At first glance, British artist Mishka Henner’s aerial photographs of large feedlots—features of industrial beef farming—don’t look like shots of land at all. The massive waste lagoons, which waft up dangerous hydrogen sulfide fumes and can contaminate groundwater with nitrates and antibiotics, first resemble open, infected wounds. Henner, who was researching satellite photographs of oil fields when he discovered the images, didn’t even realize what they depicted at first.
"While I was working on that series I was looking intensely at the American landscape, and that’s when I came across these really strange-looking structures, like a big lagoon, or all these dots that look like microbes," Henner says. "We have factory farming in England, but we don’t have it on that scale. I was just absolutely blown away."
Henner first used open source satellite imagery to capture shots of overt and covert U.S. military outposts, which he published as a book in 2010. For the feedlots, he used the same technique, which spared him the legal risk of photographing the feedlots himself in person or in the air.
Not everyone trying to document feedlots has been so lucky. Just last month, National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz was arrested for misdemeanor criminal trespassing when trying to take photos of a Kansas feedlot from a paraglider. A couple of weeks later, journalists and activists filed the first lawsuit against "ag-gag" bills rapidly proliferating across the United States. As model legislation drummed up by the American Legislative Council (ALEC), ag gag bills seek to make entering animal farms and taking photos or recording video illegal. Such laws have passed in Utah, Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa, and Missouri, with more states considering them.
"To me, as somebody in the U.K., looking at something [like] the feedlots I was shocked on a very personal level," Henner says. "I think what the feedlots represent is a certain logic about how culture and society have evolved. On one level it’s absolutely terrifying, that this is what we’ve become. They’re not just feedlots. They’re how we are."
Before Henner started looking into satellite imagery of oilfields and military sites, he took photos of post-industrial towns and cities in northern England. It frustrated him, he says, to document environmental decay locally, but miss capturing industrial abuses on a larger scale. With satellite imagery from Google Earth, "I felt suddenly able to deal with really big themes that were important to me," Henner says. "I’m equipped with the lenses of orbiting satellites and roving Street View cars, suddenly able to see things that I would never be able to see walking around on the ground with the camera."