A pictorial Q&A with artist and author Sue Coe by Nell Alk. Images courtesy of OR Books.
In her latest book, Cruel: Bearing Witness to Animal Exploitation, artist and author Sue Coe presents beautiful illustrations of the incredibly ugly brutalities of animal harvesting. Sketchpad in hand, Coe’s been granted access to places few industry outsiders have been, absorbing hellish scenes and putting them to paper. This is no small feat: animal exploiters generally try very hard to make their exploitations invisible, aided by consumers who try not to see. Tackling that problem from both ends, Cruel is as much a mirror as a chronicle, calmly but resolutely compelling readers to confront their own roles in the food system they’ve supported.
Observations and musings accompanying the visuals are as unflinching as the images themselves, and poignancy is in long supply. Coe’s portrayals demand an emotional response yet also ignite an intellectual one, with mostly grayscale (sometimes red-accented, sometimes beige-tinged) illustrations, handwritten notes, and sentences like these: “We have only partial glimpses of truth, as though illuminated by lightning only for a fraction of a second. If we could see what we have done to the earth, we would go mad with sorrow.”
Like all genuine activists, Coe embodies the paradox of facing the awful, pervasive truth of the matter while maintaining the optimism inherent in trying to do something about it. Though a largely somber palette and subject matter might seem to indicate otherwise, Cruel isn’t meant to be a gateway to despondency. (“Despair is a luxury,” Coe tells us below.) Instead, it’s a thought-provoking, conversation-starting coffee table book boasting depth well beyond your typical display piece—especially excellent for when your non-vegan friends and family come over, and you’ve casually left them alone knowing that they’ll examine whatever catches their eye in your living area. That said, even seasoned investigators and critics of the animal industry will not walk away unchanged.
Such accomplished artwork is rich with meaning and depth, prompting further questions to spring up in the minds of interested observers. Fortunately, we were able to ask the artist herself questions about some of the illustrations that most piqued our curiosity (click an image below to view it high-res), and, graciously, Sue Coe obliged:
In practice, structure, and motive, the animal harvesting industry is about exerting and accruing power. The man in the image enjoys a high-society lifestyle paid for with the bodies of other animals. Who is he?
I found in a thrift store an old business card for Swift. On it was printed ‘Swift, Butcher to the World.’ Mass slaughter of animals and access to ‘meat’ came about because of refrigeration of the train cars, which allowed for millions of tons of meat to go from Chicago all around the country. Chicago was then nicknamed ‘Porkopolis.’ Chicago was the location of the largest slaughterhouses and stockyards. The two competing capitalists who ruled the meat industry in America were Swift and Armor. They had acres of stockyards and slaughterhouses, employing thousands of immigrants. In those days of the 19th century, the slaughterhouses had gone municipal, as opposed to small local ‘shambles’ where animals were slaughtered, close to where they were raised. These new giant abattoirs were open to the public, and there were guided tours, boasting of both the technology and the hygiene, which was then as now called ‘the continuous line system.’ Before this mechanization, cattle were not raised off the ground to exsanguinate, and so fell to the ground with their throats cut. It was a slower, messier process. The line system, though, has a wheel that raises the cow or pig and rotates them onto the next series of workers, who dispatch the animal and make that animal into parts [as in the image above], very quickly.
You’ve juxtaposed the unadulterated malice of the cigarette burner, who thinks he’s unseen by prying eyes, with the puncher’s searching expression about whether or not he ought to feel embarrassed that an outside observer is witnessing his cruelty. Is this a scene you personally observed?
I have witnessed many of these scenes, although not this one specifically. They happen because it’s mostly young males trapped together who, if left unwatched, will torment the animals in part because they feel tormented having to do that job.
Meanwhile, it’s a pitted war between the staff and the animals. Hogs and larger animals will try to escape; they are not going to go quietly. The human animal has the electric prod to move the other animal forward. It’s inherent to the system of slaughter that it reduces human beings to thugs and other living beings to ‘meat.’
Conventional thinkers tend to consider aquatic animals less morally significant than land animals; and that’s saying something, considering what we do to the latter. Still, the idea of being ripped into an asphyxiating environment and hacked to pieces is intensely horrifying when we think of ourselves as the victims. How is it possible that the practitioners of exactly this level of victimization can rationalize this? What do you think is going through their minds?
I researched finning and discovered the hammerhead shark is the most desirable, because they have more fins. More research revealed to me that the hammerhead has the ability to see 360 degrees, so s/he can witness themselves being mutilated, before being thrown back into the ocean to drown. I think this denial has to do with the fact that aquatic creatures do not physically resemble us, even though they are our genetic brothers and sisters. We are always looking for minute reflections in the other’s face, to communicate, and assume because the faces and expressions are so different in aquatic animals that they do not feel pain. How many ads on TV show the happy and medicated grandfather with the fishing pole and the grandson going off together, bonding over an activity that murders? It has a benign and warm feeling. This is not to say that if humans accepted that aquatic creatures felt pain they would be exempt from our war on them, but it would be a start to changing our ways.
Ultimately, just like any animal slaughter, it’s all done for profit. If there is a market, they will be murdered. Any time I have questioned slaughterhouse staff as to why they do this job, the answer has been ‘for their family,’ which completes the cycle of violence. Their human ‘families’ are disasters to all other families.
When we talk about the harm done to these animals, we often forget the violent psychological loss that’s been visited upon them—the feelings of shame, bewilderment, and complete powerlessness. This is a set of emotions familiar to animal protectors as well, as we look at our own past habits, empathize with the almost inconceivable numbers of animals suffering these transgressions right now, and try desperately, often helplessly and indirectly, to change the world around us. When you produce images like these, how do you avoid falling into despair?
The answer to this question is: despair is a luxury most of us can’t afford.
We have imagination and empathy. We have more choices than we believe we have. We can imagine a different world where there is compassion for all, where we [coexist] with other species. For animal liberation to become public policy, the economic structure must change to one that is about life before profit. Then humans will adapt to that, rather than this economy that puts us in a continuous state of war and competition with all species.
I am amazed at all the activists in the world that have banned circuses in entire countries, refused to eat animal products, gone out and demonstrated, rescued, educated, from China to Peru to South Africa. It does not take much of a spark to ignite change. Animal liberation is the last great social justice movement—historically, these social justice movements take hundreds of years to achieve. Every speck of change adds up to a momentum that can move mountains.