Photographer Isa Leshko is terrified of growing old. After caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s disease, she was “forced to confront her own mortality,” but she intended to face this fear in an unconventional way. Leshko began visiting farm sanctuaries across the U.S. to snap pictures of the geriatric animals that lived there. Over the course of nearly a decade, however, the project shifted focus from being a vehicle for Leshko’s anxiety to activism. She now uses her images as a way to speak on behalf of these creatures.
The resulting series called Allowed to Grow Old features subdued black and white portraits that capture the animals in their habitat. They offer a dignified yet unflinching look at the hard lives these creatures have endured. Some, like Buddy (a 28-year-old Appaloosa horse), are blind and suffer from arthritis; and Violet, a 12-year-old potbellied pig, is partially paralyzed. Their stories are tragic, but not unique. “Nearly all of the farm animals I met for this project endured horrific abuse and neglect prior to their rescue,” Leshko writes. “It is nothing short of a miracle to be in the presence of a farm animal who has managed to reach old age.”
The heartbreaking images demonstrate Leshko’s respect towards her resilient subjects, which comes down to her approach to photographing them. “Rescued farm animals are often wary of strangers,” she explains, “and it can take several days to develop a comfortable rapport with the animals I photograph. I often spend a few hours lying on the ground next to an animal before taking a single picture. This helps the animal acclimate to my presence and allows me to be fully present as I get to know her.”