Some people love photographing dogs. Others accidentally find themselves single-handedly changing perceptions about one of the world’s most misunderstood breeds with some flowers and a camera.
If you haven’t seen Sophie Gamand’s Flower Power: Pit Bulls of the Revolution, you must have been stranded on a deserted island with only your dog for company, because it is everywhere.
The French, New York based photographer has been photographing dogs as a full time career since 2010, but it wasn’t until her hilarious, award-winning Wet Dog series went viral earlier this year that the world started to notice.
Having spent hours with a number of New York rescue charities, capturing their adoptable dogs in a better light, (just like that perfect dating profile picture, a great shot of a rescue dog can make all the difference!), Sophie was shocked by the sheer number of pit bulls in these places and the rate at which they are sadly being euthanised.
Battling her own preconceptions about the breed, she wanted to explore their softer side. So, armed with an array of floral crowns, she adorned these usually tough-looking rescue dogs with pretty garlands and set them against a romantic backdrop – and BOOM! The response has been astounding.
ST: What inspired you to start photographing dogs?
SG: It all started when I moved to New York from Europe and discovered all the things people do with their dogs this inspiring city. Women walking their dogs in strollers, groomers painting poodles in purple or pink, people dedicating their life to rescuing abandoned and abused dogs, and designers creating high fashion for dogs worth thousands of dollars. The full spectrum of the relationship we have with dogs was within my reach. If you think it is crazy, New York probably has it!
ST: How would you describe your work?
SG: My work is about exploring the contemporary dynamics that exist in the relationship between dogs and people. The way we treat dogs, integrating them in our lifestyle (sometimes our lives revolving around our dogs), says a lot about our own sense of solitude and the difficulties we have creating meaningful relationships with our peers, especially in big, anonymous cities like New York.
ST: In your latest series Flower Power: Pit Bulls of the Revolution, you adorn pit bulls with floral crowns to show them in a softer light – do you think many of the beliefs about pit bulls are unfounded?
SG: I think it does not make sense to judge an entire group of dogs for their looks. We should judge each dog for its individuality and unique temperament. I created this different look for them, in an attempt to question our relationship to pit bulls and how we view them.
ST: Why is it so important to change perceptions?
SG: It is our responsibility to understand pit bulls, especially when it is a matter of life or death. America euthanises upwards 1,000,000 pit bulls every year. They are the most misunderstood dogs, yet a century ago they were America’s war heroes! How did it come to this? Accidents happen but this is the result of uneducated dog owners. Every dog, no matter the breed, can bite under the wrong circumstances.
ST: Why do pit bulls get such a bad rap?
SG: Pit bulls are powerful dogs – they are terriers after all, but they are often misused as a sign of social status by people who encourage them to be tough, or they do not get the care they need in terms of exercise and strong leadership from their owner. Power does not mean violence, but power can turn into violence if you do not use appropriate training and provide your dog with the right care. For example, an un-neutered male will be more prone to aggression because it will become territorial. So the answer is easy – neuter your dog! Most pit bull attacks reported by the media were by un-neutered males.
ST: You’ve said that you had negative views of pit bulls before the project – why did you decide to work with them?
SG: I volunteer a lot of photography time in shelters and with rescue groups and I kept hearing how amazing pit bulls are and how they can make a great addition to the family. I would see pit bulls with kids and I would feel uneasy. One day I saw two stray pit bulls attack another dog in Puerto Rico. I was volunteering with a rescue group there. I had to physically break the fight, pulling the pit bulls by the scruff of their neck – something I would not recommend anyone do! I knew these dogs and I had fed them before. They were miserable looking, covered in mange and fleas, limping from car injuries, abused by their owners. The dogs they attacked did not suffer any injury. Instead of feeding my apprehensions towards pit bulls, it made me question them. These dogs clearly did not get the care they deserved and were allowed to roam free by their irresponsible owner. Was it their fault? I decided to confront my fears as I wanted to try and see what pit bull lovers see in them. The best way I knew how was to create a photo series and work with shelter pit bulls.
ST: Has it been a positive experience?
It has been a great experience. Every dog is different. The rescue groups I work with are very responsible and they know how to correctly assess their dogs. Every dog has their own strength and challenges. It is about pairing each dog with the best owner possible for them, and empowering owners to treat their dogs the way they need to be treated – with care, empathy and leadership.
ST: Do you think Flower Power Pit Bulls can change other people’s perceptions about the breed?
SG: I received a lot of messages from people who thanked me for portraying pit bulls the way they had always seen them. This is a long term project, I don’t think it will change mentalities right away, but I think the more people are exposed to projects like this, the more we can change mentalities in the long-run. This is about opening people’s minds. I encourage them to go volunteer at shelters and see pit bulls for themselves. Learn to understand these dogs and see their strength and their weaknesses and work with them.
We have turned the series into a Flower Power Pit Bulls 2015 calendar and I received a picture from someone who had taken it apart and covered a wall with the photos. The woman told me: “My daughter said she wanted to wake up with these faces every morning”. We are raising breed ambassadors!
ST: Have many of the Pit Bulls you featured been adopted?
SG: So far five have been adopted. Pit bulls are very difficult to adopt out because of the high number of pit bulls available in New York (most adoptable dogs are pit bulls), due to bans in many residential buildings, and the stigma attached to owning a pit bull.
ST: Has the series increased interest in adopting pit bulls from shelters?
SG: I recently photographed 25 more pit bulls at a municipal shelter that has 140 dogs in their care. They called me for help as some of their dogs have been at the shelter for over two years, with little to no interest. That was the case of Brownie, an adorable little brown pit with soulful eyes. She has spent over two years there and is deteriorating. She is a great dog though and the shelter cannot fathom why she is not getting more applications. Since her Flower Power portrait came out, she has gotten a lot of attention online and received many applications and has spent the past days meeting potential adopters. It will be a slow process for all the dog models to be adopted, and my dream would be for all of them to find homes by Christmas, but it is very unlikely…
ST: Your award-winning Wet Dog Series has become a sensation! Did you anticipate how popular it would be?
SG: I never anticipated how popular Wet Dog was going to be. When I did the series, I was in a difficult place, creatively. I felt like my work was not going anywhere, I was struggling to make a living with my art yet I was working all the time (the curse of being an artist!). I was tired. I decided to give it one more push. I let go of all my frustrations and found myself in a fun, light place again – not wanting to overthink a project but just set up and photograph what comes my way.
ST: What gave you the idea to photograph dogs at bath time?
SG: I approached Ruben, a groomer I had met previously and asked if I could come and photograph his work. My initial idea was to photograph before and after photos of the cuts (that is my Metamorphosis series), but as soon as I saw him bathe dogs. I could not take my eyes off them.Wet Dog came to me by surprise, and it completely changed my life.
ST: Some of the dog’s expressions are priceless – were you finding it hard not to laugh!?
SG: I was laughing the whole way, and also feeling incredibly guilty and lots of empathy for these dogs. The things people put dogs through! Bath time and grooming are important parts of the health routine for a dog. That’s how it is. When dogs accepted our partnership with them, they signed for all these things, but there is nothing more miserable than a wet dog, and it is incredibly cute, heartbreaking and funny at the same time. Their expressions are also a testimony to how close they have grown to us. Are they mimicking our expressions in an attempt to communicate with us better, and pull our heart strings? Scientific studies show that dogs have learned to appeal to our nurturing nature and parenting desires. These faces sometimes make me feel like a bad mom!
ST: How do you get the dogs to pose so perfectly? Can you share any tips or tricks?
SG: It’s a question I get a lot and I still haven’t found a good answer. I guess it’s one of my talents? I try to always work with dogs sitting because it gives them a long neck and more elegance to their posture. It is also a great way to show them who is the boss on my set! Once the dog understand their job, and I feel their energy is calm, I attract their attention with little noises. That gives me the faces I need. I would say being a dog photographer requires similar skills than a dog trainer or a dog rescuer – you have to feel confident and show the dog that you are in control. A photoshoot is a great bonding experience.
ST: In your Striking Paws charity work, you help shelters by photographing their dogs. What difference can a good photo make?
SG: Good photos make a world of difference. Think of it as a marketing tool – the photo is the first thing potential adopters will see. Those eyes are the thing that will get adopters through the shelter door. Too many shelters underestimate the importance of good images, or cannot or do not want to put the time and effort into it. It is a big mistake. I have many stories of dogs I photographed who were getting no attention from potential adopters and who got adopted after people saw the picture and fell in love with them.
ST: Would you recommend volunteering to other dog loving photographers?
SG: Volunteering with rescue groups and at shelters is a fantastic way to improve your skills and refine your vision as an artist but it has been a difficult journey. For months, sometimes years, I tried volunteering in some places and would get brushed away or not get any answers. Now shelters are the ones calling me because they know my work. The Sato Project (a rescue group rescuing dogs in Puerto Rico) was the first group to trust me and thanks to them I was able to grow as a photographer as well.
ST: Any tips for other photographers working with shelters?
SG: When I work at a shelter I treat it like a military operation. I do not waste time (mine or the shelter’s). I set up and the staff brings the dogs one after the other so a good handler is key. I don’t spend time snuggling with puppies. That way, in a couple of hours I can photograph lots of dogs (my personal record is 33 dogs in four hours).
ST: Do you have a dogs of your own?
SG: I do not at the moment but I grew up with dogs and a bunny and many other pets, including snails! I like not having a dog right now because it keeps the dog a mystery in a way. Each time I photograph a dog it feels new and different.
ST: What’s next for Sophie Gamand?
SG: I am about to release a new series on hairless dogs and I just finished my Wet Dog book so I need a little break! As I was shooting Wet Dog, my Flower Power series went viral, so I have not had a chance to catch my breath for about a year. I would love to go back to Puerto Rico to continue my Dead Dog Beach series and I also want to travel to other countries to document stray dog populations.
You can purchase Sophie’s Pit Bull Flower Power Calendar now at lulu.com, with proceeds going to the New York rescues she’s working with. Her Wet Dog book will be available in the US from Autumn 2015. See more of her work at sophiegamand.com and her charity work at strikingpaws.com.