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.

Photographing Shelter Dogs

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.

Doing Exactly What We Want Them to Do

Doing exactly what we need them to do.
Doing exactly what we need them to do.

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.

Kalamazoo Animal Shelter

Shelter dog, Kalamazoo MI

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.

Shelter dog, Kalamazoo MI
Kalamazoo Animal Shelter