Life is a mess. Life is hard. Life is undone laundry and unmade beds.
Life is cat pee on the carpet, and dog hair in the bed. It’s dirty diapers and Barbie missing a shoe. Life is bribes, it’s lollies for breakfast (But never green. Never. The. Green.).
Life is hair pulling and baby boops. Life is dogs at the door and lost keys and one-skillet dinners. Life is 2-minute showers and crawling into bed 30 minutes after you’re supposed to get up. Life is a bathtub full of toys.
Life is late for work.
Life is days that last forever and years that fly by.
Life is I love yous and can I sleep with yous and life makes you laugh till you cry and cry till you can do nothing else but laugh.
Life is hard. Life is a mess. Life is chaos.
The Chaos Theory asks: Will a butterfly flapping its wings in China make your dog throw up in your bed?
It might have found a cool, dark spot to curl up in; maybe under the porch. It might be laying in its bed; it knows when it goes to its bed it’s a very Good Boy, or very Good Girl. The dog might be laying in its master’s bed, waiting for them to come home or it might, if it’s very lucky, laying beside its favorite person right now.
But the dog *is* dying, and it’s a sad sight. The house with a fragile dog is quiet. We walk softly so as not to disturb its sleep. We talk in whispers about the right thing, the right time, and we remember when the dog was strong and able to run to us whenever we called.
But there’s medicine to give, there are pillows to be fluffed, favorite blankies and toys to find. The house is quiet but for us, filling the time and the space with our awkward, humanness. If we cry, the dog tries to soothe us and that feels so selfish, so we try not to. But we fail.
Somewhere, a dog is dying, and if we’re very lucky, it’s not our dog, not this time. But we’re reminded that it will be, eventually. It will soon enough be our dog.
Somewhere, a dog is dying, and with it, a little piece of someone, some helpless, sad, person, is dying too.
So many of us have so many great stories about the animals we’ve adopted and rescued. In volunteering for my local shelter, Kalamazoo County Animal Control Services, I’ve met dozens of amazing creatures who just need and desperately want a chance to be loved. And they all deserve it; every single one of them. The “scary” dogs, like Pitties, fill the shelters across the country. But in my experience and time with them, I’ve found them to be the biggest loves; the most eager to please, wanting the most hugs and giving the most kisses. There have been nights that I’ve left the shelter furious at mankind; other times I’ve left crying. And others, I’ve left vowing to return and save that one dog. (I’m happy to say that every time that’s happened, a rescue has beat me to it.)
I created this series as a way to honor my dogs, rescues all of them. Over the last couple of years I’ve added pieces to this project. Only when I got the help from the amazingly talented graphic designer Travis Haight (of Recipe for Haight), was I able to see the project in front of me take form as it had been in my heart. This project is one more voice adding to the urgency of these animals’ message. Now that we’re getting settled in Southwest Michigan, there are plans in the works for adding more pieces with other dogs; big, small, hairy, scary 🙂 And hopefully some cats as well!
They all have a voice, they’re all telling us something. Something desperate. We just have to be willing to listen.
I hope you enjoy the series, which can be found here.
They’ll be up in my Etsy shop soon, but if you’d like to pre-order a piece, let me know.
Better yet, go visit your local shelter and visit and listen. Take home a new (or old) soul. Because when you adopt a shelter dog (or cat), you change the world. One animal at a time.
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.
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.
Last night was my 3rd night photographing shelter dogs. I was a bit nervous about committing myself to a shoot every other week. When I look back at that now it’s ridiculous. I could do it almost every day. (I say almost because it’s easy to visit with them and photograph them and hug them, but it’s so, so hard to leave them.)
All the dogs are pretty nuts when they come in for a shoot. They’re excited, they’re nervous (none so far have been afraid of the light), and they’re happy, all at once. I always get kisses. I often get a dog in my lap and I occasionally get pee’d on. It’s all great, sitting on the floor, hugging them and talking with them. But I have to make it quick because they don’t know what’s going on.
I start each night, on the night of the shoot, visiting with all the dogs and cats at the shelter. I used to think the cats were much more stoic about their fate in the shelter, but more than a few of them have broken my heart in the past 6 weeks.
But before we do the head shots for the rescue (Save Our Strays), I try to get a wide shot of everyone. I like to show the context of what they’re going through, what their current circumstances are. I know people want to see pretty pictures of dogs smiling. I know that those photos are the ones that help dogs get rescued. But I think it’s important for us to be really sober about what we’re doing to animals. They’re there not through any fault of their own; not through any fault of shelter staff. They’re there because of us. Our fault. Our negligence, our lack of empathy and love, our irresponsibility.
Our problem. Ours to fix.
To rephrase a very popular sentiment, This IS my circus. These ARE my monkeys.
Love your beasties (and if you can make room any more, these darlings are at the Kalamazoo Shelter.
This is Fiona. She’s a very young and shy pittie at the Kalamazoo Shelter. She trembled so, and tucked her tail, when it was time for her to get her photo taken. But the volunteer soothed her and we talked with her and ultimately, she looked right at me.
Most of the dogs I’ve shot so far have been terribly frightened, but (and I’ve said this before about dogs) they almost always show up. (Meaning they do what we want them to do.)
Their entire existence relies on doing what we want them do, and that breaks my heart. I try to let my dogs know that they can do what they like and won’t be punished or abandoned. Yes, they’re trained, but there are few rules in our house short of eating off my face.
I don’t know what Fiona knows or doesn’t know, but her eyes. Her gaze seems to indicate that she knows the dogs like her are doing exactly what we want them to do.
I wish that all dogs felt so free to be themselves; to not be under a constant pressure to act right, to do this, not do that, and worry that they might be struck, kicked out of the house, or abandoned. <3
Fiona is up for adoption; she’s a little underweight and could use someone to come scoop her up and give her a load of food and treats. And, of course, love.
Lesson: At the Kalamazoo Animal Shelter the important thing here is the animal’s feelings, the animal’s comfort, and the animal’s life.
Yesterday I had the distinct honor of stepping up my volunteer game by photographing some adoptable dogs at the Kalamazoo County Animal Care Services. I’ve been wanting to volunteer since we landed here in Kzoo in February, but the unpacking, the dogs, the 2nd move into the new place, and my surgeries kept me grounded at home for most of this time. But we’ve been in the new house a week and I was more than ready to get up to the shelter to help out.
Shelter shooting is pretty down and dirty. The dogs each get just a couple of minutes, and most of them are confused and scared and don’t know what the hell is going on. But they got lots of extra love and kisses, and the volunteers who handle the dogs are extremely good at calming the nerves of these beasties.
In addition to the tight (smiling) head shots that the shelters and rescues need, I of course took some of my favorite kind; the wide, more journalistic shots of the set up and the dogs. Context is king. I shot 21 dogs yesterday. I got lots of kisses and a few body slams. I got a dog trying to slip underneath me, and I got peed on. OF COURSE I GOT PEED ON. LOL.
Of course it looks sad (and I hear this from so many well-meaning people who would normally jump at the chance to help animals, but shy away from the shelters), and it sad that these dogs need homes. But it’s extremely awesome that there are so many volunteers and staff completely dedicated to getting them out of the shelter and into homes. The important thing here is the animal’s feelings, the animal’s comfort, and the animal’s life. So if you’re on the edge of volunteering let this give you a nudge in the right direction. They need you. They really really do.
Yes, I made it to Kalamazoo! We arrived the 3rd week of February (it was 7 degrees when we got out of the car), and even though it was a mild winter, it took a bit to get used to the white grass of the Midwest. I haven’t lived in the Midwest since I was 10, but wow, how fast those memories come back. The smell after it rains, the complete silence after a good snow. Since we got here my senses have been flooded with childhood memories and they’ve really helped with the bumpy times of missing my kid and my hometown.
I haven’t been shooting (except with my phone) because, moving. And honestly I was a bit homesick for awhile so once our stuff arrived it became my Mission in Life to get unpacked and get the house looking like ours. Mission accomplished, it’s now cozy and us.
The hunt for a proper studio is on, and I think I have a building picked up, now it’s just a matter of time before finding the perfect space and getting the deal done. Tearing down my studio in LA was heartbreaking, and even though the house is comfy cozy, I was still really missing my own shooting space. So I built a tiny studio in the basement where I can be with my seamless rolls and my lights 🙂 And take photos of the dogs.
Which I did the other day, so I guess I am officially a Kalamazoo photographer.
Thanks for the warm welcome, Michigan, so far we’re all really loving it here.
When it comes to my dogs, it’s safe to say that I go the extreme in making them part of the family. My family of dogs usually comes first when it comes to what they need, want, etc. I talk to them constantly (which has given them an extensive vocabulary; both good news and bad). I’m always fussing with their blankies, covering them up, uncovering them, making sure they’re warm but not too warm. Mr. Susan says my dogs are my dollies. He’s right.
We’re in the middle of major packing, and it’s creating havoc. We’ve had workers in the house, getting it ready to sell. There are boxes, bubble wrap, and paper everywhere. My dogs are, of course, freaking out.
And then there are my grand-dogs. Well, Tofu is my grand-dog (believe me when I say that five years ago, I wouldn’t be caught dead using that phrase, but…everything changes). Chuck Mantooth is my honorary step-dog, and I’m going to miss them a ton. (I mean, I’ll miss my kid, of course, and I’ll miss Travis and I’ll really really really miss seeing them in their new love, growing together and becoming a couple. I’m really sad about missing that, but that’s another post.)
Anyway, we had no power yesterday. Yeah. And there was lots of hammering and drilling and, rightfully so, Mouse and T were in the heights of Stranger Danger, where everything except me was the Stranger. So I got them in the bye-bye car and went over to my kid’s house, to visit with Tofu and Chuck. OF COURSE I brought my good camera; phone pics wouldn’t do for what may be the last time I and my family of dogs would hang alone, with no people around.
Most of the shots are fuzzy because, dogs. But I used the self-timer to get this one, and I love it. That’s Chuck Mantooth (we just call him Chuck) on the left, then Tofu, then me in the middle, and finally Mouse and T. They’d don’t always get along when we all hang together (especially the three male dogs; they don’t fight exactly, but they do this “chuff” sound to assert something over the others, and it becomes an endless cacophony of “chuff, chuff, chuff”, while silent Mouse realizes that as female, she need make no sound to assert that she is boss).
(Note for my kid and Travis: they have a great house, they have great taste. The pictures on the wall aren’t that crooked, I was using my super wide lens so everything is distorted. And the shoes on the floor? Well, fuck, it’s their house; mine is worse.)
So once you haven’t blogged for a week, it becomes then several weeks. Then it becomes a month, and then several months. I haven’t blogged in forever, but I have some good reasons. One was summer. A bigger one was Jack. And now there’s the move.
We’re in the middle of packing for our new adventure–moving from Los Angeles to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where, as Mr. Susan says, in the winter I’ll have “white grass.”
I was meaning to put together a sort of “end of the year” post with my favorite photos from 2015. Then I started to think it should be a “leaving LA” post with my favorite photos, well, of all time. Yeah. That’s way too daunting. I don’t think I’d ever be able to narrow them down into one post.
So rather than try to play catch up, I’m just going to leave a few recent photos here. In the few weeks I have left in Long Beach, I’m going to walk my dogs a lot (because, sun), have a couple of more sessions before I begin the studio tear-down (*weep*), and try to post from the road as we drive from Long Beach to our new digs.
It’s probably too late to get any photos taken before I go, sorry. But good news for those who are enjoying the White Grass. I’m starting to book sessions to start in March.
In the meantime, I’m going to just leave this here…yeah…and go pack a few boxes…and feel a little bit sad and a little bit excited all at once. And 60 days from now, I’ll be a photographer for hire in Kalamazoo.