MY FRIEND’S PARENTS were supposed to drive me to school, but they were running late, so I walked over to their house and rang the doorbell. Behind a large wooden gate, the family’s Briard began to bark, and then the shaggy herding dog started to snarl and scratch at the wood, trying to get to me from underneath the gate. I was terrified. My friend’s youngest sister came out of the house, unlatched the gate carefully, and propped it open slightly to say “hi” and apologize for her parents’ tardiness, and when she did the dog forced his muzzle through the opening and jumped on top of me.
For a split second, he looked like a bear standing on his back paws, looming over me, and at that moment I thought I was going to die. I fell under the full weight of the dog and rolled into the tightest ball I could, hiding under my heavy backpack. The adults ran outside and managed to pull their dog off, but I was left with multiple superficial wounds. Before that day, animals – and dogs especially – had been my safe space, but that incident robbed me of the safest, purest friendship I had ever known.
Growing up in Lyon, France, my family had a pair of cheeky Ger-man shorthaired pointers, sisters named Arpege and Ardoise. The one time when we took the girls on a hunting trip with a few of our relatives, Arpege and Ardoise cried and hid as guns fired and birds fell in the distance; I shared their feelings about the cruel and grotesque spectacle. They were far more comfortable at home, where their favorite activities included chasing lizards, lounging in the sun, sneaking into our beds when we were away, and digging holes under the fence so they could enjoy a sweet escape into our village.
When I was 10 years old I got my first camera, a pink Kodak Ektralite, and I became obsessed with portraiture. As a child I felt unloved and lonely, as if my being born had been a terrible mistake. My family was bathed in trauma, and I was sensitive to it all, so with no comforting hugs available, photography became a tool with which I could create intimacy from a distance. Using zoom lenses, I captured close-ups of family faces, trying to decipher the mysteries behind the absent smiles and the preoccupied eyes. Already, my work explored notions of darkness and dignity.
Animals became my safe space. With them, there was no misunderstanding. There was just pure, unencumbered friendship. I was one of those kids who, when asked, said I wanted to become a veterinarian — until my mother explained, in a dramatic shortcut, that my job would consist of euthanizing sick animals. Instead, I developed my relationship with animals through art, and by collecting all sorts of unusual pets, from mice to snails. I would photograph our dogs, my beloved bunny, and my visits to the local zoo, where, through clever crops and judicious zooms, I erased the cages, opened up the skies, and created the illusion that the captive animals were free.
After I was attacked by my friend’s dog, an element of danger was introduced into my beautiful relationship with dogs: the irresponsible owner. It was very clear to me humans were to blame. I was convinced of the dog’s innocence, even though I saw him as a beast. He’d just done what he thought he was supposed to do, a guarding behavior encouraged for years. Still, whenever a large dog approached me, I became over-whelmed by a quiet, but gripping, fear.
In 2010, I moved to New York with my husband-to-be, and due to the cultural and linguistic barriers, I got acquainted with my new life through the lens of my camera, seeking intimacy from a safe distance, just like I did as a child. One day, I entered a vet clinic and asked if I could photograph the interactions between the doctors and the animals. It took some convincing, but slowly I was granted full access. I met an animal rescuer at the vet clinic and joined her on a rescue mission in Puerto Rico. I wanted to document the rescue process and celebrate happy adoption stories, but my introduction to the world of rescue was a baptism by fire.
The first dog we found died only a few minutes after we found him; Angel took his last breath looking straight into my lens as I clicked the shutter, immortalizing the horror and absurdity of a life dis-carded. I spent the next two years traveling back and forth to Puerto Rico, to feed strays and help save as many dogs as possible, a Sisyphean task which left me exhausted and empty. In parallel, back in New York, I photographed dog fashion shows and dog pageants, in an obsessive quest to rationalize our codependent relationship with dogs. I was split between two worlds: the frantic race to save lives while witnessing the meaningless death of abandoned animals, and the dazzling and somewhat theatrical relationship between “purse” dogs and their stage moms.
My computer was full of photographs of dogs who never made it, and projects that were going nowhere, and I needed to feel like my work wasn’t completely in vain, so I took a break from rescue trips to Puerto Rico and turned my attention to shelters, where I knew the dogs were safe and just needed an extra push to find a loving home. I was stunned by some of the adoption portraits on shelters’ websites: dogs tethered to walls, filthy and visibly terrified. I donated my skills to local shelters, where I could set up a studio for the day to photograph up to 40 dogs in a row.
I embarked on a mission to change the way we perceive shelter dogs and portrayed them as happy, healthy, ready-to-move-in friends. I sought to empower these dogs, to give them their dignity back at a moment when everything was in shambles in their lives. In 2013, I shot the project that would change my life: Wet Dog. Vulnerable, pleading, at the mercy of humans, Wet Dog was a touching and hilarious compilation of miserable dogs at bath time. The portraits took the internet by storm, and soon I had a book deal, received awards, and earned international recognition.
Emboldened by the success of Wet Dog, the following year I started a new project with pit bulls, the most euthanized dogs in the U.S.—by the hundreds of thousands every year. There were so many pitties languishing in the shelters, seen as vicious, not to be trusted, dangerous. At first when the shelter staff brought a pit bull in front of my camera, I tensed up, transported back to that morning behind the large wooden gate, but the dogs I met were so wholesome and gentle. There was a disconnect between what I experienced at the shelter and the gnarly image of pit bulls I had in my mind, and it was time I faced my fears.
I came up with the silliest idea to help undo the breed’s stigma: crowning shelter pit bulls with flower wreaths. It was a gamble — this idea of placing headpieces on dogs I’d never met before, dogs who had every reason to distrust me — and on the first shoot, I nearly fell over when I realized I had to wrap my hands around their heads, our faces only a few inches apart. But I was driven by the irresistible call of my muses, and I wondered: if those flowery portraits were the only images we knew of pit bulls, would we still be afraid, and would we still kill them senselessly?
I never anticipated Pit Bull Flower Power would take off the way it did; millions of likes, shares, and comments propelled the series worldwide, and me into the role of a pit bull advocate. Pleas from shelters poured in, and I embraced the journey as best I could. Six years in, I have photo-graphed about 450 shelter pit bulls in flower crowns all over America and abroad. Many of them found homes thanks to their portraits, sometimes after years of wasting away in a cage. The series has made me who I was born to be: an artist and an animal advocate.
I finally went back to Puerto Rico in 2016, and at the worst animal control facility I’ve ever stepped foot in, I found MacLovin. Nothing could have prepared me for the harrowing experience — the smells, the screams of agony, the palpable fear, death all around — but in the middle of the horror, my soul dog: a small brindle sausage who was scheduled for euthanasia because, “Nobody will want him, he just looks like any other street dog.” When I looked into the puppy’s eyes, I could swear that MacLovin and I already knew each other.
Mac is the sweetest, gentlest dog. Hypervigilant, hypersensitive, he is afraid of everything, from wobbly toddlers to flying plastic bags, to anything brushing against his tail. It’s OK, because I am afraid too. In a way, MacLovin and I have both been violated by each other’s species: The Briard that jumped on me, the animal control officers that handled Mac — we were all unwilling participants in this complex construct called the human world. Together, Mac and I are rebuilding our safe spaces, one cuddle at a time.
To learn more about Sophie Gamand, visit sophiegamand.com
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