Documenting the Animal Rights Movement
Martin Nichols is a paramedic and graphic designer with a passion for photography. He always has his camera on hand when participating in street-level activism, and he uses this skill to spread the animal rights message. His thought-provoking photography can be seen on both of his Instagram accounts.
He lives and works on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia.
(All photos supplied by Martin.)
Like most of us, Martin grew up eating the standard fare, but eating meat had always niggled at him. He continued to eat it despite these doubts. “It wasn't until 1998, I don't know what triggered it, but something was telling me, you still harbour these doubts from childhood about what you're eating. One day I said, you're kidding yourself. So I went vegetarian.”
Then in 2015, he came across a video on YouTube that set him straight regarding the dairy industry. “All the other consequences of that were going over my head. I dug a little deeper into that as well, and I thought, I've been half-assing this big time. Right about the same time, although it approaches the subject from a different angle, I watched Cowspiracy.”
These overlapping incidents led to him giving up all animal products. “I’ve never eaten anything from an animal again. I got rid of any clothing, belts and things that are leather. I chucked out a leather wallet. That was that. Like a lot of people shortly after that, I thought there must be something more I can do to raise awareness or help these poor animals. That's when I went to my first action.”
Martin was once a regular protester at a chicken slaughterhouse in the middle of Vancouver. “I have thousands of images from that. These poor animals just crammed in these cages on their way across the alley on a forklift to the kill floor. And images of them arriving in the big transport trucks from the farms out in the Fraser Valley, which are pretty harrowing images in and of themselves. My images have more impact than my presence at a vigil.”
While Martin has witnessed some of the most dire situations animals are forced to endure, like many of us who have already made the connection, he was reluctant to open the book Hidden after he purchased it. “It was just as horrifying, if not more so than I’d imagined.”
While he is happy to photograph the hard-working activists during vigils and bearing witness events, he leaves the more difficult documenting of what goes on inside slaughterhouses and factory farms to the younger generations.
Martin travelled to Petaluma, California to document the Animal Liberation Conference a few years ago. “They weren't quite truthful about this one; they put us on buses saying we were going to protest somewhere, but they had actually already broken into this big duck farm, so the cops were waiting for us and all sorts of mayhem ensued. Swat teams were deployed. Helicopters in the air, drones, you name it for maybe three or four hundred activists holding flowers and singing songs. It was quite the scene."
“I think 90 plus of the activists were arrested. At the end of the day, the local sheriff or police chief came out and said, ‘Look, here's where you sit. If you want to get arrested, you stay on that side of the road. You don't want to get arrested, you go to that side of the road.’ I was weighing the pros and cons and I said, well, I'm from Canada. If I get arrested here, I will probably get deported and never be allowed back into this country. I guess the more sensible part of me decided not to get arrested.
"During that time down there, there was also a huge march right through the middle of San Francisco. They put on a number of Cubes of Truth around the city at the same time.” So, instead of getting arrested, Martin documented what was going on in San Francisco.
The Cube of Truth format is an effective form of activism and Martin likes to witness and record the reactions of those who happen upon one. “The reactions you see from them are perfectly normal human reactions to the suffering of others. Everyone already has compassion in them. You have to get them to make the connection between what they’re seeing and what's on their plates.”
During this Animal Liberation Conference in California, Martin met Amy Soranno who recently lost her court case for the Break and Enter and Mischief charges at Excelsior Hog Farm in Abbotsford, B.C. During the sentencing hearing this past Friday, the judge prevented Amy from speaking her truth—he cut her off after a couple of minutes of reading her statement. Nick Schafer, the other party of the Excelsior 4 who also lost in court and was present for the sentencing hearing, was first to speak and he was allowed to read his entire statement. I question why a man was heard but a woman was stopped despite many objections from her counsel.
Martin feels the role of any activist is to bring awareness, and he definitely does that through his photography. He recounts an incident during one of the protests he attend where he had a conversation with a Vancouver police officer who was among the enforcement called there by the owners of the slaughterhouse. Being a paramedic, Martin has a connection with the police since they often work in tandem. They got to chatting and the police officer asked Martin what difference he thought he was making by being there. Martin responded by saying, “Put it this way; if I'm here, I might be making a difference, however small. If I'm not here, I know I'm not.” This echoes Regan Russell's often quoted sentiment.
Martin admits that the fight for animal rights is long and slow, but at the same time progress is being made, as they are spreading awareness of the realities of the animal for food industries. He mentions how big names like Earthling Ed and James Aspey, draw in more activists when they appear at events, and how their popularity has advanced the movement. He goes on to mention how a worldwide movement was launched as a result of Anita Krajnc being arrested for giving water to a thirsty pig in a transport truck.
We move on to talk about how while there are more women in the animal rights movement, it’s the men who get all the attention and who become well-known, such as the two mentioned above. “Nearly all the people in the trenches are women. And then we've got these figurehead men.”
I agree. The women I've met and know of in the animal rights movement have gathered communities, launched projects and businesses, and are often spreading the message in a much bigger way than simply being a spokesperson. Take Jo-Anne McArthur as an example, whose activism—also with a camera—launched We Animals Media, where non-profits, media, and other activists from around the world go to access images for their campaigns.
We’re quickly reaching a crisis point with climate change, and Martin believes that people will continue to consume and use animal products until they are forced to change their habits. “The way we're going about our consumption now is completely unsustainable. The environmental catastrophe will catch up with us. The problem is, it won't take sides. It will kill just as many vegans as it does meat eaters. I believe that all major changes in society have come about mostly because of the necessity being forced upon us rather than something we chose to do.”
I fear he may be right if we continue on our current trajectory. A 2020 study states that by 2048 our oceans will be fishless “due to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change.” The banning of cod fishing along Canada’s east coast in 1992 is a good example of something that happened too late because there were no other options. Even today, thirty years later, cod stocks have not rebounded enough and remain too low to allow full-scale fishing.
Something that Martin hopes will take place before it’s too late is that plant-based production will become more profitable than producing anything that comes from an animal, including meat. This will only work if governments shift their subsidies to plant-based industries and stop supporting meat, dairy and egg lobbies.
“My one big hope is that plant-based alternatives to animal protein become profitable. I believe that will be the change that's forced upon us. Because the alternative is a catastrophic intervention in our lifetime, which humans and their governments will have absolutely no control over whatsoever.”
Martin isn’t in-your-face about his commitment to veganism, but he also won’t beat around the bush if anyone asks him for his reasons for making the shift. He tells them that he’s against violence and that meat, dairy and eggs are a direct result of animal exploitation. “I believe that I have influenced some of my co-workers over the years. They see that I'm serious, that I’m in good—if not better—shape than ever. When they have listened to what I say, a seed has been planted.
“I maintain the biggest thing I can do is to continue to not partake in animal exploitation in any form. I won't eat it. I won't wear it. I won't go to see it as entertainment.”
Martin is now at a point where he’s wondering how best to help the animal rights movement. In the meantime, he continues to share the realities of the factory farming industry on social media, despite the risk of upsetting his friends. That’s one small thing each of us can do. “I risk looking like a weirdo. Big deal. But social media is the most powerful thing out there right now, and it's available to everyone. If you feel this is wrong, put it out there.”