"I wanted to create a very unexpected portrayal of these dogs. Flowers are fragile and ephemeral. They resonate with us, reminding us that life is fleeting and precious. I wanted people to see pit bulls the same way, for they are living creatures who deserve more than the way we treat them."
Sophie Gamand has created an artistic outlet for her passion for animals. With a huge social media following that supports her animal portraiture and advocacy, Sophie has found thousands of kindred artistic spirits around the world. I had the pleasure to talk to Sophie about her “Flower Power: Pit Bulls of the Revolution” photography series. Sophie’s generous and informative interview gives us an insight into her photography process and our own relationship with man’s best friend.
Could you tell us about how you started taking flower crown photographs of dogs?
This series is called “Flower Power: Pit Bulls of the Revolution,” and it features pit bulls from shelters (oh, and one kitten because he was extra special). I started photographing dogs in 2010, having moved to New York. I was made aware of the shelter situation here, how many animals are abandoned each year in America, how many are euthanized (1.2 million dogs!). So naturally I started volunteering photography in shelters, to help promote the animals that were up for adoption. I was mauled by a large dog as a teenager and it left me with a certain uneasiness around large energetic dogs. At the shelter, I was sometimes confronted to pit bulls who would jump at me, looking scary. I was very biased against them. I had heard all the horror stories in the media, I definitively did not think these dogs should be allowed around humans. But working so closely with rescue groups and shelters, I was confronted to these feelings a lot, first, because American shelters are full of pit bulls. It’s the number one dog here. Second, because most rescuers I met worked with pit bulls on a daily basis, and all of them were unanimous: pit bulls are just like any other dog. Not more dangerous. I decided it was time for me to confront my apprehensions and find out my truth about pit bulls. The best way I knew how was to create a series involving pit bulls. One night I had the idea of putting flower crowns on them. I wanted to challenge myself, I wanted to create a very unexpected portrayal of these dogs. Flowers are fragile and ephemeral. They resonate with us, reminding us that life is fleeting and precious. I wanted people to see pit bulls the same way, for they are living creatures who deserve more than the way we treat them. Did you know that we euthanize 1 million pit bulls in the U.S. alone every year? Around the world, they suffer similar fate, and terrible abuse. In my country, France, they are banned. I find the way we treat pit bulls fascinating. We created them, after all. Their downfall is to be exactly what we wanted them to be: loyal and powerful. It speaks volume on our relationship to nature and our environment.
Could you tell us a bit about your background, how did you end up being a photographer?
Although I use photography as a medium, I don’t really consider myself a photographer. I was always an artist, or at least, I always needed to create and express myself in some artistic ways. I tried everything: painting, poetry, singing opera, making jewelry, etc. But photography is what stuck with me and where I feel comfortable now. I started taking photos when I was about 10. I stopped for a while, when I was studying law (you know, just to get a SERIOUS job!). I picked up a digital camera in 2007 and the endless possibilities blew my mind! Photography has become my main means of expression since 2010. With “Flower Power” I wanted to go back to creating more than digital images. I needed to create something in 3D, glue things together. Making the flower crowns myself was a pretext to go back to a more “manual” approach to art.
What’s your favorite part about working with animals? What’s the most challenging?
It’s awesome, and it’s exhausting. Sometimes after a shoot I wonder how much longer I can do this. It’s physically very demanding, and mentally too, as you need a lot of patience. But then I look at the photos I got, the photos that were given to me by the dogs, and it all makes sense. They are so open, innocent, raw. It’s just wonderful to work with them. It can definitively be challenging but right now, I’d say it feels like the best job in the world. What I love about working with animals is that in a way you have to give up a lot of the control. For someone like me, who constantly worries about every little thing in life, it feels good to dive in the moment and let some of the magic happen. There is of course a lot of direction I am giving to the dogs, but it’s definitively a team work between them, the handler and myself.
Do you have dogs yourself?
I actually don’t have any pet. I grew up around them though. I work with dogs all the time, and it just makes it easier for me not to have one. Also I feel like it’s a little sad to have a dog in the city, if you can’t offer them weekends in the country! The dogs I grew up with were free. They had a garden, they had their own life. I can’t imagine having a dog here that will mostly know concrete ground and life on a leash. But I recently moved to a pet-friendly apartment, and I cannot wait to be fostering for rescue groups. That, I could definitively do! Fostering is an amazing gift. It frees one space at the shelter, or allows rescue groups to rescue one more animal. You also get to teach the dog all the good stuff in life. I spent almost 2 years volunteering in Puerto Rico with a dog rescue group. It taught me a lot. The best part was to rescue a scared, abused dog, and show them, with time and lots of love (and treats), that not all humans are bad. For someone like me who used to think people were horrible beings, it’s a nice exercise to embrace what humanity does best: compassion towards all beings. Dogs teach us a lot about our own humanity.
What’s the winning factors in a pet portrait for you?
I believe that a good photograph should be powerful, meaning it should evoke a strong emotion. It should also technically be really good (light, composition, etc). With dogs, I guess most of my work is very anthropomorphic. I never wanted to photograph dogs like animals. I wanted to photograph them like humans. I figured, since we have lived so closely for the past millennia (and since dogs were created and shaped by humans through artificial selection), why try and hide their most humane traits? My Wet Dog book, which is coming out on October 13th (pre-order on Amazon), is about that: the most vulnerable, poignant moment of a dog’s routine, bath-time, allowing me to capture the most human expressions dogs have.
What do you think the biggest misconceptions people have about dogs?
There are so many misconceptions about dogs! In New York, many dogs have replaced friends, spouses, they often become the center of people’s lives. Although dogs adapt very well to anything you ask of them (wearing clothes, peeing on a pad all their lives, etc), they are still living beings that have their own needs (socialization, training, stimulation). Because dogs are so flexible and adapt easily, people tend to forget about their needs, which leads to lots of problems in the city. So many dogs are taking anti-depressants in New York. It’s mind-blowing. A dog is a dog. It needs to play and smell things, and run, catch a ball, meet other doggy-friends…
When it comes to pit bulls it’s even worse because people think they are dangerous, agressive dogs. The truth is, because we are afraid of pit bulls, they do attract bad dog owners very often. Owners that want that “scary-looking dog,” people who want a guarding dog that they will chain in their yard for the rest of its life. Those are the dogs that are involved in bite accidents. They are under-socialized, tethered, un-neutered, which makes them more territorial and prone to aggressions. Most people have no idea how to read dogs’ language, and it leads to accidents or serious issues. Each time I read about a bite accident involving any dog, but especially pit bulls, the article always states there was no sign before the accident, the dog was very sweet and adjusted, and when you dig a little more, the owner or the neighbor tells the journalist, “We had called the cops about that dog before,” or “The dog had been chasing kids in the street and scared them”. Those are important signs! Even before bite accidents, dogs can develop lots of issues because of the way we treat them. Then the people drop them at the shelter (or worse) when they feel the problem is getting out of hand. The truth is, people are always the issue, when it comes to dogs. We created them, we make them what they are. We should feel responsible for their well-being and we should educate ourselves into good dog-ownership. Getting a dog is a privilege and a responsibility. It’s not just something you do for Christmas because the puppy looked cute.
How are you involved in animal advocacy?
I photograph dogs at shelters and for rescue groups, to help them get adopted. That means I take cute portraits that these groups can then use the promote the dogs. I have also developed a large following on social media (48K on Instagram) which allows me to promote the dogs to a different audience. I have actually gotten a few dogs adopted directly and it’s an awesome feeling! Besides those “shelter shoots” as I call them, I create campaigns. The most famous and most important one being “Flower Power.” All the dogs featured in that series are from shelters and were available for adoption when I took the pictures. Some of them still are. The series is to help them get homes, but also, in a more general way, to change the way we look at pit bulls. Most of my Instagram followers follow me because of this Flower Power project (#PitBullFlowerPower). It allows me to spread a positive message of love and acceptance towards these dogs. And most of all, I promote animal adoption (as opposed to buying a puppy in a store) through my photos. I have photographed over 600 shelter dogs since I started working with shelters a couple of years back. I want to portray them in a very elegant, fun, sexy way. I was tired of seeing sad shelter photos. I think adoption should be happy event, the dogs’ personality should be celebrated in gorgeous photos. People looking to adopt are hoping to find their best friend. It’s important, and the photos should help make that connection.