Baby Chester (saved from slaughter) at Rancho Relaxo in New Jersey, USA.
Sammantha Fisher is a self-taught, internationally published photographer, who uses her images to capture and communicate the emotional lives and vibrant personalities of animals. We chatted with her about effective activism, and the immense highs and lows of her work.
Which came first for you: animals or photography? Can you tell us a little about your path to where you are today?
For me, animals definitely came long before photography. I have loved animals all my life and I was six years old when I realized that I did not want to eat them. I was with my family at a restaurant in Maine as we awaited the lobsters we had all ordered for dinner. When the waiter brought the lobsters out and sat one in front of me, my eyes began to well up with tears. I immediately ran to the bathroom and locked myself in it for over an hour as I cried uncontrollably. I couldn’t believe anyone could look at him/her and see food.
I became an activist after that without even knowing what that word meant. My mother refused to walk me past the lobster tank and seafood section of the grocery store because I would start screaming that they all belonged back in the ocean. I then learned about fur farming and would approach anyone who wore or sold fur, questioning why they would do such a thing when the animals suffered and died unnecessarily. I even started printing out PETA flyers and posting them all over, including on my family’s refrigerator – which wasn’t received well, as my brother wrote “plants feel pain too.”
Growing up in a rural community where hunting and farming is prevalent meant that speaking out about animal rights did not make me very popular. I was bullied severely to begin with, so this just added to the abuse I endured from my peers, and even from adults. Although I was a very quiet kid, when people would brag about killing animals, like a mother bear and her cubs, I couldn’t not speak up about it.
It might sound disingenuous being that this is an interview with We Animals – but Jo-Anne [MacArthur]’s work is what inspired me to begin photographing animals a few years ago. I was going through a very difficult time in my life when I was gifted Jo-Anne’s book. Viewing the images and reading the entries, I was blown away by Jo-Anne’s courage and talent to be able to document the heartbreaking realities that animals are facing every single day around the world. I started going to local farms and taking photographs of the animals. Then I visited my first sanctuary, Woodstock Sanctuary in New York State, and everything took off from there.
A lot of your photographs capture animals in positive environments, which is different to the many confronting images we see of animals. Why did you choose this approach and why do you think it is effective?
Getting into animal rights photography I never had a plan when it came to the kind of images I would be sharing. I just knew I wanted to help animals in this way. I quickly saw that the photographs I posted online of animals at sanctuaries with their backstories and information about animal agriculture attracted viewers who could not handle seeing slaughterhouse or other depressing images. I believe that most people see themselves as “animal lovers”, but the way many were raised means they do not think about the animals they are eating every single day in the same light as they think about their companion animals. With my work I try to show people in a gentle way that farmed animals are just as deserving of love and respect as the cats, dogs, birds, etc. that we share our homes with. I want them to know that these animals are emotional beings who feel many of the same things we do – from happiness to fear and anxiety. I feel that my approach is effective because so many people have reached out and told me that they have gone vegan because of my work. Many have also eventually had the courage to view more graphic images, videos and documentaries – which I think are very important for everyone to see. It is surreal to me that my work could affect people in such a way.
Potato and Chester (saved from slaughter) at Rancho Relaxo in New Jersey, USA.
What are you trying to achieve with your work, and why is focusing on animals important?
The main goal of my work is to showcase the beautiful, vibrant personalities and emotional lives of animals so that viewers will consider a vegan lifestyle – not only for the animals, but also for health and the well-being of our dying planet. With my work, all I ever wanted was for just one person to view it and go vegan. Now I hope many people will do so and then share what they have viewed and learned with more and more people so they too will go vegan.
Focusing on animals means everything to me. I feel as though I owe it to them to share their beauty with the world. A while back I would say I was being a “voice for the animals”, but I no longer believe that. Animals all have voices; the problem is most people are not listening to them. Their screams and cries are muted by factory farm walls, and ignorance. I know there are so many people out there who truly do not think about the animals as they sit down for a meal full of animal products. Most people weren’t like me, asking my mother why bacon wasn’t called what it really is – pig meat. The same goes for hamburgers and hot dogs – we’ve been trained to look past what our food really is. Beautiful imagery and education is key in helping these people make the connection, especially those who wouldn’t normally ask the question.
There are so many causes I care deeply about and I often get asked why I am not fighting for human rights instead of animal rights. In my opinion, animal and human rights go hand in hand. Because, if we continue down this path of murdering animals unnecessarily, our planet will continue to suffer until it is no longer habitable, and we will certainly never have peace.
Rescued duck at RASTA Sanctuary in Canada.
What do you enjoy most about your work? What do you find most challenging?
I have met so many animals who have survived the cruelest acts at the hands of humans, and yet they approach me, completely trusting that I will do no harm to them. Being able to be in their presence while photographing them so I can share their story and the plight of their species with viewers, is the greatest gift. I cry every time I meet someone new – out of happiness for them and sadness for the others who are not as fortunate.
Because of my work I am also able to meet wonderful humans who care for rescued animals around the world. I have spent so much of my life with very few friends, but in the animal rights community I finally feel like I have found my place in the world, where I am accepted.
The most challenging part of my work is knowing the reality of what animals endure every single day. Watching as animals are murdered in front of me, and walking away from animals who deserve a happy life at a sanctuary, is all really difficult for me to process sometimes. The truth is, there have been really dark moments in the past where I wasn’t sure I would see the next day. But I realize that no matter how much it hurts, the animals are suffering so much more than I ever will, and I must continue on for them.
Securing funding is also a challenge. I feel like there are so many more deserving causes than my own. Asking for support is not something I do often or take lightly, but I know it is important so I can continue helping animals, sanctuaries and organizations.
Justin Thomas holds Batman the piglet at Rancho Relaxo in New Jersey, USA.
How is photojournalism important to the animal rights movement? Do images have the power to create social change?
Photojournalism is a huge force within the animal rights movement. Images are such a powerful tool and they certainly can create social change. I say this because there is no language barrier when it comes to photography. Anyone, anywhere in the world can view a photograph and feel something from it. There doesn’t have to be words to describe the reality of what animals are going through – just a single image. Whether it is an animal at a sanctuary, a veal calf chained up without the ability to move, or the final moments of an animal’s life at a slaughterhouse, each of these moments captured on film and shared can change the viewer’s life. They might even go vegan and become an activist themselves.
Faith, a retired working mule saved from slaughter by Mino Valley Farm Sanctuary in Spain.
What are your plans for the future?
I have so many plans for the future that I’d like to see become a reality, but the ultimate one is to be able to continue doing this work for as long as possible or until my images are no longer needed because all animals live free from harm. I hope to have my own book published in the near future, featuring the stories of all the animals I have met and photographed around the world. I dream of shooting with photojournalists who inspire me, and to continue sharing my work with people and organizations whom I believe in. I want to help more sanctuaries get donations and support by using my images. And I want my images to outlive me.
My work is not about me or making a name for myself – I truly could care less if people know my name. I just want them to remember how my work makes them feel. And to remember that ALL animals are deserving of love, kindness and respect. We have the power to make the world a kinder place for all inhabitants. I have high hopes for the future and I feel like I am only getting started.
Rescued Asian water buffalo at Animis Foundation in Florida, USA.