June 14, 2012

5 Why I Hold a Camera: Part V

Parts I, II, III, and IV

There was a list of things that we weren't supposed to photograph.
Unfortunately, I can't remember all of it. I do remember that it included rotted buildings, which I laugh about now that we live in a countryside known for picturesque crumbling stone buildings. 
Goofing-around pictures of friends, alcohol-related images, spanish moss, english ivy, railway trestles...
and dogs.
Well... I love animals, dogs are probably the most accessible animal, and Paul and I adopted Sloan in September 2003- right when I was starting my first official photography-major class. 
So I broke that rule, and terribly. At first.
I couldn't resist my cute puppy, and those images, where I tried to force the cute into artsy and failed in both departments, are atrocious. 
Now, my candid shots of my little princess? They're the most adorable in the world. 

However, by adopting Sloan and becoming a part of the sub-culture of dog-people, I discovered a purpose for my pent-up need to be an activist: animal welfare, including spay/neuter encouragement, adoption, and awareness of the stray dog issues that plight the Southeast in particular.

I set my mind to changing the world. Or at least opening some eyes.
I wanted to photograph the dogs that were euthanized at our local shelters due to overcrowding.
I knew this would be a heart wrenching activity, but I also knew I wanted to show the faces of these silent victims to the world. I wanted people to see my images and think how much that dog looked like their dog growing up, or how cuddly and non-mangy that other dog looked- not at all what an unwanted dog is "supposed" to look like.
What I didn't take into account was the red tape and bureaucracy I would encounter.
I spent the better part of a month calling, visiting, emailing, and politely harassing the shelters in five different counties, to no avail. One county actually sent a low-level district attorney to very kindly explain to me why I wouldn't be allowed to proceed with my project. 
(I made it very clear that I was not a protester, and in no way held the animal control officers as "killers"- I knew that most of them had last-minute rescues at home themselves, and many "volunteered" at their same place of employment during their free time, to try and give these unwanted animals the attention they desperately craved. I was not there to cast blame on an individual, but to show society at large the cost of our collective negligence.)
One last county's animal control director was set to let me in, and even seemed encouraged by my purpose and intention, but I received a morning-of email and phone call informing me that a higher-up had stepped in opposing me, after having been contacted by another county's official.
I was frustrated, angry, and hurt.
And my project was due.
I did the next best thing, and turned to actors- amateur, yes, but quite capable.
I showed up at my friends' homes in the late night/early morning hours, when their dogs would be groggy, exhausted, and compliant, and I photographed them.
I carefully explained this in my artist's statement, which my professor accepted.
What I didn't realize until I printed my final images was that each and every one of these dogs was adopted or rescued- meaning that my friends were possibly all that prevented them from becoming the unwanted dogs I'd intended to photograph.

By the time I got to Advanced Photography, which was our last class before our Exit (or thesis) class, I was committed to the dogs.  I was taking Sloan to the dog park in town every afternoon and some of my closest friends were the humans of her closest friends.  Watching these human-and-dog relationships, I realized that they weren't that different from a human-and-human companionship- and I decided to explore this.  We had a visiting instructor that semester, who was actually a graduate of the program herself.  Not only did she support me, but my classmates did, too- even when I second and third guessed myself.  I spent afternoons, evenings, and sometimes whole days with these pairs, and gave each person a print as a thank you for letting me into their space- and then demanding they forget I was there.

Yes, that's my Sloanie. She proved to be one of the hardest for me to photograph, as she was so used to engaging with my camera. This image ended up being one of the best-received during my department review, however, because of that tangible connection.

I spent the summer before my Exit class trying out different ideas, shooting rolls and rolls of film, and then collapsing at the dog park. There, my frustrations melted away as I became the wallpaper, the observer to this fringe society.  As I began to pay attention to these dogs, these creatures that masqueraded so well as part of our human world, I realized that here, in their land, I was the foreigner. I was welcomed, but at a distance; trusted, but not allowed to interact. (Well, other than throwing tennis balls and filling the water bucket.)  They were a society all to their own.
We had the department chair as our professor that semester- Stephen Scheer, a brilliant photographer with an enviable vita.  When I gave my project proposal, Stephen was skeptical.  However, as I worked that semester, he reviewed dozens of contact sheets with me, provided expert technical advice, and was an invaluable consultant.  His discerning eye helped keep me away from the cute clich√© and kept me focused on maintaining the disconnect I needed to properly approach my subject.
As we hung our show, nine exhausted, sleep-deprived, bare-souled individuals, Stephen worked alongside us, measuring walls, moving nails, and even caught a typo I had. 
After I hung my last frame, we stepped back and looked it over.
He commented, "I wasn't sure you could do it. But you proved me wrong."
I got an A.

I chose to print and frame my artist's statement along with my final images.  I wanted the viewers to see it as a societal study; humanist photography, but of animals.  I wanted them to look beyond "man's best friend" and see the relationships and interactions as comparable to the ones we experience with other humans on a daily basis.

*These images are just parts of their series; there are more to each.

While we are done with my back-story, I've got (what I hope is) a treat in for you next Thursday-
so stick around!


  1. these pictures are beautiful!
    you capture the emotion in the relationship so well.

  2. Now THESE are my favourite, favourite, favourite pics.
    Do you need some equine models?! We have about 15 willing volunteers!

  3. Wow these pictures are stunning! You are so talented. Glad I found your blog :)

  4. Gesci, this is definitely my favorite post in this series of yours...the story you shared and the photographs. I can see what you mean about that photo of Sloan being held too. Really emotional.

  5. I absolutely love this post. This says so much about who you are, what your values are, and the talent you hold. Bravo!


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