Take Me Home, Please?
Shannon Johnstone tell stories of the lives of impounded dogs. She takes their portraits in the landscape of a local landfill to help get them adopted.
- Description: To photograph dogs from shelters in a free and happy spirit.
- Duration: I began photographing in October 2012, during a sabbatical from my teaching position.
- Notes: If your project is to help shelter animals then it is important to keep the focus on them and not be side tracked by other issues.
Before I started Landfill Dogs, I worked on another project called Breeding Ignorance which explored the euthanasia of the cats and dogs in county shelters. I am in awe of the compassion, strength, and dedication of shelter workers who do this on a daily or weekly basis. They are responsible for dealing with animal overpopulation and they are committed to humanely putting animals to sleep. But, ‘Breeding Ignorance’ did not have the effect I desired. In fact, several times the photographs were taken out of context and were used to accuse shelters of abuse.
I realised I needed a new visual approach. I wanted to work with the same idea of sheltered animals, but I realised I needed to approach it from a different angle. So I decided to photograph shelter dogs happy and enjoying life. Not only does this make the image more appealing, but it also gives the viewer a chance to change the course of this dog’s life before it is too late.
I decided to use Facebook to spread the word. There are so many animal advocates on there, who are quite vocal, and very eager to share posts related to animals in need. I really like the interactive aspect of this project. It gets people involved in a positive and gets them asking questions.
I used the landfill site as the location to What to Remember When Photographing Sheltered Dogs shoot for two reasons. First, this is where the dogs will end up if they do not find a home. Their bodies will be buried deep in the landfill among our trash.
These photographs offer the last opportunity for the dogs to find homes. The second reason for the landfill location is offers a metaphor of hope. It is a place of trash that has been transformed into a place of beauty.
When I first started, I realised after five photo shoots that I need a helper! The shelter staff and volunteers have been absolutely amazing in being involved with the project. They hold the leash, throw the ball, give the treats—allowing me to photograph while the dog is engaged and bonding.
Sometimes—if my husband is the one helping me—I sit in the backseat with the dog, and we get to know each other. It always helps to do this because then the dog is not intimidated by the camera.
I am usually lying down on the ground or squatting. I like to be at eye level with the dog. I tend to take lots of photos and edit them later. It is not unusual for me to take 500+ photos, and only get a few usable images. Some of the best photo shoots are the ones where the dogs just want to sit on the hill and watch the city below.
I chose to focus on the dogs who had been in the shelter the longest, who were the most overlooked, and also the most at risk for euthanasia. It is unsettling that I never know what the outcome will be for the dogs. However, the thing I comfort myself with, if nothing else, at least they had a good long walk with some treats, an afternoon of play and love and a few new sights and sounds.
I photograph with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. I enhance the photos in Photoshop and digitally remove the collar and leash so that there is no form of restraint.
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Better Photography.
What to Remember When Photographing Sheltered Dogs
- Keep The Dog Engaged: Bring dog treats and a tennis ball to keep the dog occupied and for fun shots. If you make a high pitched noise, their ears perk up right away, making them look even more cute!
- Be Kind: Do not try to make the dog do something he/she does not want to do (i.e. climb on something, roll, jump, and so on) and also wear clothes that you do not mind getting dirty while playing with the dogs!
—As told to Natasha Desai
To view the rest of the photographs from this series, you can visit www.landfilldogs.info