Jan Van Ijken at Foto Arte 2007

I’m not a veggie, but I do care about how we treat animals, whether kept as pets or for food or in the wild. Nature is of course red in tooth and claw (thanks to Tennyson for the cliche) and most of our farmed animals only exist as they are as either individual or species because we have bred and continue to breed them so.

The world would certainly be a less rich experience without our relationships with other species, and consumption is a vital part of that relationship. But the deliberate and excessive cruelty that forms a part of much (particularly modern) farming, which treats animals simply as units on which to maximise profits revolts me. And at times I’ve marched against animal cruelty even though I don’t agree with the views on animal liberation of many of those marching alongside.

I was pleased to be able to attend the opening of the show ‘Precious Animals‘ by Dutch photographer Jan Van Ijken (b1965) at the Teatro Nacional Galeria Athos Bulcao in Brasilia on December 18 (a short distance from the theatre – or, in Brasilia, a long drive – it continues until Jan 20, 2008.) Originally commissioned by the Rijksmuseum jointly with NRC Handelsblad as a part of ‘Document Nederland‘, it was first shown at the Huis Marseille in Amsterdam two years ago. Brought to Brasilia by the Dutch Embassy, it fitted the Foto Arte 2007 theme of ‘Nature, Environment and Sustainability’ well, and it was good to meet the Ambassador and several of his staff there, taking an obvious interest in photography and this work.

From Foto Arte 2007
Over 120,000 homing pigeons are released to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Netherlands Homing Pigeon Keepers Association.

Van Ijken’s black and white images examine a very wide range of relationships between animals and man, without making explicit judgements, although some are certainly implied by his concentration on certain aspects – such as the de-beaking of chicks and the crowding of some birds, although he still presents the evidence clearly and objectively.

His are not the kind of horror images you see on the posters of animal activists, although the cooler view perhaps can be even more chilling, certainly allowing you to reflect rather than simply see red.

His pictures show the wide range of our interaction with animals, and Van Ijken certainly has an eye for the surreal, which even some of the captions illustrate. One of my favourite images in the show is “A 9-year-old sow at “Hog Heaven,” a project that connects people with pigs.” (You can see it on-line in the fine photo essay ‘More Equal than Others‘ in ‘Mother Jones.’ The next image on line is “Amsterdam police officers cuddle cows as part of a stress therapy workshop.

In the pictures you see educational projects, pet clubs, animal rescue, animal shows, as well of course farming and vivisection. It is a curious reflection on our own species that while many animals are kept and slaughtered under inhumane conditions (it is difficult to avoid thinking torture) others are awarded the dignity of a funeral procession and burial with a suitable headstone in a pet cemetery,

Although there is currently only one picture from this series on the photographer’s own web site, you can see other work by this self-taught photographer who started taking pictures in 1995. There is a small selection of images on from the project at the Camera80 blog, but the Mother Jones feature mentioned above has the larger and more interesting set.

It certainly did make me think, but didn’t prevent me from going along to ‘Oliver‘, the restaurant at ECCO, and enjoying a truly excellent picanha (rump steak) after the show.

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