One thing you should ask yourself before you share that graphic photo…

23 Apr

askbeforeyoushareOn Friday night as I was settling in for a Joss Whedon marathon (the obvious antidote to a super busy week), I happened to check my Facebook inbox and noticed a new private message. It was a photo of one of the most upsetting instances of animal cruelty I have ever seen. It had been pulled from a trapping website. That’s all I’m going to say about it.

It was a photo without any potential for recourse. This person was sending it to me because they were [legitimately] horror-struck,  and maybe to ‘share’ the grief. This person was actively seeking out these photos, and since this person knows I organize against the fur trade, decided I needed to see it.

I’m going to be blunt.

The last couple of months, I’ve been getting increasingly upset by the amount of graphic imagery being circulated by animal activist folks on the internet. I’m all for pictures speaking a thousand words, but should there not be consideration for who those words are directed at? For example, if 95% of the people on your FB are already vegan, you ought to ask yourself if your audience will benefit from seeing those images again and again and again.

I know some activists “bear witness”, and I believe it’s an approach that can be effective as a means of mobilizing and inspiring individuals to change behaviour. I also know that it does not work for everyone. I know this because I’m one of the people it doesn’t work for. Continually exposing myself to the relentless suffering does NOT mobilize me. It cripples. It breaks. It pauses me with paralyzing anger and sadness. It makes me a less effective activist. For me, I have learned (the hard way) that I need a hefty amount of insulation from that kind of imagery if I am to be as effective as I want to be. And I’m no part-time activist. I work in animal protection professionally as well as being an activist personally.

And it’s not like I don’t go out of my way to ‘hide’ the folks on Facebook who insist on posting photos of animals being murdered as though it warrants no warning. When you consider human and non-human animals alike as individuals, then what these photos depict is, literally, murder. Would you share a photo willy-nilly of a human having their skull blown to pieces? Probably not. And yet, so many people have no such hesitation sharing these same photos of non-human animals.

And I get it. I’ll even add a confession here: I have a few photos on hand that I will very occasionally post to remind my non-vegan pals that there are reasons  (billions upon billions of them actually) that I am vegan. I choose the images that tell the strongest story. And while you won’t see any blood in those photos, they are truly, undeniably heartbreaking. But I use them sparingly, and I do so when I have truly weighed the pros and cons of sharing the image, and decided it is worth it. And I even feel guilty every time because I recognize that I’ve risked triggering/traumatizing people. After all, these photos are likely wedged between a post about how shitty Pete from Mad Men is (so shitty, right?!), and about how so-and-so’s adorable daughter went for her first bike ride of the season.

What happened Friday was really triggering, but luckily I was able to talk with the person directly and explain that it was inappropriate to do that to someone with no warning. They wholeheartedly understood, and said “well you work on these issues all day, I thought you had seen it all”. And therein lies the problem: don’t assume for a second that because someone is an animal activist that they aren’t capable of being highly traumatized by violent imagery. Desensitization after continual exposure is not a inevitable. Some people never stop reacting to that imagery. I know because I’m one of them.

So here’s what I’m asking for, and it ain’t much. Can we, as kind, empathetic individuals tighten up our etiquette about sharing graphic, violent imagery on Facebook? Pretty please? Before you share a photo, whether on your newsfeed or directly with someone, ask yourself a question: Is this photo potentially triggering for activists (or non-activists, which I’ll get into in a second)? If so, either ask permission, don’t share it, or share it in a way that gives a person the option of not seeing it. Or, don’t think about it at all, but know that you may be hurting your comrades.

I know some of you will no doubt be shaking your heads, saying “Well, what about these images and all the non-vegans who see them?” You’re not going to like my answer. First, there’s a very, very good chance you’ve already been ‘hidden’ by your non-vegan pals if you post that sort of stuff regularly. Graphic images are very effective at jarring people, no doubt. And there is also no doubt that they can sometimes make people vegan. But any seasoned activist would be remiss not to consider the potential consequence of this approach: empathy avoidance. That’s a whole other post, but I’ll wrap up this up with a thought from Debra, an activist who runs These Glass Walls:

“…People really need to ask themselves what the purpose is before they click on “post” or “share.” If the only purpose is to share the horror, please don’t. Even if it’s sharing the horror of, say, factory farmed animals for the purpose of educating omnivores, STILL ask yourself if there might be a better way to get the info across. Sometimes there isn’t, but think about how you might be traumatizing others and whether that’s really effective or if it’s more likely to make them just not want to see your posts.”

Debra’s right. Sometimes there isn’t a better way. Sometimes you’ve got to share the image. But be sparing. Be precise. Choose carefully. Think of your audience.

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24 Responses to “One thing you should ask yourself before you share that graphic photo…”

  1. cath ens April 23, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

    while i agree that not everyone wants to see those images or needs to…such images are what propelled and fuelled me for about 25 years of my 33 years of activism. I admit now that I swear out loud every time I see those pics …. but they can still be motivating.

    • Michelle Devon April 24, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

      Motivating… or immobilizing. I donate to local animal shelters. I support local sustainable farms. I have rescue animals in my home–more than I should, probably, but we have a large family and they are all well loved… but when I see those pictures, it’s a trigger for me. I completely shut down, and sometimes will cry for several days. I know i happens. I know it’s real. I do what I can to prevent it. But seeing those images doesn’t do anything to motivate me. And as the author here says, there are many people just like us who are traumatized and immobilized. So not everyone is motivated, and I think it does more harm than good 99% of the time.

  2. luminousvegans April 23, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

    Great post. I think another issue with posting graphic images constantly is desensitization (spelling?)…which is bad because most people are already desensitized to where their food comes from. I find I get more positive responses by showing positive images…like images or videos of happy rescued animals. People know that animals die to become food, but when they see an image/video of a happy rescued animal that was once destined to become food, I think it can help them see the connection between what they eat and animals. They at least start to have empathy because they see the animal has desires to be alive. I don’t know if I am making sense, but yeah, really graphic images are not always the way to go.

    • Debra Roppolo April 24, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

      I completely agree. Sometimes I’ll post something because I don’t think people know about it, and as they say, a picture can be worth a thousand words (a recent example is a photo of ducks that had been live-plucked for down) — and in that case it served its purpose. A number of people responded in horror saying they had no idea, and one friend went out and replaced her down duvet with a synthetic alternative! But in general, I prefer to show people how similar farmed (and other animals) are to the ones we’re more intimately familiar with, and try to foster a connection that way.

      • Veg Falls Church April 26, 2013 at 9:25 am #

        That’s a great point, @luminousvegans and @Debra. I have also refrained from posting horrific images on my Facebook feed because positive images do seem to work better. We want people to see how rewarding veganism is – that’s it’s not all about deprivation and crying ourselves to sleep at night over the horrors (although I’ve had many crying spells over animal cruelty of course). Thank you to everyone in the world who is working to end suffering of humans and animals alike!

  3. April April 23, 2013 at 7:34 pm #

    The point being, if you use those images to propel and fuel you, you can seek them out. Other people do not want or need to see them, considering the author is already a vegan activitist, sending them or promoting the photos to them accomplishes nothing but causing grief.

  4. Julie April 23, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I completely agree. i delete pages that show horrific and graphic pictures of tortured or injured animals. I love animals. I respect animals. It breaks my heart that not everyone feels the same way, but I don’t need to see pictures as proof of this. It just hurts and it’s negative energy. I KNOW it happens but it makes me feel powerless and sad, so… i just avoid the images. I even delete pictures of friends who post pictures of their “dinner” if I know it contains meat or dairy. Ya, I get it… some people eat that, but I don’t need to see it!

  5. Grace Apsit April 23, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

    Well said. This needed to be addressed.

  6. Lesley Sampson April 24, 2013 at 9:10 am #

    Thought provoking and a serious issue in advocacy. How many times do we victimize suffered animals, suffered people. The images never leave us. Haunting and daunting in numbers we are flooded everyday with photos that can potentially desensitize our humane spirit. Tough call, which is why we need to delve deep, ask ourselves the real ethical questions- What is the intention and reason behind pushing that send button? Compassion, hopeful action and good intentions must be front and center…or do not “send” it. Period.

  7. thomastryon April 24, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    I too feel devastated and unable to function whenever I see graphic photos or videos of nonhuman animal suffering. I cannot function for sometime, compounded by all the activist and rescue work I do.
    I feel guilty though, as if I am somehow weak because it is very easy for me to turn away from it,but the being suffering cannot do so. My suffering is nothing compared to theirs and I do feel I have to be a witness.
    I have compromised with myself somewhat, I will not look at videos and only look at photos long enough to get a gist of what is happening- to notice their eyes and the expression on their face because I feel this changes me and I am able to speak for them with more authenticity.

  8. zazazu April 24, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

    “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.” ~ Mother Teresa
    I believe that giving attention to what you are against only increases it because that energy fuels it. Images of people doing good, loving and caring for animals are the energy that this cause needs. Humans should be very careful of their thoughts and attention. The last thing animals need is more abusive energy.

  9. Josie Lazo April 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

    I have decided to use graphic images sparingly. There’s also this great article on the subject.

  10. evolving vegan April 24, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

    very well written post. This is exactly how I feel, it took months for me to realize that I was damaging myself by continually looking at graphic images and it consumed my whole world. I’ve had to hide so many pages to keep from looking at these graphic, horrendous images. Thank you for sharing your story. We all need to be insulated. Especially, if you are vegan, and are no longer contributing to the problem.

  11. Sylvia Woon April 24, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

    they are the sole reason for animal rights BOOMING to the very top of the global agenda in the last 7 or so years … today vegan is at a world record high ,, and growing even faster …. i see animal rights and vegan life style simularly to the growth of computers in homes after 1990 ~ too today when every house on the planet has an average of 3 … they are hard to see those pic’s but they are hard to forget after seeing them for years …. a bite of pork chop soon becomes a bit of a suffering pig and is not so easy to keep down.

  12. Rhonda-T April 24, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    I agree wholeheartedly, thank you for your post. I believe as soon as a non-vegan sees any horrific photo about an act they engage in, (eating/using animal products), they will immediately be put on the defensive, and either shut down, or react by blocking/hiding. No one supporting heinously cruel industries wants the evidence shoved down their throats. However, given the option to educate themselves with text and non-gruesome imagery, they may just choose to learn…

  13. Stephanie Geare April 24, 2013 at 5:51 pm #

    I agree too. Vegetarians and vegans are more sensitive and more emphatic people than the average joe, so I think that puts us especially at risk for seeing images of animals and reacting so strongly to them. For me personally, I have turned to reading about factory farms so I can educate myself without crying over every single picture. I have had at least 10 people in my family or friends read Skinny Bitch too, because I feel that’s more effective than just pictures.

  14. Catie Latz April 24, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    I agree wholeheartedly! If I do post a graphic video or pic, which is not often, I put a warning as a title so that people can decide whether or not they need to see it. I can be badly effected emotionally watching too much “bad stuff”, I already know it goes on and am in for the fight, but I am not exposing myself to the horror anymore. If people are genuinely interested, I point them to Animals Australia website, or I advise them to do some investigating themselves.
    Thank you for this post, very encouraging.

  15. Paula Shene April 24, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    I totally agree with your kind worded approach and perhaps in the future i will be able to find better pictures to share. All horrific pictures I share are for the nature of moving someone to petition against the action OR to help the animal in need.

    I got into sharing when the picture of a dog was pleading for its life at the window of the gas chamber – I’m crying as I’m typing this – yes it is engraved in my heart and gut wrenches me to even think about it. But I needed to see that picture because it woke me to the fact that a practice I thought long gone was still being practiced in more states than not.

    i share all the pups that need homes because maybe, just maybe, someone’s heart will be touched enough to snatch that one from death. I finally had the opportunity to do that from a posting – not getting the dog I thought was to come home but one that has enriched the other dogs and us humans alike.

    I never will share a picture for shock, only as a call to action. I feel your heart, and your tears. There are days my face is a river and my heart and soul are tore to pieces. There are practices all over the world including our ‘civilized culture’ that put animals through horrific practices to put the meat on our table and scraped sometimes off into the garbage.

    i know there are people against hunting and I was once but after seeing bloated carcasses lining a road after a moratorium for only two years on hunting deer in upstate New York, I have changed my mind. However, I deplore the unconscionable slaughter of all the wildlife around the globe and man’s greedy need for expansion at the cost of displacement and/or death of the lives we are to care for and cherish.

    After sitting, writing this in reply, while crying buckets of tears, I am going to use this as a blog post after adding more. Thank you for opening this door, one needing to be entered.

  16. Angie Penney April 24, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

    Thank you!!!

  17. Julie April 24, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    When I started on Facebook and saw where the links to activism led me, I started to “Like” pages to show my approval of the activist work – until a friend (non-Vegan) asked me to stop posting such images on her Facebook page! I had a knee-jerk reaction and told her to delete me if she wanted, but later realised I could be more selective about pages I allowed to be connected to me. I’m sure some of my (few) “friends” put a stop on receiving my “Likes” – so I’m now considering setting up a completely separate page which follows my Vegan, animal activism path; the original to just show personal stuff, interesting photos etc. Those who connect to me on the second page are unlikely to be my wholly non-Vegan family and friends…

  18. Kezia April 24, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    I haven’t even finished reading this and I know already it rules.

  19. susanne April 25, 2013 at 12:35 am #


    I am also one who doesn’t “need” the graphic photos and never needed them. When I heard about some of the atrocities, then educated myself by reading more, it was enough to make me vegan. The knowledge alone already was enough to give me nightmares, but the graphics do nothing but make me feel hatred against my own species and to make me feel so helpless and sometimes so depressed that I’m on the verge of suicide. That doesn’t help anybody, least of all the animals! I absolutely need that heavy insulation, too, to be able to continue to function and hopefully make a difference.

    And as you said, if you share a lot of gruesome photos, you’re likely to be hidden or even unfriended. I had to hide several of my vegan friends, too. Would like to keep in touch with them, but can’t bear the graphics. Some of them won’t get the point though. They call you a coward, because you only have to see, while the animals have to endure it. This is true, but I absolutely need to stay functional so that I can try and work for the change. And if this requires protecting myself from these photos, then I have to block these friends.

    So Thank You for this post. I am going to share it. Thanks!

  20. Angela Szazynski April 25, 2013 at 2:33 am #

    OMG! I have totally been thinking along these lines for years now. I used to post the most shocking things and now I have modified to a bear minimum This post was so enlightening for me! Thanks!

  21. Jeannette Casey April 28, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    I wholeheartedly agree with `veganolamy` I am now in my 82nd year, have been vegan for 45years, and was a very active animal rights campaigner until a couple of years ago. I have seen, and know all about the atrocities that humans inflict on our fellow creatures and it still breaks my heart, but because with almost every post there are horrendous pictures which give me nightmares I am afraid to look. I do what I can and will untilI die but those of us who are already aware do not need to keep looking at these horrors. Or perhaps I am wrong

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