The Wall of Shame

Photographer Jo-Anne McArthur
Photographer Jo-Anne McArthur © Kelly Guerin / We Animals Media

For over a decade, photojournalist, author and educator Jo-Anne McArthur has been documenting the plight of animals around the globe, creating the internationally celebrated We Animals project.

In 2017, Jo-Anne’s image Pikin and Appolinaire won the People’s Choice award. This year, as We Animals Media continues to make headlines with ground-breaking investigative work, Jo-Anne’s image ‘The Wall of Shame’ was selected by the Jury as a Highly Commended image in the Wildlife Photojournalism category.

Pinned to a wall are the skins of rattlesnakes. Surrounding them are signed bloody handprints – triumphant marks of those who have skinned snakes at the annual rattlesnake roundup in Sweetwater, Texas. Each year tens of thousands of rattlesnakes are caught for this four-day festival. In spring, wranglers use gasoline to flush out the snakes from their winter dens – a practice banned in many U.S. states. ‘The wall of shame’ is one of the many images that Jo-Anne captured during her time in Sweetwater, Texas.

The Wall of Shame

Rattlesnake skins pinned to a wall, with bloody handprints and signatures of those who have skinned snakes at at the annual Rattlesnake Roundup, Sweetwater, Texas, USA. Highly commended in the Wildlife Photojournalism Category of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards 2019.

Overall winners were announced on 15th October, during an awards ceremony at the Natural History Museum’s iconic Hintze Hall. Jo-Anne was in London speaking with media throughout the week about the image, and the story behind the rattlesnakes who continue to be slaughtered for the festival, and how every year the species is put at risk of endangerment for what amounts to grotesque entertainment.

‘I hope that people seeing this image will feel shocked, appalled, solemn, motivated to speak up against wanton violence. All animals should have the right to safety and respect, including the maligned rattlesnake.’  – Jo-Anne McArthur

Launched in 1958, the annual Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year and has caught and killed over 250,000 wild rattlesnakes. The goal of rattlesnake roundups is ostensibly to protect people and animals of local communities from snake bites, but roundups have become economically important to many communities that host them, with roundups usually also involving stalls, rides, and other events. Despite their goal of reducing snake numbers in populated areas, roundups have not been shown to reduce rattlesnake populations over time.

 

Jo-Anne was recently interviewed about her experience capturing these images at the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas.

How did you decide to focus on this event, and how would you describe the experience?

When I first heard about the roundups from Advocates for Snake Preservation founder Melissa Amarello, I knew it was something that I had to document. Being immersed in photographing the snake roundup in Texas was surreal and unfamiliar. Documenting the celebration of slaughter in such an intimate way was sort of an out-of-body experience for me.   There were a number of us media folk at the festival, and the staff and volunteers were keen to show off the many facets of the roundup, including the removal of snakes from their environment by way of pouring gasoline into their dens. I had to disconnect from how I felt about it in order to do the animals – and the story – justice.  The killing was on display throughout the festival, and there were events like the snake-eating contest and the Miss Rattlesnake beauty pageant. I think that anyone feeling compassion for the snakes would have felt like a bit of an island, as I did. It was a reality check to observe our disconnection with the natural world, and such a violent celebration against it.

 

Dead rattlesnake being skinned before an audience, annual Rattlesnake Roundup, Sweetwater, Texas, USA.
Dead rattlesnake being skinned before an audience
Rattlesnake rattles for sale at the annual Rattlesnake Roundup, Sweetwater, Texas, USA.
Rattlesnake rattles for sale

How did others at the festival react to these activities?

It was chilling to observe young people watching the killing and then participating in the skinning. Many were at first put off or apprehensive, but with the enthusiastic coaxing from family, they were learning that this sort of wanton violence is not only acceptable, but a fun and positive thing to do. I saw a young woman pass out while watching the killing. She was of course helped, but also laughed at and patronised.

 

In addition to documenting the event, what do you hope these images show us?

I’m so grateful to have Wildlife Photographer of the Year showcasing this important story. The reality of how we interact with the natural world isn’t pretty. We are so disconnected from “others”. We need to reconnect.

“The Wall of Shame” joins the breath-taking exhibit of 100 images that opened in London before embarking on a tour for millions of people to see at distinguished art museums around the world.

 

 

Watch the We Animals Media short documentary about the 2015 Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup.

 

About Jo-Anne McArthur: Jo-Anne McArthur is a Canadian photojournalist, humane educator, animal advocate, and author. Through the We Animals project, Jo-Anne has been documenting the human-animal relationship on all seven continents for nearly two decades. She is the author of two books, We Animals (2014), and Captive (2017) and was the subject of Canadian filmmaker Liz Marshall’s acclaimed documentary, The Ghosts in Our Machine (2013). McArthur has been awarded a range of commendations for her work, including:

– 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year – Highly Commended/Photojournalism Category
– World.Report Award 2019 – Single Shot Award Special Mention
– 2018 Alfred Fried Photography Special Award of the Jury – Best Single Picture
– 2018 Wildlife Photographer of the Year – People’s Choice Award