You used to be editor of AZART Photographie. How did you make the professional switch to becoming a photographer?
I was a photographer before I created my photo magazine, in 2008. The magazine was called AZART Photographie. It was a French photo magazine, content based. I interviewed about 80 photographers in the course of 5 years: emerging talents, established masters of photography, all sorts of artists. I created the magazine because I felt like there was a void in the contemporary photography landscape. I loved strong, surprising, exciting, skilled imagery, but I felt like the galleries and museums were always showing the same type of photography. I wanted to give exposure to artists I felt strongly about. With each interview, my goal was to discover something else, another level of reading, in the artist’s work. Something maybe even the artist had not thought about. I put much care and dedication in each article.
But while I interviewed all these wonderful artists, I lost the drive for my own art. It seemed these artists were doing so well, and much better than I could ever do. In 2010 I moved to New York. I wanted to try out documentary photography and I ventured in a vet clinic and asked if I could photograph their work. The first day, I photographed an adorable blue-eyed dog peeking from behind a wall. He looked out of place and worried. He looked like a little boy at the doctor’s office. Right there and then, I became obsessed with dogs in the city and all the things people do with them. After a couple of years photographing dogs, I became very involved with dog rescue and decided to stop my magazine.
How did Wet Dogs come about?
With Wet Dogs, at first I wanted to photograph grooming and explore the visual qualities of the dogs. My idea was to demonstrate how a dog could get a different cut and look dramatically different (see my Metamorphosis project here). I thought it was really interesting, and a sort of metaphor on the dog’s passage from a wild animal to a pampered pet.
So I set up a studio at a groomer’s place (Ruben Santana, in the Bronx). During the process he started bathing the dogs. I loved the way the water played with the fur, the dogs looked very different, and almost like sculptures. But then I noticed their irresistible expressions, and I knew I had something unique and fun. I always want to show the humanity there is in dogs. Photography is a great tool for that because it allows me to capture half a second, the moment their expression is the most poignant. Something I would probably not really see with naked eyes.
I could not imagine myself photographing dogs and not giving back to the dog community. There are so many dogs in need!
My involvement started with The Sato Project early 2012. I met their founder and president, Chrissy Beckles and started traveling to Puerto Rico with her, documenting her work and the fate of the stray dogs on the island. During a year and a half, I traveled about 10 times (see some of the Dead Dog Beach images).
Photographing in this difficult environment, and a poignant subject, has taught me a lot, personally and artistically. The first time I set foot on Dead Dog Beach with Chrissy, in 2012, we rescued a little dog that later died in her arms. I was there, photographing and filming the whole scene. As a photographer, it was a defining moment. Then, being on the beach, in difficult weather conditions, photographing stray dogs, or injured dogs, while trying to gain their trust so we could rescue them, all these things made me a better photographer. I had to work fast, I had to compose with the dog’s trust level and vibe. I was using the flash, too, and shooting with a wide angle lens, so I had to be fairly close to these dogs. I learned how to give off a good, assertive energy, so the dogs would not feel threatened.
Chrissy and I would spend hours sitting on the beach with a piece of chicken in our hand. All that while trying to find a visual language I felt comfortable with. But after a year and a half of this, I realized my computer was full of ghosts. Most of the dogs I would photograph would never make it. It became so difficult to be vested in each dog I photographed, imagine the happy ending, and then come back the next day or month and the dog had died.
At that moment, I begun to question what use my photography had. I decided to take a step back and stop my work in Puerto Rico, at least for a while. Back in New York, I looked for a shelter I could help. I wanted to be able to set up a studio for the day and photograph 10, 20 dogs at a time. Dogs that were safe and awaiting adoption.
Animal Haven gave me a chance and since then I go there about once a month. We work very well together. I also help several other groups occasionally, with cats too, although I have a lot to learn there! I have raised hundreds of dollars at charity events, by setting up a photo booth and photographing guests against donation. The one thing I haven’t been able to do and that upset me considerably is get in touch with the ACC. I want to help with photos of dogs that are on “the death row”. I feel like good photos could make a difference for those. But I have not been able to get an answer from the ACC so far…
Wet Dogs is being made into a book! Tell us how you’re preparing and what you have in store for the viewer.
Transitioning from a photo series to a book is quite an adventure! I always wanted to make books so this is a treat. The original Wet Dog series was shot in one day. It was supposed to be quick and fun and done! Then I got this wonderful book deal with Grand Central Publishing and now I have to create about 150/200 Wet Dog images! It’s really different to work with a specific goal in mind, but a goal that is much bigger than a 10/15 images series. I am trying to keep the spirit of the original series, but at the same time I have to comply with some demands from the publisher and expectation from the readers.
The book will be a fun gift book so it needs to offer more variety in colors, breeds and sizes, expressions, etc. I don’t think I can have an entire book of miserable looking dogs on a grey background! So at this stage, I am in the process of shooting, I try to aim very large so we have tons of images to choose from when putting the book together. One of the challenges is to be able to recreate the energy I had when I shot the original Wet Dog series. I believe if I have fun and love the images, then people will too. So I want to keep it exciting for myself, and try new things. The logistics have also been challenging (like finding spaces and groomers to work with, waterproof colorful backgrounds, etc). I will be shooting more all summer but it is a very slow process as I can only do 7/10 dogs at a time. I cannot wait to have the book in my hands though!
What advice do you have for those who want to photograph animals but don’t know how to get started?
If you are obsessed with something, go for it. If you have been wanting to photograph animals, act on it. There are many ways to get started. The best advice I ever heard was to start with what you have access to.
I remember when I was a teenager I wanted to photograph animals so I worked with our pets (dogs and bunnies) but then I would also spend hours at the zoo. Then once in New York I volunteered photography at a vet clinic for over a year, and with the rescue group for a year and a half. That was a great way to get exposed to lots of pets with different personalities, each coming with their own challenges. Think about what is around you, and the places and people you have access to, and start there. Then if a particular animal or breed or subject interests you, put adds online!
I found some of my favorite subjects by putting adds on Craigslist for example, and now I find most of my models by reaching out on Facebook and social media. If you are a beginner or a rescuers in need of basic tips, I also developed a set of photo tips that are available on my website to empower you to get started!
Sophie Gamand is a French photographer living and working in NYC.