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The Elusiveness of Photography to Convey Animal Suffering During the Early 20th Century

Source: Valeta (1915: 84)

Source: Valeta (1915: 81).

“Facts that need no comment”, states the caption of a series of images that illustrate the chapter on vivisection in a naturist handbook published in 1915 in Montevideo, Uruguay (p. 81). It was an encyclopaedic treatise on vegetarianism and natural medicine that offered theoretical and practical articles and included illustrated instructions for doing gymnastics, taking baths, diagnosing and curing illnesses, and cooking healthily, among many other things.

Most of the images were cut and pasted from other publications, without attribution or credit to sources. Local authors lacked the necessary resources to produce original images but actively sought to make their works accessible and entertaining with as much graphic material as possible. Their own views were mostly expressed by the images they chose, their layout, and the texts that accompanied them. Despite these authors’ claim that the images spoke for themselves, meaning was built through different layers, among which the verbal instructions offered by titles and captions played an important role.

A big part of the agenda of naturism was the opposition to animal suffering. The movement’s supporters were fierce advocates of vegetarianism and were against the use of animals to extract medicines, like serums and vaccines, as well as vivisection. It is precisely in the chapter on vivisection of the handbook where photographs are used to illustrate human cruelty against animals, probably because of the scientific connotations of the practice. However, these mechanically produced images were often insufficient to translate the pain of “our brothers, the irrational” (p. 81) into a visual language. Texts were necessary to guide their interpretation towards compassion more often than not, with results of varying effectiveness.

Source: Valeta (1915: 82)

Under the title “Crimes of vivisection”, the main illustration of the chapter is a composition of five images. The first two portray dogs lying down, visibly skeletal and possibly dead. The print quality of the book does not allow us to see explicit details, but the animals depicted in an unusual horizontal position evoke people in similarly vulnerable states. A third picture shows another dog in a scientific laboratory, coded as such by the lab coat of one of the men who are intervening. Then we see another dog, emaciated, and finally a stuffed rabbit, its limbs nailed together as if it were an entomologist’s specimen. Science and cruelty are represented as inevitably intertwined mainly through juxtaposition, but the link to vivisection remains ambiguous.

Source: Valeta (1915: 83)

On the following page, we see another dog with a sophisticated mechanical system that keeps his mouth open.  Although the image is not very different from what one might see in a dentist’s office in the same period, the caption reads: “In the most terrible ordeal” (p. 82). The protagonist here is technology, whose mere presence seems to be inflicting pain. As was the case in the previous illustrations, we don’t find explanations of the experiments, only the enunciation of animal suffering. Another picture returns to the laboratory and the scientists in lab coats, with an indistinct animal on what looks like an operating table. Again, it is necessary to complement the image to convey the idea of suffering. In this case, the photograph is surrounded by a ribbon with drawings of surgical instruments: various types of scalpels, scissors, and saws that suggest an idea of physical pain that the central image does not capture. It also makes visible the historical and metaphorical connection of surgical operations with the manipulation of animal flesh. The description of the photo reads: “Rejoicing in the pain of others” (p. 83).

In these texts, pain as a product of science remains dependent on verbally enunciating it, and images, although graphic, are not enough to show a direct link. Some of them are distressing but human cruelty towards animals is mostly expressed through the texts that frame them. Images certainly do not speak for themselves.

 Source of featured image: Valeta (1915: 84)

Works Cited
Valeta, Antonio. El naturismo en el hogar: tratado de higiene, vegetarismo, estética humana y medicina natural. Imp. Latina, 1915. Print.

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