Seeing Ourselves in Others: Anthropomorphism in Animal Photojournalism
In this series of essays, philosopher Jeff Sebo and WAM founder Jo-Anne McArthur reflect on moral and political issues that arise for animal photojournalism.
At the cataclysmic fires in Australia in 2020, I walked through still-smouldering forests and plantations looking for life. On the outskirts of Mallacoota, I found this lone wallaby foraging for food, well-camouflaged in the ashes and char of the forest. I took photos of her as she ate what seemed to be the only living vegetation around: mushrooms. Hunched over the tiny offering with her paws clasped together, then slowly moving to search for more, she seemed to express something relatable to me.
Many people seem to have a strong reaction to this photo and to others like it. It might be that we have a strong reaction in part because these photos remind us of ourselves. We see a human-like figure apparently in distress and we respond with the same kind of empathy that we normally have for members of our own species. The question is: Is that a problem?
This tendency to see human traits in nonhuman beings — known as anthropomorphism — is common in many areas of life. In fact, the term “anthropomorphism” originated in religious contexts, to refer to our tendency to attribute human traits to God. There might or might not be a God, but if there is, this God is probably much different from the “white man with a beard” that many imagine.
People now commonly use the term “anthropomorphism” in many other contexts as well, to refer to our tendency to attribute human traits to nonhuman beings ranging from animals to robots to cartoons. For instance, nearly the entire Pixar canon is a series of exercises in anthropomorphism: first toys, then bugs, then monsters, all the way up to emotions themselves.
In every domain where anthropomorphism occurs, anthropomorphism is questioned. People ask: Does anthropomorphism lead us to see Gods, animals, robots and other nonhuman beings as more like us than they really are, and, as a result, less like themselves than they really are? If so, does it mislead us about what it takes to treat these beings well?
These are valid questions and many people resist anthropomorphism in light of them. Some people deny that animals are conscious at all. For instance, Descartes famously argued that animals are like machines: They might appear to have inner mental lives, but they are in fact simply behaving according to mechanistic laws of cause and effect.
The household I was staying in that week in Havana, Cuba, kept dozens of tiny cages with captive birds. Among all these animals was this fish, held captive in an object that seemed more like a small glass jar than a fish tank. The fish was alive but, as the picture shows, motionless at the bottom of this little encasement. Day after day he stayed like that and one morning I was not sure if he was alive. I asked my hosts about him and they replied, “He’s alive. He’s been like that for years.”
Other people accept that animals might be conscious, but they deny that we can learn about animal consciousness through science. On this view, science can study observable phenomena, not unobservable phenomena. And while animal behavior is observable, animal consciousness is not. So, science can study animal behavior, not animal consciousness.
Still other people accept that animals might be conscious and that we might be able to learn about animal consciousness through science, but they deny that anthropomorphism is a good way to do that. On this view, anthropomorphism is too subjective to be a reliable guide to what animals are like. We should find other, more objective ways to study animal minds instead.
Even media scholars are wary of anthropomorphism. What does it say about humans that we can tell stories about anything or anyone, as long as we represent them as having human-like thoughts and feelings? How does that limit the kinds of stories that we can tell, and how does it limit our ability to see nonhumans as nonhumans, rather than as mere stand-ins for humans?
When we consider these concerns, we can appreciate why some people reject anthropomorphism. However, we think that this reaction is a mistake, for a simple but important reason: In addition to having a tendency toward anthropomorphism, humans have another, seemingly stronger tendency that pushes in the opposite direction: the tendency toward anthropodenial.
Whereas anthropomorphism involves attributing human traits to nonhuman beings, anthropodenial involves doing the opposite. We engage in anthropodenial for many reasons, ranging from speciesism (we naturally think that humans are “better” than nonhumans) to self-interest (we benefit from harming nonhumans, and we feel uncomfortable seeing our victims as subjects).
When we look at many animals, we find comfort in the idea that what seems like a relatable emotion — hope, fear, love, hate, happiness, suffering and so on — is an illusion. This denial of nonhuman mentality makes it easier for us to rationalize our complicity in practices and traditions that harm, kill and neglect vulnerable nonhuman animals for human benefit.
The scale of our anthropodenial is worth emphasizing. For instance, there are about 26 billion farmed chickens alive today, and since we see these animals as “food,” we are especially at risk of denying their mentality. Similarly, there are about one million billion ants alive today, and since we see these animals as “pests,” we are especially at risk of denying their mentality too.
The physiognomy of hens in battery cages is vastly different from that of chickens who get to live outdoors. Their feathers are plucked, either because they plucked them or because their cage mates did. Their upper lids seem heavy, and their slouched posture and hanging heads suggest that they feel subdued and withdrawn. Their health is reflected in the colours of their comb, which is pale in comparison to the bright red of a chicken who lives freely. The middle hen appears crestfallen — a word whose etymology is rooted in defeated, crested animals.
When we consider anthropomorphism and anthropodenial together, one thing becomes clear: Anthropodenial is still winning. In the great battle for human hearts and minds, anthropomorphism is (to meta-anthropomorphize for a moment) still David, and anthropodenial is still Goliath. Overall, we still see too much distance between ourselves and other animals, not too little.
Given this reality, it would be a mistake to reject anthropomorphism as a tool for philosophy, science, media and other pursuits. Used well, anthropomorphism can mitigate the effects of anthropodenial, creating an opening for a more objective examination of animal minds. It might not lead us to the truth by itself. But it can help us to pursue the truth with more generosity, which is a start.
What does it mean to use anthropomorphism well in animal photojournalism? First, it means studying animal minds, and aspiring to take photos that lead the audience to anthropomorphize in accurate rather than inaccurate ways. Weaving science and advocacy together in this way can make our work more informed, informative and legitimate, both in appearance and reality.
Second, it means making a special effort to provide context for photographs, by adding descriptions about who these animals are, what they might be doing, and what they might be thinking or feeling. That will allow the audience to not only empathize with these animals but also make informed, rational judgments about how to channel their empathy into effective action.
Third, it means making a special effort to photograph animals whose mentality we are especially at risk of denying, including captive animals such as chickens and wild animals such as ants. As Pixar illustrates, we can empathize with anyone in the right context. Animal photojournalism can help to elicit, and then contextualize, empathy where it might not otherwise occur.
Anthropomorphism, at its best, is an invitation to take animals seriously as subjects. Accepting this invitation allows us to learn more about what animals are like and how we might be able to harm them less and help them more. So, yes, anthropomorphism might not be the end of the story. But it can be the start of the story, and it can help shape the kinds of stories we tell.
Jeff Sebo is Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Affiliated Professor of Bioethics, Medical Ethics, and Philosophy, and Director of the Animal Studies M.A. Program at New York University. He is author of Saving Animals, Saving Ourselves (Oxford University Press, 2022) and co-author of Chimpanzee Rights (Routledge, 2018) and Food, Animals, and the Environment (Routledge, 2018).
Jo-Anne McArthur is an award-winning animal photojournalist, and Founder and President of We Animals Media. She has been documenting the plight of animals on all seven continents for almost two decades. Her latest book is HIDDEN: Animals in the Anthropocene.