Every time I photograph laying hens on factory farms, especially those in cage systems, I wonder, what is their level of acceptance of the environment that we created for them; how strong is their will to fight, their imposed tolerance for other randomly chosen members of a group, all of that while living in a tiny cage. This agreed on, monotonous and dull life is limited by eating and laying eggs. The series of photographs that are taken in those places are mostly metal bars, leaned out necks, which are very often featherless, and eggs, labeled as a product with number 3.
Hens have an excellent memory. They are capable of remembering up to 6 months of the history of their herd. I can’t help but wonder, what is this brain function worth for them? What can they possibly remember from such a monotonous life? Maybe the number of laid eggs? The amount of the companions fallen in the process? Or maybe the time left until the next herd liquidation?
The language of hens consists of 30 different sounds. It’s a complicated communication system, difficult to imagine within a group of thousands of individuals. There’s no euphony, only cacophony.
When I stop taking photos, the images come back to me, not only on my monitor screen. They appear in my dreams, the images of their sad reality. Dreams are humans’ legacy of emotions. I try to keep them in check during my travels for work, but it’s not the subject. The point I’m trying to make here is the next ability that these birds have: dreaming. Like humans, hens dream. Again, I wonder: what about? Do they dream about the life they never had, the life outside a factory farm?
I am trying to describe this one place going around, not directly, not focusing on what I’ve seen or what I’ve experienced. Time filters the emotions quite well, and I’ve gotten good in escaping them. The only strong and direct word that comes to my mind and would be worth using to describe this place is “doom”.
This place will always stay in my memory. The location of the farm, the people who work there, the system and conditions in which thousands of hens are trapped to live in. The owners are entangled in this flawed farming system, social eating habits, fading empathy. When talking to them you only hear bitter words of complaint about how the business is not so profitable anymore. Meanwhile, between their legs there go the hens, who were smart and curious enough to escape patched cages. Their freedom is just for a moment – with one agile move they are grabbed back by the old man, put back to their place of work.
This place was one of few that really took away my will to do anything for a while. The amount of suffering was too overwhelming for me to grab my camera and do my job. I wasn’t alone in these feelings: my partner reacted the same way. Maybe this place doesn’t exist? Maybe it was just a bad dream? We took a moment to collect ourselves. After a minute, the nightmare was still as real as before.
We came back there a couple of times. The place was still there.
With the farmers, we made some kind of a devil’s pact, and my relationship with them was my ticket to hell. I did my job: documented fate of tormented animals. When finishing the project I already knew I wouldn’t leave this place alone. I decided to try to save a life at all costs. I used the pact I had made before and asked the farmer if I could take home a “souvenir”. I asked for the most exhausted, the weakest, the ugliest bird.
- These with less feathers, I’ll take them for the retirement.
- Yes, sure, you know what you’re doing, the featherless lay the most eggs!
Well. Everyone of us had a different perspective on life. Different priorities.
Three tough and resilient laying hens. Freed from work, took out by their legs, upside down. They left to live a forever free, forever happy life, with no more obligation to work. They spent their whole lives in packed, metal cages, where the right to a longer life was reserved for the strongest and most persistent.
Poor, featherless and exploited hens turned out to be balls of fire. In the beginning, they were shy and insecure. After 10 minutes or so they left their container for the first time. With one leg they were checking the grass and the soil under their feet, which they saw and felt for the first time in their lives. Curiously, they were studying every green point. From time to time, they would blink towards the Sun, instead of an artificial light of a farm bulb.
I’m wondering if they can ever forget the hell they’ve been through. We will wait and see in 6 months. The hum is gone, the monotony disappeared, the place to live expanded enormously. They are three tough ladies, who made their peace with their new colourful fate and incredible will to live.
Let’s take a step back to photography, because that was an actual reason why I got there: from all shades of gray and black we stepped into a wide range of colours. Together. It gives me back my will and strength to continue my work. There’s sadness and regret, but also joy and satisfaction. The three tough and resilient laying hens seem to be really fine. They still have a strong will to fight, which they use sometimes to establish a hierarchy with their new companions: a turkey, roosters, a goose and two goats. They were all hurt by the human kind, but, fortunately, now they get to live their happily ever after.
When I look at them, I forget about this nightmare for a second. Still, the image of billions of animals still suffering in the industry keeps coming back.
Hens are now living at @psubraty.blog (find them on Instagram)