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by Neil Young

“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.” Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

I smile a wry smile: a colleague who is looking at some of my images has just asked me “why do you photograph cows?” with a look of slight mockery, his eyes starting to mist over with boredom. It is at least a change from “are those sheep gay?’, although in all fairness to the animals I photograph, evidence of them forming a modern Western sexual identity might be tricky to capture in just one shoot. My current work is provocative, exploring the relationship between people and farmed animals given how little contact most of us have with them.

I have always been creative – from an early interest in acting, design and  creative writing at school to my more recent attempts at stand up comedy, improvisation and now photography. And I have always loved animals, spending days as a child playing with my plastic animal family – anything from giraffes, leopards and reindeer to pigs, sheep and cows. Now, as an adult, I have my dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel called George, who reminds me every day why the emotional experience of animals has much to teach us all.

In between times I have been drawn to politics and tackling injustices between people: I have been privileged, as a youth worker and then working for both Mayors of London, to represent LGBT people and develop projects that tackle homophobia. I have also been involved in anti-racist campaigns since I was sixteen, when I organised buses to take students from my college in Harrow to protest the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in southeast London .

As with any fledging artist it has been important to find people that I can trust and who have helped me nurture my creativity. I have had great support from the Gay Photographers’ Network and took part in the group’s official exhibition during Pride London’s 2010 Festival Fortnight. Many of the images in the show did have desire and sexuality as an important focus – or what I might call ‘men in (or out of) pants’ pictures – which are no surprise especially given the history of state criminalisation of queer behaviour: for some gay photographers these images would have been dangerous to imagine and make when they were younger.

Yet for me, my work comes from a different place inside me, even though it is informed by my experiences of gender and sexuality as a queer man. For example, I do believe that creating sanctuary to rescue, care and protect the unwanted can be a queer dynamic, with both its underlying truth of doing for others what you really need for yourself and reflected in the large numbers of women and LGBT people who run and support animal sanctuaries throughout the UK.

I am proud that my work challenges the gendered view that farmed animals are dull, dumb, domestic (feminine) creatures of little interest compared to the excitement of studying dangerous, unpredictable, powerful (masculine) animals in the wild. As ever, reality is more complicated. Domesticated animals have complex emotional worlds, for example, pigs crave affection and are easily depressed if isolated or denied the chance to play with each other and chickens can anticipate future events and exercise self-control (bless them).

I believe that key LGBT cultural events in the capital such as Pride London, the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, LGBT History Month and GFEST – Gaywise FESTival have a crucial role to play, alongside vibrant clubs, the alternative scene and voluntary groups in offering opportunities for artists to have exposure and develop their art, as they would want to rather than merely following popular stereotypes of ‘gay art’.

Yet, as someone who has always been involved in community life, I do not want to be pigeon-holed as a male, queer or vegan artist: everyone can have a response to my images as they raise universal questions. What is it like for us to look an individual cow, sheep, pig or chicken in the eye? How do we imagine farmed animals experience the world? And how can these animals, especially those living on animal sanctuaries, who have often experienced great acts of violence themselves, spark memories, empathy and imagination in us all?

Neil Young’s solo show ‘You, like me: intimate portraits of farmed animals’ is on between 3rd and 31st October 2010 at First Out Ca Bar. Neil invites you to visit the show and for more information check: and from 5 October


More info on GFEST – Gaywise FESTival (GFEST in short) web:
GFEST Artistic Director: Niranjan Kamatkar

WISE THOUGHTS is an arts charity that organises GFEST – Gaywise FESTival  in venues across London.
GFEST web networks: