Photographing chicken farming is a bit like stepping into a land mine. Physically, when entering a chicken house, the birds are likely to flee and scurry away from your steps, causing flurries of feathers to pop up. Even if you are moving slowly and predictably, chickens that are used to the peace and quiet of their house will scatter at your very presence.
From a visual standpoint, the playing field can be equally riddled.
The only reason I was given access to photograph the chicken farm in the first place is through the understanding and the trust of the farmer. This is especially valuable, considering the risk that they take as an independent contractor. They don’t own the chickens; the chicken company does, and if my photographs were to at all discredit their reputation as a farmer, their livelihood could be at stake.
The stakes are this high because of the increased scrutiny that America’s food industry is under. As Americans moved from living in rural areas to cities and the suburbs, the gap of understanding of how we grow the food we eat, and how all 7 billion people in the world eat has widened. To fill this gap, documentaries like Food, Inc. and books like The Omnivores Dilemma have trumpeted the need for people to know where their food comes from, and return to eating more vegetables to ensure both health and environmental sustainability.
The negative effect of the media filling in our collective knowledge gap about farming is that the message can become easily hijacked, by both bad-science activists and agribusiness marketing firms.
On one side, anti-GMO/organic/vegan philistines would have you believe that an industrial chicken house was a modern day torture chamber, where every bird is de-beaked and forced to grow in a hyperbaric chamber. This first photograph I showed almost fits this reality, and no doubt, with the right photoshop doctoring and a scary caption, these people could take that photograph out of context and prove their point.
But remember what I mentioned earlier: chickens by their nature run away from humans, and so while the first photograph may look cramped, it is only because they have backed up significantly to give me room. Ordinarily, when no one is in the room, they have enough room to drink water, eat, to sit down, and move about, as more closely represented by the second picture.
Another detail an observer might see is that all of these chickens are not fully covered in feathers, around their sides, rears, and underbellies. This is not because they are hacking each other to death, in bloody, Mad-Max-style tournaments to increase their deliciousness. It is because they haven’t finished growing their feathers yet. Don’t worry if you thought it was the former, as that is what I thought too, before I asked the farmer.
Photography and the media can do a lot to fill in the gaps in our knowledge created by modernity. I think most realistic people wouldn’t want to live their lives on the same farm, around the same chickens, and the same two neighbors for the rest of their lives, just so they can have this first hand knowledge. But without critical thinking skills to understand the media, any numnuts with a camera and an axe to grind against the food industry can make Roberta, Georgia look like Auschwitz. And while things are rarely ever as pretty as what the food industry would want you to imagine, things aren’t as bad as what the food-conspiracy anti-GMO fear industry would want you to think.
The economics of raising chickens; however, is even murkier.