In the Spring of 2005 I sent an email to the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society offering to volunteer my photography services. Shortly after I received a reply from Melissa Levy, the volunteer director, inquiring about my offer. I suggested that I come to the shelter, set up my gear and photograph as many shelter dogs as I could in one day. With no specific purpose in mind we figured the images eventually could be used for something.
At the time I was newly pregnant, living in South Philadelphia doing animal portraiture on the side. I was working part time in an office, managing various contract based promotions, fresh off the road after being on it for almost 4 solid years. Volunteering was something I wanted to do for a long time but being that I was never in the same town for more than a few nights, opportunity was lacking.
I became excited for the PAWS project but as the day approached I began to realize I had no idea how we were going to get 45 shelter dogs, skittish and scared, to appear the opposite of this.
Sure, I had photographed dogs plenty of times but usually with their guardian-a person who knew them in every way-fears, behavior, preferences…certain looks, gestures, physical details, the type of stuff a family member can appreciate and adore. A roadmap for me, with a point A. Typically I get an hour or two in which to work with the dog – a reasonable time frame for an animal to settle and get comfortable with my presence.
But this? Bringing almost feral-by-situation creatures onto a photo set seemed a bit tricky. Animals that had no family or maybe came from bad ones?
Surely I would somehow figure it out when the time came. Elisabeth Kubler Ross would call this the denial stage of the certain death I was walking myself into.
The day of the PAWS photo shoot I was so ill from morning sickness I was on the verge of vomitting at every turn. It was too early to reveal that I was actually pregnant and I tried my best to pretend like everything was just a-ok thankyouverymuch. This is the fun phase of pregnancy where you feel like death but no one knows it because you don’t look pregnant. Similar to the never-did-this experience of photographing shelter dogs, so was this pregnancy.
When I arrived at the shelter on the morning of the shoot Melissa and I had a talk-we agreed that these images were not to be sad, pathetic or begging. No guilt inducing cheap shots. No softly playing Sarah Mclachlan songs up in here-No way. No how.
Yes. We were going to make these dogs look like heroes. Show them as what they were. Brave, hopeful, adorable-maybe they weren’t in their best place right now but we weren’t going to focus on that.
Besides, aren’t we all in the shit most of time?
This was just a rough patch for these dogs and there was no need to magnify that. To do this I knew I needed to produce images that would show characteristics unique to each dog’s own personality and show off specific physical traits. Things I would do for any of my clients. Things that I would have to swiftly discern on my own in a very brief amount of time.
Oh, and we were going to do these photos without the use of leashes or collars. I added that little curveball in because nothin’ worth doin’ unless it seems insurmountable.
We were going to give the underdog a new name. I was going to photograph the underdog. I was going to BE the underdog and git ‘er done or be there all day and night trying. We were going to give these dogs a voice, through showing their faces in photographs.
Aesthetically speaking? I had a lot of things to consider. Point of view is especially important here. Shooting down on the animal could easily give the appearance of domination and this was to be avoided. Lighting was to be used to highlight expressive eyes. Minimize anything that gives the look of fear or aggression. Be sure to crop in camera or position myself to best hide jutting starved rib cages, extended nipples mauled from overbreeding, hot spots and instead show and focus on floppy ears or a lovely brindle coloring instead of gnarled scars and missing teeth.
Wait. This could be difficult. Hmmm.
Here we were, with my set crammed in the shelter’s tiny socialization room that, to a dog’s nose, is FILLED with the scents and smells of other dogs. A shelter dog, pulled from a pen, who just came from the street was expected to walk in, have a seat, look at my camera and be relaxed, leash and collarless. This was not only a tall order but something that began to seem utterly impossible.
Did I mention we were trying to photograph each dog in under 10 minutes? I had never done any dog portrait in such a teensy amount of time, ever, let alone 45 of them in a row.
Melissa had gathered a few volunteers to help out. As the romanticism of this began to crumble, the concept of what we were trying to do and it’s logistics built up a bricky wall and I began to get nervous. As I set up equipment I could feel my anxiety levels rising which insufferably worked in tandem with the INSANE nausea that plagued my every move. Then, a tiny, asshole-y litle voice spoke in my mind
“Can you do this?”
Melissa, the volunteers, the workers at the shelter were excited about the shoot and expecting me to know what I was doing. But what if I couldn’t? What if reality knocked me on my ass and that no amount of skill or talking could make this work? You can’t reason with a dog. You can’t direct a dog.
“Can you do this?” got louder and louder and then started inviting all it’s friends to the party “You don’t know what you are doing” “These dogs are going to freak out” “You will never pull this off” “Impossible” “Give up”
By the time I was tested and all set up I became possessed with the idea that the task at hand, that is was just that, an idea of a task and nothing more. Execution would surely prove this and I was doomed. I gave up before I began. I prepared myself for ultimate failure. There was no way that I would be able pull this off. BARF IN MY MOUTH.
Then something happened right before the first dog was brought in. A single, strong word poked it’s head through the masses.
A dog KNOWS when you are scared or anxious and will respond in turn.
If I had ANY chance of making this work I had to be collected, it was the only way I would get any decent photographs. If I were to panic-even internally? The dogs would know it and become erratic and NOT trust me. Trust was the most important thing here.
Equipment, lights, camera, forced eye contact and body language were elements that the dog would need to adjust to, and swiftly. My job was not to take photos but to make the animals trust me, as quickly as possible and then take their photograph. Suddenly, it all made sense and my mind got very quiet.
I would act, not think and this is how I would get the photos I set out to take.
You know what happened? These dogs that I anticipated to be maniacal and spastic? The dogs that I would never be able to capture NOT looking scared or upset?
Most of them were the opposite.
After photographing the first few dogs it became clear that all these animals wanted, were desperate for, was human touch.
The problem we were having mostly was not un-cooperation but TOO much cooperation. Getting the dogs to stop leaning into the handlers, to quit shoving their furry, needy heads under human hands or thrusting their bony bodies onto jean-clad laps became the issue. To prevent the dogs from getting so close to me in their quest for attention became challenging. As soon as I would get on the dog’s level they would charge at me ready for a snuggle.
And as volunteers, the magicians, began casting spells of calmness, kindness, gentle touches and affection the dogs became the most easy going canine subjects I had ever had! Not only had I doubted myself but I also sold my subjects short. Shame on me.
Of course we had the wild dogs and the ones who physically looked starved or sick.I remember one dog had no ears because they were cut off-with kitchen scissors. Finding the light within each dog was the goal and no matter how physically mangled by sad histories I was going to have to look through that.
As each dog came through I got into stride realizing the needs of each, the formula. Who we could push and who needed space. When volunteers should be involved or when everyone should leave the room-just me and the dog to work it out. Who was overstimulated by treats and who would respond wonderfully to snacks. What tricks could I pull out of my sleeve that would get each individual to trust me?
And all of this happened with very little speaking. THAT is the beauty of the human/animal connection. As I snapped my camera it would become clear to me when I got the shot. When the connection was made. It was miraculous. And I was able to photograph every single one. We set an ambitious list because surely, we thought, some won’t work out.
How wrong we were.
A week after the shoot we went through all the images and we decided what was to be done with them. Melissa had, in a minuscule time frame, pulled together resources to get local businesses to do the designing and printing of calendars. Each month was to have a portrait of a shelter dog with their story. Surprisingly we had a hard time picking just ONE image for each month and ended up featuring multiple portraits for some dogs. Taking it a step further, Melissa secured space in The Shops At Liberty Place for a photo auction. Again, prints, mounting and displays all donated to this project.
In 2007 I entered 3 images from this project into the City Hall Likeable Art Exhibition and was pleased to find out that all 3 made it in and would be displayed in the first case, right across from the Mayor’s office.
Every year since, we have done this project. We began doing a cat calendar as well and that is a whole other way of working. I remember being set up at the satellite shelter in a very VERY tiny socialization room where cats were just hanging out while I was photographing other cats. It wasn’t uncommon for a random cat to jump up over the TOP of my background or have a kitty pawing at my synch cord or rub up against my camera lens while I was trying to photograph another cat, again, searching to be just a cat-playful and cuddly.
2 years after that first photo session I would be doing this same photo shoot again but instead at 8 months pregnant with my second child. To see me, beached whale-like, lying on the floor, getting contorted like one has to when photographing a wiggly dog was quite a sight. I knew it was going to be a long day and that it would be hard on my gigantic, exhausted, acid reflux filled body and it was. I was ordered on partial bed rest and definitely rejected doctors orders by taking on the very physical act of photographing these animals.
BUT there was no way I could let any other photographer do the job. This was our project, Melissa and I, to get this calendar out every year.
Every year more calendars are sold and more local Philadelphia businesses carry them in their shops. Many of these images are on display at the PAWS clinic and used for all kinds of marketing purposes including the annual holiday card.
Please consider adoption if you are looking for a dog or cat. This year’s PAWS calendar can be purchased here.