Photographer Isa Leshko got terrified of growing old after caring for her mother with Alzheimer's. However, she found a way to face her fear. Leshko started photographing rescued farm animals. Turkeys, pigs, pretty much any critter you can think of who escaped the slaughterhouse or some other grim place.
After nearly a decade of working on the project, Leshko has released a wonderful book Allowed to Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Animals from Farm Sanctuaries and began shifting her approach to the series from dealing with anxiety to activism. The photographer now uses her pictures as a way to speak on behalf of these and other abused animals.
Pumpkin, Morgan Arabian Horse, Age 28
Leshko approached these images as fine-art portraits. "In order for an image to appear in my book it couldn't be simply a beautiful picture of a cow or a pig; it had to be a portrait of Bessie or Teresa," she said. "I selected images that revealed something unique about that animal or conveyed emotion. I wanted to viewers of these images to recognize that these animals are sentient beings who think and feel and who want to grow old in comfort, just like we do."
"I think most photography doesn't fall neatly into one box or the other. There are documentary components to the work: in my book I include details about each animal's life before they were rescued. I also included lengthier biographical stories about a handful of animals. But I made creative choices in post-production that I would not have made if these images were documentary photographs. For example, if a background was distracting, I darkened it, or if an animal had straw running along her face in a manner that I think was distracting I removed it. I would never have done this if I viewed the work as a documentary project. I identify primarily as an artist and then as an activist."
The photographer said that farm animals don't behave uniformly. "Like the dogs and cats we share our homes with, these animals have distinct personalities. Some are very outgoing and affectionate, others are shy and reserved."
Many of the animals Leshko met for her project were rescued from horrific situations involving abuse and neglect. "These animals are trauma survivors, and some are understandably wary of new people. For these animals, in particular, I spent a lot of time with them before even taking a single photo. I often spent days with a single animal to develop a rapport with him. I wanted the animals I photographed to be as relaxed as possible so I could depict their true personalities."
Leshko also didn't want to be in these pictures. She wasn't interested in capturing the animals reacting to her presence. "I wanted to be as invisible as possible so I could observe them behaving naturally and comfortably. If any animal seemed really uncomfortable with me, I would not photograph them. Although animals cannot provide verbal consent to being photographed, they are excellent at communicating when they wish to be left alone."
Also, these photos were not posed. Leshko followed the animals wherever they went. It was important to her that the animals felt in control of the situation and that she photographed them on their terms and not her own. "For this reason, I worked with natural light and did not use any artificial lighting that might be disruptive to the animals. I also photographed the animals at eye-level because I wanted viewers of my images to gaze directly into their eyes. This meant spending hours contorting my body in odd positions while lying in mud and animal scat."
Violet, Potbellied Pig, Age 12
After only a few sanctuary visits, Leshko could no longer see a difference between the farm animals she met and the dogs and cats she has known. She even included in her book a handful of portraits of elderly dogs to exemplify this point and to raise questions about why we pamper some animals and slaughter others.
"When reflecting upon the way farmed animals are treated, ask yourself whether you would feel comfortable if dogs or cats were treated the same way. (Note that I do recognize that in some cultures, dogs and cats are treated this way, and the Western revulsion to this treatment illustrates the irrational way in which we categorize some animals as pets and others as food and others as pests.)"
"Nearly all of the farm animals I met for this project endured horrific abuse and neglect prior to their rescue. Yet it is a massive understatement to say that they are the lucky ones," the photographer added. "Roughly fifty to seventy billion land animals are factory farmed globally each year. It is nothing short of a miracle to be in the presence of a farm animal who has managed to reach old age. Most of their kin die before they are six months old. By depicting the beauty and dignity of elderly farm animals, I invite reflection upon what is lost when these animals are not allowed to grow old."