As I sat in the taxi, speeding through the winding streets of Oaxaca, Mexico, I thought about my relationship with meat. A spice rubbed filet mignon, a New York Strip with bearnaise sauce, a bacon cheeseburger—all of which greatly increase my quality of life. I’m a firm believer that life is short—do what you love, love what you do, and eat what you want. But, for the sake of some killer photos, and a once in a lifetime experience, was I willing to challenge my love for meat and risk losing it forever?
When I stepped out of the taxi, I was met by a smiling woman who introduced herself and offered me a face mask. As we walked towards the entrance to the building, I began to realize why I needed one. The smell hit me like a fast-moving train—it was so pungent, so unforgettable, that the thought of it still makes me shudder.
Just as the smell pervaded my nostrils, a realization pervaded my mind: what I was about witness will be disturbing—truly the stuff of nightmares. I wondered, “How did I end up here, at a slaughterhouse in Mexico?” I remember looking down at my camera and felt a twinge of reassurance, and it reminded me what I was there to accomplish.
War photographers and photojournalists often say that their cameras offer a physical barrier between them and the atrocities they face, which gives them a sense of security in dangerous situations. Although comparing their situations with mine is a little dramatic, and my life wasn’t at all in danger, I sympathized with them. This place may not have been a war zone, but it was my war zone. However, for the sake of my love for photography, I decided that I would bear witness to the blood and the guts, with my camera as my shield.
I was free to explore the slaughterhouse any way I wanted, as long as I didn’t touch anything— that was the easiest part. The building was like a concrete maze, with large rooms that were connected by narrow doorways and glassless windows. Cow innards were strewn about, and piles of hooves towered over me like mountains. Blood was everywhere. There were vats of it dug deep into the ground, which ran beneath the floor, and there were droplets on the walls, the tables, and eventually, the viewfinder of my camera.
In the center room, a sunken platform with a large drain was red with blood, which streamed rapidly from the hanging body of a freshly killed cow. Her body was suspended by her hoof, which was attached to a a thick metal chain that hung from the ceiling. Just as the ancient Japanese ‘kaishakunin’ beheaded men who committed ‘seppuku,’ the slaughterhouse worker sliced off the cow’s head in one swift, powerful motion. When it fell to the floor, he placed it to the side, and continued to dismember the cow until he pushed the carcass along the ceiling track to the next room, where it would be skinned.
I decided to follow the now headless cow, who had been breathing less than an hour earlier. Thankfully, I wasn’t there to watch her die, but I felt like accompanying her through this process was my way of showing my solidarity. Once it was skinned, the carcass was hosed and brought to the next room, where it joined fifty others who had met the same fate.
It is important to clarify my deep respect and admiration for the workers at the slaughterhouse. I wanted to carry this admiration into my photography, as I sought to give them recognition for their incredibly difficult work. I was shocked by their ability to remain stoic and focused, even when their smocks and hands were soiled with blood. This was a job that someone had to do, but it was not a job that anyone could do.
Walking through the slaughterhouse, it was easy to become distracted by the gore. I was constantly tempted to capture the brains that sat on a metal table, or the pools of blood beneath the wheel of a truck outside. While these photographs are shocking, and I took many of them, they are far less compelling than the photographs taken of the workers interacting with their environment. I’ve always been told that a successful photojournalist is able to uncover stories wherever they go, whether it’s in a slaughterhouse or in their own backyard, and this is what I set out to do.
You’re probably wondering, why would someone ever want to go to a place like this? When I was there, I probably wouldn’t have known the answer—but it ended up being one of the most incredible learning experiences I’ve ever had. I felt like I was given the opportunity to uncover a secret world of photographs that were so disturbing, yet unusually compelling and inspiring. To this day, they are some of the most poignant and unique photos I’ve ever taken.
Perhaps the most difficult part was after I left the slaughterhouse, when I had to explain to the repair man at Canon why blood was lodged deeply into my camera. Suffice to say, my name is probably on a watch list somewhere.
I also learned something important about myself: that my love for red meat is irrevocable, unwavering, and unchallengeable. Call me heartless, but I’m pretty sure I ate beef tacos that night for dinner. However, if you are a vegetarian, or are afraid of blood, I strongly recommend steering clear of slaughterhouses.
Photographs by Nikki Betuel