Isa Leshko

Allowed to Grow Old: Elderly Animal Portraits Preserved on the 503CW

As a project that started off with confronting her own mortality after caring for her mother suffering from Alzheimer’s, Isa Leshko embarked on a decade-long project photographing  elderly farm animals. Rescued from various meat and dairy factory farms and taken to sanctuaries, these farm animals represent the small population of those who actually get the chance to grow old. Creating connections with pigs, cows, turkeys, and sheep, among others, Isa captured the unique personalities of each animal on film through the lens of her Hasselblad 503CW.


© Isa Leshko

Nearly all of the farm animals I met for this project endured horrific abuse and neglect prior to their rescue. Yet it is a massive understatement to say that they are the lucky ones. Roughly fifty billion land animals are factory farmed globally each year. It is nothing short of a miracle to be in the presence of a farm animal who has managed to reach old age. Most of their kin die before they are six months old. By depicting the beauty and dignity of elderly farm animals, I invite reflection upon what is lost when these animals are not allowed to grow old.

– Isa Leshko

FROM CONFRONTING AGING TO PASSIONATE ADVOCACY PROJECT

Terrified of becoming old, Isa started to photograph elderly farm animals to confront her fear of aging. Meeting these animals and getting to know their horrific stories, the project later turned into a passionate advocacy for animal rights and becoming a voice for those that don’t have one. Traveling around the US to multiple sanctuaries which rehabilitate and provide homes for rescued farm animals, Isa captured numerous portraits on the animal’s home turf. 


© Isa Leshko

Ash, a Broad Breasted White turkey, age 8

Ash was a factory farm survivor. As with a lot of rescued animals, not much is known about Ash’s life before she arrived at Farm Sanctuary. Her body, though, bore telltale signs that she had been reared on a factory farm. The tip of her beak had been severed, and her middle toes had been partially amputated.

© Isa Leshko
Bessie, a Holstein cow, age 20

Bessie was repeatedly impregnated during the first four years of her life spent as a “milker” on a commercial dairy farm. Most retired dairy cows are slaughtered, and their flesh is rendered into hamburger meat or pet food. Bessie was rescued while en route to the slaughterhouse.

MEETING ANIMALS ON THEIR OWN TERMS

In order to make the animals feel as comfortable as possible before photographing them, Isa built up a relationship with them, which could mean lying for hours on the ground near the animal so they could become used to her presence. “I wanted to create their portraits; I didn't want to photograph their reactions to my presence,” says Isa.

No photographs were taken in a studio; instead Isa photographed the animals in their own environments. Keeping equipment to the bare minimum, Isa only used available light which could sometimes be a challenge when photographing in low-lit barns. “I generally do not even use a tripod and instead stabilize my camera on my knee or on the ground. My job certainly would have been simpler had I photographed animals in a studio setting. But taking this approach would have forced them to meet me on my terms instead of on theirs,” explains Isa. 

© Isa Leshko
Violet, a potbellied pig, age 12

Born with her rear legs partially paralyzed, Violet was surrendered to a sanctuary because her guardian could not properly care for her special needs.

© Isa Leshko
Bogart, a sheep, age 16

Bogart roamed free with a herd on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California. Bogart and his herd were rescued from planned extermination after the National Park Service deemed them a “nuisance.”

ADJUSTING TO FARM LIFE

Growing up in an industrial town in New Jersey, Isa wasn’t used to more “country style” living. When she started the project, she didn’t even know how to unlatch a farm gate. By the end of this project, she had really come out of her comfort zone with situations that called for lying in animal droppings as small bugs crawled on her just so she could ensure she made her animal subject feel comfortable. “By the end of a day spent in a barnyard, I am filthy, sweaty, and sometimes covered in mites. My muscles and joints ache from contorting my body to remain at eye-level with the animals I photograph. I feel every bit as old as the animals I met that day. My portraits are testaments to the resilience of my subjects as well as my own,” says Isa.

© Isa Leshko
Buddy, an Appaloosa horse, age 28

Buddy was surrendered to a sanctuary when his guardians could not properly care for him after he lost his sight. He suffered from debilitating panic attacks, which took months of training to overcome. Buddy suffered significantly from iritis. Because he was already blind, his eyes were removed to resolve this painful condition.

© Isa Leshko

This rooster, age unknown, was a factory farm survivor.

For this project I used a Hasselblad 503CW, which is my favorite camera and produces richly detailed negatives. Each roll of film contains only 12 frames, so I need to take frequent breaks to reload the film in my camera. I like that this camera forces me to work in a relatively slow and deliberate manner. 


© Isa Leshko
Teresa, a Yorkshire pig, age 13

Teresa was rescued en route to the slaughterhouse. Teresa had been reared on a factory farm in North Carolina. At six months of age, she was placed on a crowded trailer that was headed to a slaughterhouse in Pennsylvania. Along the way, the driver stopped at a bar in Washington, DC, parking his triple-decker truck on a city street. The pigs were left for hours in the summer heat with no air conditioning and no water. Over the next several hours, the Washington Humane Society received many calls from worried bystanders who heard loud squeals coming from the truck. Law enforcement seized the truck and brought it to the Poplar Springs Animal Sanctuary in Poolsville, Maryland.After her rescue, Stella relocated to Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY, where she lived the rest of her life.

© Isa Leshko
Valentino, a Holstein cow, age 19

Valentino was surrendered to a sanctuary, near death, after being born on a local commercial dairy farm.

© Isa Leshko
Isaiah, a Finnsheep, age 12

Isaiah was rescued as part of a cruelty investigation. He had been kept in a small cage for the first eight months of his life and developed severe arthritis as a result of his early confinement.

ABOUT ISA LESHKO

Finding her path as a photographer later in life, American photographer Isa Leshko started off with an interest in writing, freelancing throughout her 20s. Attending Haverford College in Pennsylvania, she studied neuroscience and cognitive psychology, and worked for two years as a research assistant until she left academia to work in the tech sector. Working through a series of dot.com startups with 15-hour workdays, she found herself burned out at the start of her 30s. Looking for a hobby, Isa took an introductory photography course and fell in love with the craft, and the rest is history. Today, her work focuses on themes that include aging and animal rights. Her Allowed to Grow Old series has received coverage from The Boston Globe, The Guardian, and The New York Times, among others. Last year, the University of Chicago Press published her first monograph, Allowed to Grow Old: Portraits of Elderly Rescued Farm Animals, which includes essays by activist Gene Baur, NY Times bestselling author Sy Montgomery, and curator Anne Wilkes Tucker. The book, which is now in its second printing, was selected by Buzzfeed as one of the best photography books of 2019 and was a coffee table book recommendation for The New York Times 2019 Holiday Gift Guide. See more about Isa Leshko here.



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