Review: Traer Scott: Shelter Dogs Photobook

Review: Scott, T., Shelter Dogs (Merrell Publishers Limited, 2006).

Traer Scott created this series of portraits following her work volunteering at an animal shelter. She began taking photos of the dogs for the internet to advertise their availability for adoption. A few months later she took to taking true portraits of these shelter dogs while still impounded. By creating this photobook, and her sequel to it, Traer hoped to draw attention to the plight of shelters across America, who were struggling with the huge numbers of dogs. The exposure of the population to the realities of animal welfare has long been an accepted way to increase adoption rates. ‘Human cultural, socioeconomic and demographic factors … may all affect how he or she perceives and treats animals’ however it is generally assumed that ‘changes can be encouraged through exposure to certain kinds of positive animal-oriented exposure’[1]. Important to this notion however is the positive animal-oriented exposure. Scott also highlights this when discussing both this photobook and the sequel when she writes that ‘an average looking dog who has a flattering photo posted on Facebook might get adopted, whereas a gorgeous dog who is only photographed cowering in a cage will not’[2]. The series of images within this photobook contain a number of similar, significant features that Scott uses in order to create emotive, beautiful pictures, but also to highlight the issue of dog overpopulation. First of all is the actual content of the image. This is displayed in the Shelter Dogs photobook in that the images do not show the cages or kennels these dogs are housed in, for to do so would make them appear wild and in need of containment. This does not encourage adoption. Furthermore, there is no obvious indication of animal abuse or resulting behavioural problems, as again this does not encourage adoption.

Photograph 1

Photograph 1

 

In addition to promoting adoption, this choice of content also helps to go some way in overcoming the first issue at stake here, that of non-intervention in the interests of a good photograph. Sontag in her work On Photography states that to ‘take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a “good” picture), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing – including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune’[3].This would appear to conflict with Scott’s aim for the book, to alleviate the strain on shelters and assist the dogs impounded in finding new homes, as according to Sontag for as long as it takes for her to take the photograph of shelter dogs, Scott is complicit in the crisis of pet overpopulation. However, rather than photographing the abuse or the life trapped in a shelter kennel, Scott is photographing the potential solution, beautiful portraits for adoption advertisements and, in this way, overcomes this issue.

Scott’s images are portraits of these shelter dogs on their own, within which there is no reference to humans, ownership, or any domestic setting. Photograph 2 below shows this very clearly as the entire frame is dedicated to the dogs’ face. One reason behind this may be that humans and their expectations of the dog in the domestic setting are what ultimately lead to a dog being placed in a shelter. Donna Haraway, one of the leading authors in post humanism, particularly in regards to the human animal relationship, would agree with this. She writes ‘the status of pet puts a dog at special risk … the risk of abandonment when human affection wanes, when people’s convenience takes precedence or when the dog fails to deliver on the fantasy of unconditional love’[4]. Therefore by removing humans from the photograph, the animal gains value not as a pet, but as a dog. An image of a dog having been rehomed successfully, in an idyllic domestic setting with his new family, would potentially do well for promoting adoption. However this is not the reality most shelter dogs face, and the ‘need for the real as images transparently faithful to concrete reality and aligned with comforting anthropomorphic beliefs trumps the challenge of accommodating what Haraway calls “the contagions and infections that wound the primary narcissism of those who still dream of human exceptionalism”.[5]’ To display these shelter dogs in a domestic setting would be to pander to human self-importance and hide human blame and responsibility. Photographing the dogs as exactly that, a dog not a pet, enables Scott to make it clear what future owners are adopting, an animal, not a furry child. Haraway feels particularly strong on this issue, writing that ‘to regard a dog as a furry child, even metaphorically, demeans dogs and children – and sets up children to be bitten and dogs to be killed’[6]. Scott frames the dog, focuses on its animalistic features, highlighting this point and giving the dog value for being a dog, not a human’s companion. This was a popular practice during 19th Century Britain, but was restricted to the pedigree dogs of the wealthy upper-class families. By applying this same practice Scott elevates the value of the shelter dog to that of the pampered pedigrees.

photograph 2

Photograph 2

As well as the content, the style of the photograph is also significant. All of the photographs included in this photobook are in black and white. Scott creates these photographs to show the realities of shelter life, to show the raw emotions of the dogs who have been left in these places so detached from domestic life. The lack of colour assists in creating this effect. As Barthes writes ‘I always feel (unimportant what actually occurs) … color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph. For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses)’[7]. Therefore, by using colour in her photography, Scott would have potentially destroyed the naked truth of shelter life; the black and white reflects the bleakness of the dogs’ situation. This dark, bleak effect of this black and white photography is shown very well in photograph 3.

Photograph 3

Photograph 3

Barthes also discusses what he calls ‘the look’ and the importance of it, ‘Oh, if there were only a look, a subject’s look, if only someone in the photographs were looking at me! For the Photograph has this power-which it is increasingly losing, the frontal pose being most often considered archaic nowadays-of looking me straight in the eye’[8]. Scott makes great use of this look in these images.#

photograph 4

Photograph 4

Photograph 5

Photograph 5

In Scott’s photographs the eyes are positioned in two main ways. The first, the eyes are looking straight out at the camera, or perhaps more importantly the observer, as shown in Photograph 4. This creates a gaze that is hard to turn away from, an almost interrogative stare. This is particularly important if the gaze is viewed as going through the camera. Instead, the dog is questioning the observer, Can’t you be the one to help? Or contrastingly, was it you who put me in here? How could you? The second variety depicts the eyes facing towards the camera, but looking slightly upwards, as shown in Photograph 5. Here it is unknown exactly what the dog is looking up at, potentially it could represent the look of a dog up towards its owner. Overall this creates an impression of strength and defiance despite their current situation, compared to a downcast stare towards the ground. Scott comments on this herself noting the ‘intense emotion, dignity and sometimes humor that I saw in each face despite the circumstances in which they were forced to live’[9]. Importantly though there is nothing in front of him, rather ‘he retains within himself his love and his fear: that is the Look’[10]. The focus on the eyes is also important because they are critically important in what makes individuals unique. This focus creates a unique identity for each dog; they are not a pack of shelter dogs, rather they are individuals with their own life stories.

Overall, this series of portraits have three significant features: choice of content, greatly distanced from the domestic setting, use of black and white imagery, to reveal the raw reality of life as a shelter dog, and the focus on the dogs’ eyes to convey emotion and create an identity. These aspects combine to not only promote adoption, but also to give the shelter dogs value for what they are, animals, not for what human ideals impose on them as furry adopted children.

[1] J. Serpell and E. Paul, ‘Pets and the development of positive attitudes to animals’ in A. Manning and J. Serpell (eds.), Animals and Human Society: Changing Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 128.

[2] T. Scott, Finding Home: Shelter Dogs and their Stories (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2015), p. 2.

[3] S. Sontag, On Photography (New York: RosettaBooks LLC, 2005), p. 16.

[4] D. Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), p. 38.

[5] A. Lowenstein, Dreaming of Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), p. 124.

[6] D. Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), p. 37.

[7] R. Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 81.

[8] R. Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 111.

[9] T. Scott, Shelter Dogs, http://www.traerscott.com/#/shelter-dogs/, (accessed 15/01/2016).

[10] R. Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 113.

 

Bibliography:

Barthes, R., Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).

Haraway, D., The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003).

Lowenstein, A., Dreaming of Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

Manning, A. and Serpell, J. (eds.), Animals and Human Society: Changing Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2011).

Scott, T., Finding Home: Shelter Dogs and their Stories (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2015).

Scott, T., Shelter Dogs (Merrell Publishers Limited, 2006).

Scott, T., Shelter Dogs, http://www.traerscott.com/#/shelter-dogs/, (accessed 15/01/2016).

Sontag, S., On Photography (New York: RosettaBooks LLC, 2005).

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