Bearing Witness to Black Summer

Bearing Witness to Black Summer

As the bushfires burned across the east coast of Australia earlier this year, the plight of our wildlife was bravely documented by We Animals Media founder and photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur. In the evenings, Jo-Anne would upload her images to a share folder that was accessible to animal protection groups and the media alike. Generous with her work and hoping to share it as far and wide as possible, Jo-Anne’s remarkable images gave us hope during a time when hope felt foreign. And as more than one billion animals perished, she worked desperately to alert the world.

Voiceless Co-Founder, Ondine Sherman, sat down with Jo-Anne to reflect on her role during the bushfires and to explore one image that’s stuck with Ondine since she first saw it back in January.

Ondine Sherman: You flew across the world from Canada to Australia – what was driving you to document and witness the bushfires?

Jo-Anne McArthur: My tendency for over a decade now has been to go to where big events are happening, or big problems with animals. We saw the numbers in the news. Billions of animals. I decided to come to document the stories of both wild and farmed animals.

We spent weeks and thousands of kilometres driving around just to get access, to get a few stories. Because, as you know, every highway was blocked off, every side road, and it was really unpleasant being close to the fires. As we know, they sweep along quickly, and you can get surrounded. It’s dangerous and people die because they stay too long or they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I certainly had trepidation and stress. Always balancing, “How dangerous is this?”

That’s the thing with investigative work. You’re like, “Oh God, it’s going to be dangerous to go into that bear bile farm, but I’ve come all the way to Laos, and I’m at the entrance, and there’s a sleeping guard at the door, and all I have to do is sneak by that sleeping guard. But I don’t want to: but I came all this way.” Then you just do your best and you work quickly. That’s what it was like in Australia. We were like, “We’re off limits here, but there’s something happening. So let’s work really quickly.” That’s what I find with a lot of shoots, is that you go an extraordinary distance in order to get a couple of images and you have to do really well with those images.

OS: One of our favourite images from your time in Australia is of a kangaroo and her joey standing in the burnt-out bush. Could you tell us how you and your camera came to be in that exact moment?

JM: I was with Vets for Compassion and they were out in the field rescuing koalas from trees. Some of them were burned or starving because they were up in eucalyptus plantations, but the trees were dead, and they had nowhere to go. It takes about an hour to tranquilise a koala and get up in the tree and get the koala down. The number one thing you must do as a photographer is never stand still. Don’t just stand there watching; you go for a walk; you’re always looking for different angles.

I decided to walk down the road. It was eerily quiet, but there was a mum and her joey. I saw her amidst that burn, and it’s an exciting moment as a photographer.

Jo-Anne McArthur of We Animals
Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals in the burnt out bush

But I was in the wrong spot. I still had about another 15 steps before I knew I would crouch down in the right place and take the exact picture that I wanted, and she could have left. That’s what animals do. So I walked really quietly. I had my camera ready, and I had my f-stop ready, and I just moved. Then I crouched down, and I took about five pictures, and then she looked at me.

She looked at me and then she hopped away.

When you get a good shot like that, you cannot wait to download that picture, and back it up, and back it up on the cloud, and email it out in the high-res so that you know it’s safe.

The last time I had an image like that was when I was photographing at the pig slaughterhouse in Thailand. There’s an image of a man clubbing a pig. It’s been a very influential image. And when I saw that I thought, “I cannot wait to get these images to safety so that the world can see.”

The kangaroo image is such a lonely picture and you see that the background is just burnt out. It looks quite apocalyptic. It’s one of those images, it’s symbolic of a moment in time.

There were dead animals lying in the plantations. Sometimes a koala would be taken from a tree and a day later euthanised due to the severity of its injuries or illness. It brought home for me just how little we can do if we don’t act quickly and that we could do a lot more. There were a lot of people saying, “Send money, send rescuers, send vets.” It’s a colossal coordination and because of access, people weren’t able to get it together.

I noticed that the situation was desperate for those koalas who were getting hungrier and hungrier and not getting care. It’s a painful perspective when you drive down the road and stop your car and look at the eucalyptus plantations in that area. And you’re like, “Oh, koala, koala, another koala.” Many dead animals just on a little stretch of highway. It’s bleak.

OS: You wrote a beautiful description on your Facebook page of the sensory feelings, the tastes, smells, and the light:

I keep trying to describe the smell. A burn, that’s charred through, and then steeped in smoke for weeks, mixed with whiffs of decomposing bodies, and earth made crunchy and sand-like, smelling like must and dust. Add dehydrated eucalyptus, the beginnings of regrowth (yes, already: silvery little blades of grass and myriad fungi) and sometimes the ocean breeze. I will never forget this smell.

This description is so evocative and precise, and I wonder if this smell has stuck with you since leaving Australia.

JM: I am glad I described it at the time because I probably described it better than I could now. But I will say that as time passes, it’s not the smells that stay firmly lodged in my mind but the sounds.

It’s the eerie sound of silence that is not natural to a forest, because forests have the sound of psithurisms. I love that word, it’s the sound the leaves make when the wind is blowing. And there’s no birdsong.

Add the sound of walking through the forest. It’s a crunchy sound, and not the crunchy sound of nice leaves underfoot, but of char. And everything is turned to sand almost. And then of course those kookaburras. You hear a kookaburra in the distance, just one chattering away and it just echoes. You’re not supposed to hear an echo in a forest, right? It’s that haunting sound accompanied by the blackness of the charred trees and the charred ground that’s stuck with me.

And it’s endless, too. It’s one thing to be driving through it for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. But then we flew out of Mallacoota to Melbourne and you just want the burn below you to end, you want it to be finite. With every passing kilometre your heart is sinking more, and you can’t get your head around the devastation.

OS: How was it visiting the sanctuaries and seeing the rescued animals?

JM: Those animals get habituated quickly and they’re so loving and adorable. There was one that only wanted to be on my lap and have his face near my face. What an experience! It made me sad because they should be like that with their mums, but where are their mums? Probably gone.

Being around the rescued animals is bittersweet. That’s the perfect word for it, and it’s also unusual. It’s a funny feeling to know that you shouldn’t be able to have the relationship of cuddling a joey. It just shouldn’t be, they should be with their mums in the wild.

They are a glimmer of hope in the mass devastation, and they will be rewilded even though, of course, they’ll be habituated. The people who take them in also offer that little bit of hope.

OS: It’s a beautiful experience, but when it comes from a place of tragedy it just doesn’t feel right.

JM: That’s what makes those experience so layered and moving. It’s not just a happy thing, it’s based on tragedy and it’s also based on hope. I have to focus on the good. That’s how I am able to do this hard work. I focus on putting one foot in front of the other and moving things in the right direction. By doing my best in the work that I’m good at – photography and storytelling – and not dwelling on the disasters happening all around me because if I didn’t focus on the good I’d quit. I wouldn’t be here.

OS: What would your ideal hope for the mother kangaroo in your photograph be? If you could wave your wand and change the future for her and that little joey, what would that look like?

JM: What I would change is our perspective on all animals, and that we would be a species that understands their innate value, and respects it, and protects them. For her, and her child, and every animal.

OS: Amen.

To find out more about Jo-Anne McArthur’s work, visit We Animals.

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