Martin Usborne, photographer, writer and big-time animal-hugger, talks to StyleTails about ditching the day job, saving lots of animals and pissing into the wind….so to speak.
At a time when there’s more talk than ever about escaping the daily grind and following your heart, who better to get inspired by than a man who packed it all in to follow his passions. Plagued by a compulsion to write, take beautiful pictures and help animals, all at the same time (no one said it would be easy), Martin Usborne has gone half way around the world and back, exploring the complex relationships between humans and animals, and creating some of the funniest and darkest work in the process.
From his critically acclaimed ‘The Silence of Dogs in Cars’ series, and ‘My Name is Moose’, a humorous look at life in East London through the eyes of his miniature Schnauzer Moose, to his current one-man dash to save as many animals as he can in 365 days – with ‘AYear to Help‘, StyleTails peers inside the mind of Martin Usborne – a man on a mission.
You studied philosophy and psychology, and then trained as a 3D animator – how did you finally end up finding your passion for photography?
I was working for the company that made Teletubbies and when the project I was involved in did not come to fruition I moved on. I ended up leaving to go travelling through South East Asia and found myself taking loads of pictures of animals while I was there. Not really knowing how to get into photography, I started out taking family portraits as a way to fund some of the other work I wanted to, do but it wasn’t really my passion.
I ended up meeting this slightly scary life coach who told me think about my funeral, which sounds quite dramatic now – what would I be remembered for? I knew I had to figure out a way to combine writing, photography and animals, and the ideas for the projects all came from there.
What inspired your Silence of Dogs in Cars Project?
The idea for the photos came from an experience I had as a child that really stuck with me. I was left in a car outside a supermarket, not in a neglectful way, just for a couple of minutes. But at the time, I remember feeling a strong fear that no one would come back and I would be alone forever. Around that age I also started to feel a deep affinity with animals. I remember being shocked at some of the horrific things that animals were subjected to at the hands of humans and what appalled me most was that they couldn’t speak back. The Silence of Dogs in Cars is meant to capture that feeling of being alone and unheard.
Why do you think you identify with animals so closely?
I think it was to do with being an extremely shy child. Being so quiet myself, I could definitely relate to a feeling of voicelessness.
Were you surprised by the the reactions of the dogs in the shoot?
I knew that the images would be dark, but what I didn’t anticipate was all the subtle reactions of the dogs, which ranged from anger, to dejection and sadness.
You’ve got two miniature Schnauzers – Moose & Bug – have you always been a dog person?
My sister was obsessed with cats and had pictures of them all over her walls, so I had to go for dogs. Since then, I have of course realised that dogs are way cooler than cats.
Tell us about your A Year to Help project?
I’ve always been a failed animal lover. I love animals but have long eaten meat. I love cows but wear them on my feet. How does this make sense? I thought to myself that if I was hit by a bus tomorrow I’d be pretty sad about the fact that I had done nothing to help the enormous suffering of beings that I pretend to love. I also want to write a book – mainly because I have an ego and think that if my name is on something in big letters (maybe in gold) then I’ll feel better about myself. So I thought about fusing the two together – what happens if I write a book about helping animals?
Where has the project taken you and how do you feel about it now?
It’s taken me through Europe, around Asia, up hills and into dark woods and then into the bowels of my bank account. People have been very generous to donate but it’s though I’ve been standing over a shredding machine attached to a vacuum cleaner attached to my wallet. Nevertheless its been incredibly transformative – the pain that humans inflict on animals is something that I’ll never be able to let go of – in my photography, writing and day to day life. I’m grappling with the painful transition to veganism now.
You’re almost at the end of your 365 days – are you surprised by what you’ve discovered?
What has happened is both enlightening and terrifying, and in the process I think my ego has settled down a little – the sheer amount of suffering that humans inflict on suffering is awful and humbling. In the farming world alone we dispose of 60 billion of the poor miserable bastards.
What do you want people to take away from A Year to Help?
I’m certainly not going to tell anyone how to live their life but I think it’s important to at least be aware of how your food is being treated and where it’s coming from.
Do you feel like you’ve made a difference?
Given that 60 billion animals have died in farming alone in the last year that makes my ‘rescue’ number (in the hundreds if you include snails) painfully non-existent. I have been pissing into such a strong wind that I have positively soaked trousers. But these numbers are just a way in to the journey of compassion – they don’t measure the true effects. I hope one of the measures will be how many other people read my words.
What would you say to people that want to follow their passions but don’t know how?
I would say there is a good reason why you might be scared or not know how to follow your heart. It’s hard and it’s scary. A lot of people say ‘Just go for it, follow your heart’ but you might lose money and for a while, your sense of direction. You might need to work very hard, row with your partner and you might piss into a very strong wind. But there is a chance, a chance, you might recover some pieces of your heart that you lost along the way through work, relationships or fear and recovering some of those will make up for everything else that you sacrifice. Ultimately there is nothing more important. Go piss in the wind.
Well, you heard him – GO PISS!
And as if he’s not busy enough saving loads of animals, Martin is also launching Hoxton Mini-Press, a new independent publishing company making quirky art books all about East London. Check out their Kickstarter campaign here.
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