Documenting the victims of factory farming: an interview with photojournalist Andrew Skowron

Andrew Skowron is a professional photographer with almost 20 years of experience. Before focusing on the documentation of factory farms, he spent many years working as a photojournalist for major Polish media outlets. His work has been used by animal advocacy organisations across the globe, including Sinergia Animal or EAST. It will also be featured in We Animals Media’s upcoming book “Hidden”.

Before you focused on animals in your photojournalistic work, you spent many years documenting the stories of people, often excluded or marginalized - for example, those who did not benefit from the political and economic transformation of the early 1990s in Poland. How did this experience influence your further work?

The 1990s were also a time when my personality was being shaped. I remember both the end of the communist era and the beginnings of political changes, the beginning of democracy and the infancy of capitalism. Looking back and analyzing that period it is easy for me to draw conclusions on how life's priorities were changing. I grew up in a block of flats in a small town and my parents came from the countryside in search of work. Parcels with meat sent by our family members from a wealthy village were a delicacy. Whoever had a herd of cows and a shed of pigs was a big person, and supported their sons and daughters, who fled to cities in search of work, education, and a better life.

The kids were brought up on the streets, among the blocks of flats. We felt better in groups considered to be excluded or just marginalized - everything was dirty but also more sincere. With time, the gangs of the neighbourhood were losing their impact on our lives, and everyone was looking for their way. My experiences from the 90s had a great influence on my relationships and my understanding of the stories of the protagonists of my work, because they were so similar to what I had experienced in my life. I often found myself revisiting places from my childhood.

It wasn't just about the footage, it was overlapping memories. I saw tired, lost people who couldn't cope with the speed of the fast-moving world. Consumption was beyond the possibilities of earning for the basic needs of everyday life. People entangled in the system - they also appear in my current work. Once workers from poor districts of the city, they are now workers on factory farms, where they got the opportunity to earn some money at the cost of lost empathy.

Animals suffer, workers' rights are violated, migrants are exploited, the environment is degraded. I sometimes see it through the scope of the 1990s, where villagers were used to build factories or work in mines. Now it is similar, but instead of large factories, industrial animal farms have appeared, where the most disadvantaged groups of people are also exploited. The factories themselves have remained, only the product has changed. I will always see tired people, dissatisfied with their work, saying they have to earn a living somehow. I try to understand this, but when it comes to the exploitation of animals I often can't, it’s hard to find an excuse for it.

How important for your photos are relationships with those people, understanding the situation in which they find themselves?

In my work, the main protagonists are animals as the main victims of factory farming, not employees. I shape my relationship with the workers to get the best possible footage - this is my priority. 

The situation of people who work in such places should be carefully considered. I look differently at the owner because for him the most important thing is the profit,  animal welfare matters only in the context of the quality of the product. I do not hold strong feelings towards these people and am able to go to great lengths to get permission to shoot.

The relationship with workers is different, every individual is a different case. Some are forced by financial issues, others have been brought up in an environment in which the breeding and commodified treatment of animals is something normal and acceptable. Work is work and there is no time to contemplate. I have talked to dairy farmworkers who are disgusted by milk, poultry farmers who are disgusted by roasted chickens. 

In many of them, empathy briefly appears at the stage when chicks, calves or piglets are born. But it lasts a fraction of a second, then it disappears and the animal becomes a commodity. The system is probably to blame here and we all play our own part in it; society accepts what should be unacceptable because it is more comfortable.

I have a feeling that this mechanism of shutting off empathy must exist in everyone who is dealing with such unimaginable suffering every day. It is hard for me to imagine that the workers at the slaughterhouse in Thailand, which you investigated with Anima International last year, are able to consciously reflect on it every day.

In this situation, their lingering on the facts is not a priority - they simply must accept reality. The question is whether they are guilty for finding themselves in a particular place, or whether it is rather the system and the economic situation that is to blame for the cruelty.

It is also worth adding that among the people we met at the slaughterhouse in Thailand, a larger percentage were migrants from Myanmar. This is another aspect to consider: why do migrants make up such a large percentage of workers in such places? In this case, empathy stays at the bottom of this hierarchy of their needs. The slaughterhouse has become their place of work, their living space, and their children's playground. I have seen a lot, but this place was hell on earth like I have never seen before. In this hell, we saw dying animals alongside friendly, smiling people who accepted the situation they found themselves in. At the end of our stay, we were bid farewell with the smile of a monk running through the streets from the temple which was located across the slaughterhouse wall.

I think the whole team that worked on this material has been analyzing what they saw there for a long time. The words of one of the owners of the chicken farm, which we met there, stuck in my memory: "You're from Europe, and here's Asia. Asia is poor, people need meat."

How come you went to Thailand for an investigation with the Anima International team? What were your expectations?

International cooperation is an important element of the animal advocacy movement: mutual support, assistance in developing organizations, and joint actions make it possible to strengthen the whole movement worldwide. This time as well. The establishment of AI's cooperation with Sinergia Animal has led to the AI investigation team's activities in Thailand. We aimed to investigate the issue of laying hens reared in cages, and we were also able to check out slaughterhouses for pigs, laying hens and broilers, as well as a zoo and a wet market.

Many times I have encountered comments from breeders in Europe that the pictures they see were taken in Asia and were transferred to European media to manipulate and discredit their operations. You could say that I expected the worst, but it didn't quite prove true. The industrial breeding companies all over the world are similar, breeding corporations use similar production systems, exchange experiences, and invest in partner countries. They have something in common: the exploitation and suffering of animals.

Of course, we have also seen the type of horrific images we expected - and that I have already mentioned - the result of the lack of regulated animal rights legislation. In Asia, we can see both the influence of foreign capital, which is reflected in the system of professional breeding focused on export and large profits and local breeding, where in the eyes of a European, everything is abnormal and unacceptable, while in local culture it is acceptable and natural.

Do you feel that, in terms of investigations, Asia is still neglected? What role do you think investigations play in shaping attitudes towards animals?

From my observations so far I conclude that the main focus of investigations and campaign activities in Asia has been so far on wild animals. The treatment of elephants, tigers, and dogs has so far constituted the most popular media reports from Asia. Europeans and Americans were shocked by this, even though they consume tons of poultry, pork, and beef themselves. Unevenly distributing empathy between species is the norm in our society.

In Asia, animal welfare organizations have taken up the topic of farm animals to a very small extent - wild animals have been a more prominent and media-oriented topic. In the last few years, the focus of animal advocacy organizations has slowly shifted to the cause of farm animal welfare. Everything must gain momentum, especially as we can see that important producers from Europe or the USA are looking for sales in Asian markets.

Investigations play a major role in revealing the reality that hides behind cheerful advertisements by the meat or milk industries. Society is being fed a false picture of happy animals in these cases. Investigators bring to light a reality that a large part of society is unaware of - it drives the whole process of awareness raising and produces results over time.

You've been working in investigations for years. In that time, have you seen a change in consumers' dietary choices? How do you assess the state of public awareness and people’s resulting choices?

I haven't eaten meat for more than 20 years, and all this time I've watched the market change, and I've noticed consumers changing their eating habits. Public awareness is certainly greater than a few years ago.

This is greatly influenced by the education and activity of animal advocacy organizations, which put great emphasis on systemic changes. We have seen a large increase in plant-based products, new vegan restaurants are opening, and airlines and hotels have such items on their menus.

However, although we are more aware, we can also see growing factory farms, small breeders disappear, everything is absorbed by the large factories where animals are produced - a factory where the animal has become a commodity. We need even more education, empathy, and environmental protection - all these aspects must be put on an equal footing to change the world for the better.

So, what are your plans for the future? Will you focus on Europe, or do you want to act more globally?

My plans were crushed by the coronavirus, and initially, I wanted to focus on Eastern Europe, especially on the countries of the former Soviet Union. What will come out of it, we'll see. I am also very interested in the problem of animal transport outside the European Union. I'm willing to go back to Asia, but I'm open to all kinds of activities. Borders don't matter, the exploitation and suffering of animals is a global problem.

 Could other animal welfare organizations come to you for help?

Yes, absolutely. Organizations can use the free photo archive on my site. I'm open to photographic and investigative cooperation on any subject related to animal rights. I think everything is possible and logistical issues are negotiable. This is a common struggle and we should help each other and work closely together, not compete. Together we can win this fight for animal rights.

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