I’m here to wash my hands and take stock of the things I’ve just photographed. Mechanised, systematic slaughter. An unavoidable step in the long chain of productivity that this country relies on. I’m staring at the white butchers’ scabbards on the washroom wall and remembering my father. His broad tanned hands testing the razor-sharp blade of his boning knife. He spits on his forearm and shaves a patch of hair with one quick movement, murmurs something about getting it done and disappears into the holding pen. He chooses without thinking, or at least that’s what it looks like.
The young sheep is pressed between his knees, as though he’s going to start shearing off its dust-stained wool, but instead he pulls the knife from his worn leather belt, grips the lamb firmly under the chin and with one deliberate movement simultaneously cuts the jugular and snaps the neck across his thigh.
The animal bleeds out on the boards of the wool shed and my father washes the blood from his knife and hands. The silence is as thick as the blood running across the floor. My older brother has wrapped his arms around my shoulders and pressed me back into him – together we watch the mercury-smooth blood glow red and the light fade on the floor in front us.
I decide then, in that abattoir bathroom, that the piece of the narrative that’s missing in my work is the sacrifice. It’s what all the attention is swiftly and efficiently directed away from, but it’s the bit I remember. Cattle shot from the rails of a stockyard, a pig stuck in its straw bed while I was forced to rest my weight across it’s beating heart, or the swift end to a lamb’s life on the shearing-shed boards.
I grew up with death – it was how we got food. I also grew up with respect. Respect for the animal, an unspoken understanding that a sacrifice was being made so that we could eat. It was how it was and I imagine that it stemmed from my father’s wish to be doing anything other than testing the edge of his knife on his forearm and sharing that macabre theatre with his sons.
I will always be grateful he did.
At 4.09pm on 27 July 2014 I met an Angus Wagu steer with the ear tag number 309. He was part of a mob of young animals grazing the high pasture at Fenlands Station on the East Cape.
The wind that ran down from Mount Hikurangi and chilled the open tops pushed the emerald rye and clover flat. It was the sort of cold you remember. Steer 309 stood with his ragged winter coat backed up to the wind and watched me watching him.
I was on a reconnaissance to find the right farm and the right farmer for a book I was about to start. What I found was a beautiful farm, Meyric and Leigh Hindmarsh, caring thoughtful East Cape farmers and an animal that walked right up to me and dared me to follow him.
Back at the shepherd’s cottage later that evening we looked briefly at the images from the day. Steer 309’s portrait lit up the computer screen. Meyric stood quietly behind me, a half-drunk beer bottle in his hand, his eyes fixed on the deliberate gaze of the young animal.
“There’s your subject, he said. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photograph of a steer like it before. He looks like he knows what you’re thinking.”
I returned to that farm every season and for every event throughout the rest of 309’s life. I watched the farm turn lush with clover and plantain, and dry out to chalky dust and sweet hay. Over the next 20 months 309 grew from a lean doe-eyed calf into a 500-kilo titan, rippled with muscle and a coat as silky and black as coal. On every visit 309 would move out of the crowd to find me – moving up to my camera, staring that same stare he caught me with on that cold July day. On my last visit before he was shipped off to the processing plant he got so close I could touch his coat and feel the warmth of his breath push against my chest.
Steer 309 gave me one last look. I was standing on a catwalk above the holding pens at the Ovation processing plant in Hastings. The stockman had left for the day. The afternoon sun bounced off the high blank walls of the chillers opposite the pens and filled the concrete and steel building with beautiful soft light. Below me, 309 stood alone and at a loss on the sterile concrete floor. His eyes glossy and bright, his nose wet. He seemed much smaller in that holding pen. Nothing like the animal I’d seen that morning at Fenlands. Over 500 kilos, solid and proud, standing calmly with his brothers watching the double-trailer stock truck back up to the timber yards. The serious banter of working men and that light again, then, through the poplars, it faded quietly to yellow. Sound and colour to signal an end to summer.
As the truck pulled away Meyric stood as he always did with his hands clasped behind his back. He watched the truck turn out of the gravel drive and head out to Highway 42. Finally he turned to me and said, “You know what? I wouldn’t send them off if I didn’t have to.”
At around 7 o’clock the following morning at the processing plant, 200 kilometres away from the sea air and yellow poplars, 309 was washed down and gently ushered into the killing bay. He was weighed, stunned with an electric shock to the forehead by a charged stainless-steel plate before a bolt gun was applied to the top of his skull and he was dispatched, passing out of his short life into the bowels of the abattoir.
Blue, white, red and silver – those are the colours I remember. The thick, sweet metallic smell of blood and the low automatic white noise of men working with ballet-like choreography in a repeating pattern of knife strokes and chainsaw lines.
Somehow a magic trick is performed that turns an animal into what we recognise as food. I worked in the processing plant for a couple of hours that morning, recording all kinds of horror, thinking about colour, composition, meaning and moment. I tried not to think about any living breathing thing.
Later that day in the staffroom a tall lean Maori man in white coveralls and a hairnet presented me with a severed ear. Attached to the ear was tag number 309.
I’d made a decision to drive to the farm from home at the beginning of the project. I understood the importance of the time on the road, the silent landscape and the shift in intensity.
Living in a city insulates you from the elements. The north-west wind gets filtered through street upon street of upright city villas, foiling its intention to show you how far it’s come and how bitter it feels. The landscape gets pushed back into an ordered conservative tableaux, and the sun, softened by smog and high-rise shadows, makes a half-hearted attempt at showing you summer. Supermarkets remove the grit, labour and anxiety of rural life and reimagine it for their urban customers who demand provenance, images of pastoral idylls and rustic typography.
The road to the East Cape puts that perspective in place. The wind skips straight off the Pacific and the sun hits you hard – Mother Nature eats away at the edges of the interlocking dairy farms, ready to reclaim her birthright. Locals carry the burden of economic responsibility and labour. You’re greeted with a suspicious handshake and an open heart.
The drive back to Auckland would take seven or eight hours.
Half an hour out of Hastings after my morning at the abattoir, in the low hills near Te Pohue, I pulled off the road before the mobile coverage faded. I rang home. My partner’s voice was full of warmth and concern. She listened to me download everything I’d done and seen. I was mid-sentence, offloading the weight of emotion and exhaustion, when the phone went dead.
That’s when it hit me. The deep, raw guilt of it all. I threw the phone across the car and wept. This wasn’t grief at the loss of an imagined bond I had developed with 309; it was the sudden realisation of the hopeless of it all, of where I had arrived, of the life I had imagined was good and worthy, and the overwhelming guilt at exorcising my demons at that animal’s expense. I was creating an homage to the everyday, the unavoidable, to the inevitable. I had no idea what I wanted to convince who of.
Two weeks later 309’s chilled, quartered carcass arrived in Auckland. I watched a master butcher dismantle and deliver multiple parts to the butchery table. Nothing was wasted. Trimmings were set aside for burger patties and sausages, the shin bones split for the marrow, the balance sent off for processing into either animal food or fertiliser. The meat disappeared into shrink-wrapped packaging and delivery bins. I followed the steaks, tenderloins, brisket and burgers out into the high streets of Auckland. Gourmet smokehouses, Japanese restaurants and high-end bistros. I followed the money.
Everyone who worked with the meat said the same thing. It was exceptional. Another great example of what we do so well in this country but fail to truly capitalise on. Bulk primary industry is the status quo, The agenda is to ship thousands of tonnes of commodities to the world market where they are haggled over and often left to sit dockside till the race to the bottom is over.
I can’t help but think our livestock, and in fact all industrially raised animals deserve better.
Chef Des Harris, was the last person to receive an order of beef. I spent an hour in Des’s test kitchen as he carefully prepared a sirloin roast. The meat was being scientifically monitored in the oven – how it was going to be plated and presented was planned in advance. Timing and preparation are everything when you’re dealing with something as precious and expensive as this.
When he was ready, Des carefully sliced off a portion and plated it with a selection of vegetables on a black pottery plate. It was art, a Modernist painting of texture and colour – loose and abstract.
I put the plate on a dark slate background and let the cold light from the inner-city courtyard slide over it. The dish glowed with deep cyan cast shadows. It was a beautiful end to 309’s journey.
“Have you tasted the meat yet?” Des asked.
I said I hadn’t, and, to be honest, I don’t think I could.
“You have to,” Des said. “It's why he existed. You can’t honour him by ignoring the very thing he stood for.”
I took a piece about two centimetres square off the end of his fork and ate it.