I Want to Talk About Photographing Shelter Dogs

Yeah, it’s the holidays. Everyone (including me) is shopping for gifts. I’ve got sales going and a show tonight and there are things I need to do, but fuck all that. Today I want to talk about photographing shelter dogs.

I have friends who take amazing and beautiful photos of cats and dogs who need homes. Those are great, really. If every homeless animal could have a portrait session like that, there would no doubt be a lot more adoptions. I photograph dogs every other week at the Kalamazoo County Animal Services shelter, as as the volunteer coordinator told me when I signed up for the job, the sessions are “down and dirty.” The dogs come in, I take their photo, and they go out. They’re not beautiful photos, even though the volunteers buy backdrops and try so, so hard to get the animals not just to smile but to keep from peeing themselves because they’re so scared.

Some shelters don’t have a professional (or even hobbyist) photographer, so they post photos they’ve taken with their phone, or with a compact camera. You know, a little blurry, laser eyes, and often while the animal is tied up and looking, frankly, scared to death.

I read all these blog posts about do’s and don’ts for shelter photos, and I can see where they’re coming from. I really can, and I support anyone who helps out with this kind of thing.

And now I’m talking to you as a potential adopter: Why the fuck does that dog need a glamour photo for you to get off your ass and go visit it?

This isn’t Match.com. It’s not e-Harmony. We’re not talking about people who want to maybe meet up for a glass of wine; we’re talking about literal life and death. (And if you’re the kind of person who will meet, or not, someone entirely based on their photo, well then fuck you.) Pretty adoption photos are great. But hey, you know what’s better? Not giving a shit that the dog’s hair is blowing in the wind or that it’s wear a red ribbon around its neck because that dog needs a fucking home and people shouldn’t have to convince you that it’s beautiful or gorgeous or will go with your furniture or (and this is my favorite) that it’s “happy.” Of course it’s not fucking happy; it’s in the damned shelter!

Can you even imagine for a second how terrifying the shelter is for animals who end up there? It’s loud, it’s smells of fear. All the dogs are barking and it’s cold and you don’t know what the fuck you did to the person who just dumped you there, because you tried really, really hard to be a good boy and now you’re here and you just don’t understand why.

There’s something that really bothers me about the pretty shelter photos (and again, I’m totally not knocking anyone who does these, or who works with their shelter to get them done), and it’s taken me awhile to figure out exactly what it is. Those gorgeous photos that show happy dogs make you think the shelter is maybe not such a bad place as people say. Hey, there are dog sweaters and hats and all the dogs are smiling and it’s really not that bad if you don’t go adopt that dog, is it? Because it looks happy, and it’s gorgeous and you know someone else will surely go adopt that dog.

Fuck that.

Let’s talk about shelter works and volunteers, because bless all these people, really; they show up everyday for a job that most of us couldn’t do for the weekend. As hard as they try to make the shelter a comfortable place (they give out treats, blankets, take the dogs for walks and cuddle the cats), the shelter is not a comfortable place. It’s shit, ok? It’s utter shit to be left in a place that isn’t your home and not know what’s going to happen to you. And you’re that dog, and now they’re taking your picture and you’d better fucking sit still and smile and you’d better not look afraid because some asshole sitting at home looking at his iPad isn’t going to choose you because you “look angry.”

I know, truly, that some people have to be convinced to look twice at a shelter animal, and some people (whether they know it or not) have to be enticed to consider getting in the car to go visit one. Thank Christ that there are people who understand this and work to produce images that do just that. Because honestly, it pisses the fuck out of me.

Like I said, our sessions are down and dirty, but they do the job and people come in and animals are adopted. Whatever works works. Whenever I’m shooting at my local shelter, I always use a zoom lens because I need as good a close up of that dog as I can get, but I always take a wide, because context is kind. Context reminds us that that animal may look like it’s “smiling,” but it’s probably scared shitless that it’s going to get left behind.

Let’s remember that we’re talking about living beings who experience sadness, happiness, fright, and joy. Petfinder isn’t a damned dating service, it’s there to remind you that there are literally tens of thousands of animals who need help. Like, now.

When you view the photos in this gallery, please note the human hands. Always there. Touching, caressing, reassuring, and loving.