one presents also depends on the audience one is approaching. Certainly manipulation plays a part in most campaigns, as people want to get the most support by stirring emotions.Some people can’t bear to look at gruesome photos, while for others it is a life changing event. This topic is something that I have grappled with concerning blog content. Essentially I am sharing my experiences as well as raising awareness, with the hope of stimulating discussion around the “abhorrent”, “repulsive”;) fur trade. Posting too much horror elicits an avoidance response, while too much “cute” trivializes very serious issues. Photos of animals and activists going about their daily lives doesn’t seem to evoke any response. I suppose we all have to find our own style, which makes cyber life interesting .

    Thanks for the follow. I am looking forward to more interesting discussions.

    • Thanks for these thoughts, Emy. I agree that sometimes, we’re going to do what the situation calls for and I might not follow my own suggestions in every case. But as a general rule, I’d say I do want to be careful with people’s emotions and also avoid use of animals’ bodies and expressions for shock value. Then again the fur issue is one that can helpfully rely on strong, free animals – imagery of mammals’ natural power, independence, community, playfulness and industriousness. Fur-covered mammals sought for pelts are animals who could live free but for our manipulation. So I think this is an area in which attractive, respectful imagery – fine drawings or photos taken by people in natural, unstaged settings – can make a good impact. The campaign would explain that what we don’t want to do is deprive them of that life by trapping them or forcing them to breed in cages, that their fur is not ours for the taking. I think that taking can be left to people’s imagination (and alas it is not too difficult to imagine it). The big issue here, to me, is that we may well bring about what we constantly focus on, and to show the horrific scenes of animals as their lives are taken from them can have the effect of reinforcing the identity of the animal as the abject victim. While we are asking people to stop a horror, we are also encouraging people to respect something wonderful: the lives of beavers, rabbits, lynx, foxes, coyotes, bears, bobcats and others in their natural surroundings, on their terms. So I’m thinking in terms of a message that presents the viewers with a real power surge as they get a feeling of encountering these mammals in their habitats and think: yes, that’s what I too want to cherish and respect. We advocates need to look after our own psyches too.

  5. Lee,

    Many human animals have learned the spectators gaze. This essay has implications across multiple social justice and economic development concerns.

    Thanks for serving so many with your rhetorical even hand and insight.

  6. Thank you for thinking and writing about this topic, Lee. It’s something I often wonder about, especially when I see well meaning people posting either cute or horrific pictures of other animals. In the past, I’ve also posted such pictures, rationalizing, ‘If this picture resonates so strongly with my choice not to drink a cow’s milk, surely friends will see it and think the same.’ Yet, as far as I know, it hasn’t had that effect. I know that some vegan activists say it was those sad, horrific pictures that first grabbed them and got them thinking about changing their food choices. I wonder, however, if they would have come to make those same choices at some point anyway, without the pictures.
    One further comment – I have a reading activity I use with my ESL students which includes magazine cut-outs with pictures depicting: celebrity dramas; cute animal stories; love stories; interesting (I think!) animal documentary stories (realistic stories, not cute stories); and other pieces of media. Invariably, the students are most interested in celebrity gossip and love stories, followed by cute animal stories. The animal docs are left to the end. It requires me highlighting the interesting parts and making the information somewhat ‘entertaining’ for the students to show interest.

    • Interesting, Heather. We primates do like to grasp bright, shiny baubles. Are the kids amenable to talking about why they select certain topics, or even what cuteness means for us?

      Your comment about some of your friends not responding to pictures of exploitation the way you do is also interesting. Some have said that the killing of animals would stop if there were glass walls. That’s just not the case. Hunters continue to kill animals, researchers continue to “sacrifice” them; and in Europe and elsewhere, the bodies of whole, just-killed pigs and birds etc. hang in full view, making it patently obvious what has just happened to their former selves, and people buy them.

      Years back, what student on the North American continent did not read The Jungle? What do people do with that information? People see war films too and that doesn’t stop them going. I’m not sure horror changes people and moves them away from it.

      Hitler personally experienced the gruesome reality of trench warfare in World War I, as described by historical psychologist Richard A. Koenigsberg.

      It seems to me one needs to think through decisions that lead to conscientious objection—that a movement needs conversation, and contemplation of principles.

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