Interview with Undercover Investigator and Author Rich Hardy
Rich Hardy has been an undercover investigator and ‘visual evidence gatherer’ in the animal protection movement for 20 years. His upcoming book, ‘Not As Nature Intended’, follows his journey, telling the stories of the animals he’s met, and the people behind their suffering. We spoke to him about the power of story-telling, the importance of visual recording, and what it’s like to be close enough to see everything, but just far enough away not to be noticed.
You call yourself a "visual evidence gatherer" rather than a photographer. Can you describe the nature of your work?
I learnt to use cameras as a way of gathering evidence for animal protection groups in my role as an undercover investigator. I think a ‘visual evidence gatherer’ is a more honest appraisal of what I’ve done. The focus of my assignments has been to document systemic problems, law-breaking and to show what animals have to endure when farmed for food, bred for fashion, trapped for science or held captive for entertainment. Capturing images has been a big part of it, but it was also about gathering insider information to bolster campaigns. The resulting documentation has been used as evidence to create new laws, to support prosecutions, or has been released as part of media exposés to the press.
For nearly two decades I committed myself to go undercover for animals. The work varied, depending on the assignment. A project could be trailing live animal transport trucks across Europe for several days, or a week of surveillance at a circus, filming from the boundary of a hedgerow. But my main specialisation was infiltration and getting close enough to the people and industries who are responsible for the cruelty animals endure that they would share their secrets with me.
Which came first for you: animals or photography? Can you tell us a little about your path to where you are today?
Animals came first and by quite a long way. I was brought up in a veggie household and we were all vegan by the time I was 15 (I’m 47 now). We had quite a few rescued animals around the house, and activism coursed through our veins (my parents took me out to protests at slaughterhouses when I was a toddler).
After college I saw a job advertised for a farm animal campaigner at Compassion in World Farming. I went for it and got it. The early 1990s was a lean period for pure vegan advocacy. I could see it was essential to work on campaigns to outlaw the very worst of the farming systems out there, so I began working on campaigns to end barren battery cages, sow stalls and live animal exports.
I met a lot of politicians during this period, especially when delivering reams of scientific reports to them that explained how bad it was to confine farm animals in cages and crates. But it was never enough. They always wanted more than just black text on white paper. They wanted imagery, and we didn’t have much, so I u-turned on lobbying and got myself some cheap cameras, which I hoped to put to use documenting the systems the politicians were failing to take action against.
I did my first assignment in 1999, inside a battery cage egg-laying system in New Zealand, and my last in the Autumn of 2018, training Ukrainian activists in the art of undertaking investigations for farm animals.
What are you trying to achieve with your work, and why is focussing on animals important?
It’s always been clear to me that the plight of animals used by humans is a huge social justice issue that urgently needs addressing. First and foremost I’ve always worked to meet the needs of the relevant campaign group through investigations. I think it’s helped being trained as a campaigner first, as I can easily put myself in their position of understanding what would be of most value to help the campaign. Having that knowledge, and also understanding animal behaviour, has helped me get into positions where I can capture these critical moments - moments, which can sometimes make the difference in whether a campaign is successful or not.
Recently though I’ve been interested more in storytelling. I’ve started looking through my archive of images and footage, along with reams of notebooks, and found myself reliving moments. I’ve discovered important stories that were lost within the bigger project, tragic encounters with individual animals that I’ve never expressed to others, and those moments I’ve had to endure with my adversaries - people responsible for terrible actions. I want to make sure I share these in a wider context to ensure people understand what’s hidden from them. While I don’t have the strength to go undercover anymore, I can make sure I squeeze every ounce of information out of the work I’ve undertaken, through storytelling.
It’s for that reason I set up an Instagram account and began sharing brief moments from the unique perspective I’ve had as an eyewitness in a world of suffering. I usually focus on posting images that tell the story of an individual animal, through the experiences of another individual - myself.
A lot of your images are taken using a covert camera. Why did you choose this approach? What are its strengths and challenges?
While I’ve used DSLR’s and plenty of video cameras over the years, my go-to equipment for infiltration projects has to be a covert camera. It’s allowed me to capture images that I could never document openly. I’ve spent quite long periods of time undercover infiltrating the people behind animal exploitation industries. Getting to know them and understand how they work has opened up a world that is closed to most. These projects require a lot of patience and an ability to build trust with people whose every action you would normally recoil from. They are often cruel and brutal people - to animals, and sometimes to their fellow humans too. But not all. Sometimes they are very normal people, respected for kind acts in their community, while simultaneously keeping 30,000 hens locked up in tiny cages in a windowless shed.
I usually use a body-worn camera package. So a DVR (digital video recorder) and a high-definition button camera, which I conceal in a shirt. These packages have improved so much in recent years. Not just in quality, but also in their size and weight. They are more comfortable to use and easier to conceal.
They still take a bit of time to get used to, but with a little practice, your body and the camera start to work together as one. And while you don’t have your hands on it, you learn to hold and direct your body in a way that you know will capture the everyday occurrences you need to gather as part of the assignment. But things can and do go wrong, and the situation doesn’t always allow for you to put it right, so you have to accept some loss of imagery. In those moments, I just stay patient and hope when the next opportunity comes round I don’t miss it.
However, it’s dangerous work. There’s one moment I’ve always dreaded when wearing these cameras. Detection. I’ve never been caught but I’ve come very close. I remember being challenged by a manager at a huge reindeer slaughterhouse in the middle of nowhere in the Arctic about wearing a hidden camera. He’d noticed me adjusting the overalls I’d been given and became suspicious. He asked me straight out if I was wearing a camera. My heart skipped several beats and all I could think about was how easy it would be to hide my body in the deep snow, if they wanted to. Calling his bluff was the only way out. I began undoing the overalls one button at a time. With one button to go before the camera was revealed he told me to stop, and apologised for challenging me. I can’t tell you how relieved I was.
I’ll always switch to overt cameras, if the situation allows. Sometimes it might take a week or two for this happen or sometimes it won’t happen at all. It depends on the project and the type of people you’re around. It might not always be a fancy camera - that might not fit in with your cover story. An iPhone’s pretty useful. People are used to seeing them around and the quality is good, so using them doesn’t always raise suspicion - which is what you’re looking to avoid at all cost on infiltration projects.
What do you enjoy most about your work? What do you find most challenging?
There’s not much to like during the projects. At times I felt pretty powerless swallowed up in situations of immense suffering. During these moments, I just had to put those feelings aside, and focus on the task that had been asked of me. The natural instinct is to want to intervene when you see an animal suffering, but on investigations, particularly those that put you in direct contact with the people that own them, you have to take a step back. I guess in some ways it’s a bit like theatre. You’re watching the cast perform, and you’re sitting in the front row of the audience. You’re out of the spotlights, but only just. Close enough to see everything, far enough away to not be noticed.
It’s also pretty challenging maintaining a cover story for a long period of time. I had to create opportunities to document things that few get to see, but I had to build it on a fabricated story. I always believe if animals are suffering it’s in the public interest to know about it. Most industries using animals for human gain prefer to keep their methods and systems to themselves, so using a cover story is often the only way in to see what takes place. But it’s hard work spending a month undercover, say with fur trappers, and keeping your cover story intact. Especially when you’re trying to bond with them. It’s pretty exhausting, and when you’re exhausted you can slip up. I quickly learned to keep my cover identity simple and as close to the truth as possible to avoid costly mistakes.
I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed any of this work. I never expected to do it for so long either. I never set a timeline for how long I was going to do it, so perhaps that’s why it’s gone on so long. I just kept answering the call when it came, and putting regular life on hold.
I am of course satisfied with some of the outcomes of my work. I’m very happy to have been able to help over twenty of the world’s animal protection groups by working on multiple assignments for them across 30 countries. And while I don’t think it’s always easy to measure impact, I’m content knowing that some of the assignments have contributed to speeding up reforms for animals, less suffering or just opening someone’s eyes to something new that had been concealed from them.
You are currently writing a book, ‘Not As Nature Intended’, about your experiences working undercover and the animals you've met. Why is this project important, and what do you hope to achieve with it?
The book started out as something I thought I might do about 5 years ago, but didn’t really get moving on until about two years ago when I started jotting down some of the feelings and thoughts I was left with post-assignment. It’s not a photographic account, but a narrative non-fiction on what it’s been like to infiltrate secretive animal industries and shine a light on what happens to make them work from the inside. There are plenty of stories I tell about individual animals, but I also examine the people behind the animal suffering. To be honest it’s been a bit of a surreal experience; a real rollercoaster of emotions that swing from the bizarre to the chilling. So in addition to reporting on the secret workings of these industries, I’m recounting how I got to be there, what I saw, who I met and how I was left feeling.
I’m working with a British publisher to get the production costs crowdfunded, after which it can enter the mainstream publishing world, where I hope the stories can then really make a difference. I hope it will open people’s eyes or attract the curious-minded to find out more about how animals are treated to put food on our plates, clothes on our backs or smiles on our faces.
I’ve also written it so it could sit within an animal rights archive of sorts. I really think it’s important for us to archive all the elements and techniques that have gone into securing change for animals. There will come a time when people look back at all these campaigns and be appalled that we ever had to fight so hard to end the abuse animals endure at the hands of humans, but like all social justice issues it’s important to remember and learn from hard-won battles. Undercover investigations have been a big part of our movement and I feel it should be recorded in a format that others can access to learn from and adapt to other issue-based campaigns. This would be my contribution.
What's next for you?
After spending a little time helping the next wave of activists learn some of these investigative skills, I’ve gone back to frontline campaigning for farm animals. Rather than focus on the problems, I’m advocating the solutions.
I’m running the campaign programme at ‘Veganuary’ - a worldwide month-long pledge, where people can try a vegan diet. It’s a campaign built on inspiring and supporting people to experience a vegan lifestyle, and it’s a pretty big thing right now. The campaign - a twist on trying vegan as a New Year’s resolution - is at its peak in January. Almost a quarter of a million people have signed up for this year’s campaign, which is so exciting to see.
Coupled with all the exciting innovation taking place around the development of plant-based foods, I’m more hopeful than ever before that people will start ditching the meat and dairy in their lives and transition to cruelty-free lifestyles.
I’m also doing a few public talks as well to support the book project. It actually feels quite liberating talking about some of these projects for the first time.
Other than that I’ll be trying to surf a bit more often, while also looking after the 17 rescues me and my fiancee have at our micro-sanctuary in Cornwall. We’ve managed to rescue dogs, cats, chickens and ducks, from shelters and factory farms, and are hell-bent on making sure they get the best life possible, after such terrible starts.
Crowdfunding page here
Facebook Page here