Editor’s Note: We met Cameron while attending the Tampa VegFest in 2017. It was easy to see why his booth was bustling with people. We too were immediately drawn to his portraits. We began looking for familiar faces among his many gorgeous photographs and we spoke about several sanctuaries at which we too had had great experiences. After learning more about his work, were quite taken with his mission of helping people see non-human animals in the same way they view human ones – as the individuals that they are.
Cameron O’Steen is a photographer and yogi with eight years of farmed animal caregiving experience, which has enabled him to create intimate portraits of formerly farmed animals. Cameron delights in sharing stories of sanctuary residents through these portraits and tales of the more than seventy farm animal sanctuaries he has visited in his travels. He can often be found lying on the ground with chickens or practicing yoga with sheep.
How did you get into photography?
My best friend owns a photography company (AZahn Photography), and she taught me the basics after I helped her at a wedding as a second photographer. She said my eye was better than the previous person with whom she worked, so she gave me a loaner camera, and I worked with her photographing weddings for many years.
How and why did you get into photographing rescued farm animals?
Working at a sanctuary as a tour guide and caregiver brought me back to my childhood growing up with farm animals, but the rescued individuals at the sanctuary in most cases had stories many times worse than those with whom I was raised, but they are able to live out their lives. I had already started photographing weddings by then, and it was only natural that I turn my lens to the sanctuary residents with whom I worked, and sharing these stories became part of the photos very naturally through social media. As my portfolio of portraits grew larger than the wedding and yoga photography I was also working on, and the reaction to the portraits kept coming in so positively, I realized I needed to formalize that side of my work in order to tell the residents’ stories.
Who was the first non-human animal you ever photographed?
I photographed my feline companion Jenalya since she was a kitten and throughout her life, especially when I started learning the complexities of my camera. The first farmed animal friend I recall photographing is Jumper pig when she was a piglet; I was volunteering at the first sanctuary I would eventually work at shortly after her rescue, and I look at those photos fondly despite their blurriness and odd cropping.
Where will your next sanctuary visit be? Where was your last sanctuary visit?
I’m leaving my snowy northeast home base of Indraloka Animal Sanctuary and trekking back to Florida in December. Along the way I am very excited to finally get to United Poultry Concerns in Machipongo, Virginia to meet with Karen Davis and the residents there. My seventy-third sanctuary visit was Peace Ridge Sanctuary in Brooks, Maine – a beautiful and expansive property perched in mid-Maine.
How is photographing non-human animals different from photographing human ones?
There are a few variances, but most importantly to me is that I do not approach a photo session at a sanctuary differently than I would with a human. My goal is to create portraits of non-human animals just as I would for human animals.
A key difference is that I’m on the ground a lot – literally. I get down to the level of whomever I am photographing; in my photographs I try actively to avoid the subtle perception of superiority that photographing non-human animals from above can deliver.
My style has also evolved because the residents have taught me how to photograph them, taught me how to move with them, taught me how to not be quite so clumsy an interloper. While I don’t fancy myself an animal whisperer by any means, there is a level of comfort I have in interacting with farmed animals, an awareness of, and flexibility around, boundaries that came with time spent paying attention to them.
Please tell us about the mission behind Yoga Animalia Project.
To state it: Through photography the Yoga Animalia Project aims to present nonhuman animals as individuals, exploring their personalities and the way they experience their world. The Project attempts to bridge the gap between nonhuman animals and the human animal eyes who view them, focusing on rescued farm animals living in safety at sanctuaries across North America.
I want to remove the “otherness” of formerly farmed animals, to showcase them as the beautiful and complicated beings they are. I want to highlight their voices, varied as humankind. We compare farmed animals to companion species, and while I think this helps humans who haven’t heard that before, I also want to ensure that we discuss farmed animal species on a level equitable to humans – to remind humans that we are animals too and share more in common than what is different. We all love, grieve, celebrate, and want to live.
When did you go vegan and what led you there?
My first steps started after reading John Robbin’s Food Revolution and choosing vegetarianism overnight my second semester of college, much to the concern of my ranching family. At this point I became aware that there is something seriously wrong with how industrial animal agriculture functions and started sharing the effects of factory farming on the animals, the environment, and our health. However, I did not make the full dairy and egg connection until I started working for a farmed animal sanctuary where the horrific details of these industries was made plain. Being made aware of the overlooked biology of mammals needing to be pregnant in order to produce milk and that not all hatched eggs are going to be girls really emphasized how important those issues are and how horribly abused and killed the mothers and babies are in those industries.
How is your project linked to veganism?
I focus on celebrating the individuality of every farmed animal and exposing human animals to how that manifests. One of the most remarkable things for me in connecting with people at festivals is that on numerous occasions I am told exactly what I try to convey in the portraits before I even start discussing it: that the individuality blazes forth from the photo. They tell me it feels like I have given them a glimpse into that resident’s world, that their personality is so clear. It is my hope that this will broaden perspectives and cause a shift in how farmed animals are viewed. I also hope my photographs inspire visits to sanctuaries to further the progress of compassion.
Another thing that tells me I’m on the right path is humans who tell me that prints or canvases or woodprints they have purchased from me now hang in prominent spots to either serve as physical reminders of their commitment to veganism or as conversation starters to educate others. This makes my heart happy.
Having visited so many sanctuaries in the United States, are there any that stand out to you as doing a superb job that you’d like to highlight?
This is a clever way of asking if I have a favorite! Each sanctuary has its own energy and feeling. There are several sanctuaries where I feel especially bonded to the humans running it, or the residents, or the intangible resonance of the place. I find too that the more I travel, the more I feel a growing sense of joy from the sanctuary community as a whole. However, I would be remiss to not mention two places that have welcomed me in as family and at which I stay for extended periods: Indraloka Animal Sanctuary in Mehoopany, Pennsylvania and Kindred Spirits Sanctuary in Ocala, Florida.
What do you enjoy the most about visiting a sanctuary and why?
There is an opportunity for slipping into an experience of bliss at each sanctuary. I feel so fortunate when I can drop into this meditative and mindful space, where there is a diffusion of self and subject, and time loses its hold. These moments of connection with the sanctuary residents are magical, and I feel like they share this with me wholeheartedly and unreservedly when I can be present and listen.
Have you been interested in visiting some international sanctuaries? If so, which ones call out to you the most?
Absolutely! They all call to me! In particular I am excited to trek around Australia and visit Edgar’s Mission, Ireland to visit Eden Farmed Animal Sanctuary, and Ippoasi in Italy.
What is your most popular print for sale? Why do you think it is so popular?
Currently that is a glorious sunset photo of the sheep flock on the move from Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York. The sun was in the perfect position right behind as the entire herd of eighty trotted in toward the barn at the sound of National Shelter Director Susie Coston’s voice.
Tell us about your upcoming book.
My goal for winter is to edit photos and write, edit photos and write, and repeat until I have the bulk of them done (only 40,000 or so to go!). I will be running a crowdfunding campaign at some point in 2018 to make the book a reality, as I want to do the residents justice and make a high quality portrait book that will enliven any coffee table and animal lover, and though this is an expensive endeavor, I feel confident it can happen. I am hopeful for a winter 2018-2019 release.
The focus of the book will be on the individual portraits and stories. I have been asked multitudinous times about a book about my travels, and I see that happening, but first the homage to the amazing individuals who comprise the Yoga Animalia Project.