Like many of us, French photographer Sophie Gamand was an introvert. She found it easier to interact with dogs than with strangers. But unlike many of us, her relationship with dogs was taken to the next level when she pushed open the vet clinic’s door in New York in 2010 — what she opened was also the door of opportunity to reflect on situations of dogs who lived and shaped by humans through art. Sophie’s photography subjects are at times fun and joyful, such as the flowery pit bulls in Pit Bull Flower Power, while some are at times confused and worried, such as those in Wet Dog and At The Vet. Of course, we might never find out how our four-legged buddies truly think about us as long as we are still seeing things through our human-centred lens, but thanks to Sophie and her artworks, we find a way to foster our relationship with dogs humbly, and be reminded that they need a little more love as much as we do.
How did you become a photographer and decide to devote yourself to the welfare of dogs with your creativity?
I moved to New York in 2010 and all I had was my camera. Until then, photography was a sort of hobby. I ventured in the street of New York with my camera, and soon realized I was drawn to dogs. It was my safe place. Interacting with strangers was harder, I was pretty introvert. One day, I pushed the door of a vet clinic (where I shot At The Vet), and that’s where everything took shape. I became determined to explore our relationship with dogs, especially in a large city like NYC. I also discovered the world of rescue and decided to see if I could help. I didn’t have money to donate, so instead I started donating photos. It grew exponentially from there, as more and more shelters asked for my help, in NYC then other states, and every countries around the world. It became a full-time career. It started very organically but I feel very much at home now. I have always wanted to speak for the voiceless, and carry the stories that mattered. The fact that I can merge art with my desire to help others is perfect.
You’ve travelled to different places and taken portraits of our beautiful furry buddies. Can you tell us a bit more about your interactions with the dogs on-set? How do you get them ready and make them shine?
It depends on the project. Most of my shoots happen at animal shelters. So I don’t prepare the dogs at all. I set up a small studio and then the staff brings me the dogs that have more difficulties getting adopted. I never know who I am going to get. Every dog is different though. Some need to sniff around, some pose right away. I adapt to each one. When it’s time for the photo, I communicate with them through words, sounds, my hands, treats, etc… I find what they respond to, and we work with that.
You mentioned that you “photograph dogs to better understand humans”. Is there any special canine friend you’ve made that allows you to understand yourself better?
I have learned a lot about humanity — and I am still uncovering a lot — by observing how we treat dogs. Many people think saving a life at all cost is more important than anything else. But I have seen dogs who had been “saved”, only to be left in a cage for the next 10 years. Is that really saving? Humans look at the world through their distorted prism. It’s hard for us to get outside of ourselves and truly consider the actual needs of the animals around us. It’s a humbling experience. There are dogs that I believe didn’t need our saving. And that should be ok too. And on a personal level, getting my own dog, MacLovin, was a very intense experience. I found him in a horrible shelter in Puerto Rico. So many dogs around him were dead or dying. He looked so defeated. Having him with me made me reflect on motherhood. I grew up with a mother who was very cold and didn’t want to hug us or be a reassuring figure. She was chaotic and scary. My dog is afraid of everything, and he gets scared very easily. With him, I have to be so careful with the energy I project. And when he wants a snuggle, which is often, to be held and reassured, even if I am tired or stressed or bothered, I try to give him that few seconds he needs. And it made me think about everything I didn’t get as a child, and how easy it would have been for my own mother to give me these things.
Have you had a fun encounter with dogs when travelling?
Last year, I went to Mexico for a well-deserved vacation. I had never been there and I promised my husband I would try and relax. But as soon as I booked the flights, I searched for a local rescue and found one! I offered to go visit them. It was just a man saving dogs from horrible situations. And there, in the middle of the jungle, in his rescue compound, he had the sweetest, most heart-breaking little pit bull girl. She was paralyzed and was dragging her legs on the difficult jungle terrain. I knew nobody would adopt her there. So I offered to help. Long story short, she flew to New York where I fostered her and found her a home in Ohio. She is very happy and loved now! It was my first time, in all these years taking photos for rescues, that I organize a transfer like this, and got so personally involved. Usually I try to stay a fly on the wall, observing without taking part too much. Her name was Frida and I built a special flower crown for her, as part of my Pit Bull Flower Power project. It’s my favorite portrait.
What’s your beloved project/book/tv show/movie featuring animals?
I don’t really follow animal stuff. I don’t even see myself as a “dog lover”. I enjoy the work of William Wegman. He was a big influence for my work, and Jill Greenberg’s monkeys and bear photos. But right now, my favorite book is my own (with the risk of sounding like I am self-serving! haha), Pit Bull Flower Power! Because it took me 4 years to put together, and it’s such a special book. It shares many stories of pit bulls on their way home, it’s a beautiful collection of my work, and I will treasure it forever.
Can you tell us three essential items of your life with an animal theme?
I love the products I have created around my work, and the opportunity to sell merchandise with my work. It helps me support a lot of rescues, and continue my work. So my items would be: a tote bag, my Frida ring (which I designed with a local jeweler) and my trusted zipped pouches where I can put treats, and all the little things I need during my shoots.
You can now support Sophie and her work with rescues via her websites and www.patreon.com/sophiegamand
All images provided by Sophie Gamand