Rachele Totaro is a unique kind of activist. The 37-year-old animal lover and vegan uses her camera lens to tell the stories of animals, helping them to find homes and above all, showing the public that each animal is “someone, not something.”
Totaro was led to a plant-based diet by her fondness for animals. “I’ve always loved and felt connected to them,” she told LIVEKINDLY in an email. The photographer pointed out that although many animals are viewed as food, each is an individual.
“Every animal is someone, not something. Feeling, loving, and fearing with a unique personality, relationships, and, mostly, with the right to live,” she said. “Once you see it, you can’t unsee.”
Totaro uses her photography skills to help others make the link, too. The activist is a volunteer photographer for an Italian charity called La Collina dei Conigli, which rescues and rehabilitates retired lab animals. For six years, Totaro has traveled to the sanctuary to take pictures of rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, and rats who were once used in experiments. The images are used in a fundraising calendar.
“After realizing some story-inspired pictures (‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘The Little Prince,’ etc), which were very helpful to raise awareness about some very despised critters like rats and mice, I decided to show the most magical story of all because, in some blissful cases, reality can be more enchanting than fiction,” the photographer explained.
“I decided to show the reactions of the little rescues seeing what was outside of their cages for the first time,” Totaro said.
Even once the animals are released from the labs, they typically spent their time inside cages waiting to be adopted. “Most of them never see what’s outside of a plexiglass cube,” added Totaro.
And so she took them outside and captured their first moments in the natural world. “The warmth of the sun, the smell of fresh grass, the first steps on the ground, and at the same time to show the close relationship between non-human animals and their human rescuers,” the photographer explained. This concept is a moving one given the animals’ experiences with people up until that point. “Human hands were no more a source of pain or fear. They became a safe nest,” she said.
Totaro describes the experience as emotional – for herself, the volunteers, and the animals. She believes the end result was effective since the shoot took place nearly two years ago and the images are still circling the internet.
The ‘Huge Power’ of Photography Activism
Totaro’s photography is also used to help shelter animals find homes. She is a volunteer photographer for HeARTs Speak, a non-profit organization that unites artists from around the world to help “increase the visibility of shelter animals” (Totaro notes, “seen = saved”). The activist explains that a quality photo can mean the difference between “spending a life in a cage and finding a family.”
In that way, photography holds “huge power.” She believes she can use the medium to pull beauty out from unexpected places and hold a magnifying glass to it. She explains, “Photography, for me, means connection – between the subject and the observers, like temporarily borrowing my eyes.”
Every animal Totaro encounters has their own story and she feels it’s important to honor each with the right set of photos. She mentioned an old dog she recently met and photographed. The dog was thin, had terminal liver cancer, and was abandoned when she fell ill. Totaro met her in a shelter’s vet room, lying down and struggling to breathe. With her photography, Totaro was able to showcase the dog as a “unique, precious being, not an old broken toy as her previous owner probably saw her.”
“Maybe it can seem useless or foolish, and of course it won’t change her past, but the fact that now she is recognized as someone, someone who is at center stage, pictured ‘as a model’ to show everyone her beauty – the one that goes beyond the surface,” Totaro said. “Well, it’s my way to say that she is important, that someone cares, and that the real losers are those who never understood this.”
“I took some amazing portraits of her in the last light of the day, my favorite, while she was held by a caring volunteer. She was loved and beautiful and everyone will see it,” the artist added.
Totaro’s passion for lending a lens to animals in need motivated her to start her own project, Progetto gOldies. Through it, she tells the stories of “old pets and their humans.” Totaro explains, “There are so many great love stories out there and so many are at risk of getting lost in time, just because no one can tell them.”
She hopes Progetto gOldies will also promote the adoption of senior pets. Totaro says one of the best feelings is to receive that phone call telling her that an animal she has photographed has found a home. “I cannot think to a bigger reward,” the creative said.