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.
The “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.