Are Dogs People Too?

An Interview with The Dogist, a.k.a Elias Weiss Friedman

Confession: I love dogs. Ever since I can remember being sentient, I’ve had a dog. So, when I discovered @thedogist on Instagram a few months ago, I had officially found my favorite Instagram.

I also admire the photography. Photojournalists combine the technical art of photography with the journalistic goal of storytelling in order to capture singular moments. In a world where everyone has a camera in their pockets, photojournalists stake out their territory with creativity and technical know-how. Elias Weiss Friedman has found the most adorable intersection of those two things in The Dogist, a “a photo-documentary series about the beauty of dogs.” He’s based out of New York City, but has travelled to more than twenty cities around the world taking photos of dogs.

I met Elias at Washington Square Park last month. He’s tall, with kneepads and bulky camera around his neck, and he’s surprisingly calm and laid back. I was slightly starstruck — I see this guy’s photos everyday. He’s met more dogs than I’ll ever meet. What an inspiration.

Elias grew up around photography and dogs (specifically, labradors), but hadn’t committed to either until this project. It all started when he was travelling through Vienna — as you do — and got a photo of a Boxer that was just “the goofiest, funniest thing.” He posted it on his Instagram and it blew up. He started getting ideas. What if there was a blog like The Sartorialist…but for dogs?

Back in New York, he asked to take a picture of someone’s Frenchie (that’s French Bulldog Terrier for the non-initiated). The owner asked him what it was for. Elias just said: The Dogist. “It wasn’t a thing, I just said it. It felt good, it felt right. My friends looked at me and they said, ‘that worked. What just happened there?’”

That was October 2013. By December, Elias had over 10,000 followers and the Huffington Post and local Fox news had done pieces on him. Today, he has over a million followers on Instagram and a book coming out in October. He posts 3–4 pictures daily with a short caption. The project has evolved into what he calls “an authentic documentary type project” that tells the story of dogs while making them seem “more like people.”

“[Dogs] have no idea of the concept of a photo or themselves, so how do you make them look posed, like they know? So that’s what I do,” he says. His style ranges from wider shots with clearly defined background and foreground to shorter crops with a shallower depth of focus. Sometimes only a wet black nose is in focus. Sometimes it’s just the tail of a dachshund.

Speaking of technique, Elias is excited now that Instagram has introduced different aspect ratios. It means he can get even more playful with his composition, allowing for wider horizontal shots (think: a line of dogs) or longer vertical crops (think: a very tall dog).

But what makes the project truly innovative is the treatment of his subject. Every single photo is different from the next in tone and impact. Elias speaks about a revelatory “moment of connection” between him and the dog that reveals all kinds of emotions. “There’s happiness, sadness, fear, curiosity, excitement… dogs don’t hide their emotions.” What we’re talking about here is the kind of intimacy some photographers take months to foster. “The signature of the series,” Elias says, is “dogs as people.” His artistic eye and technical ability makes it “seem like the dog knows what’s going on, he’s posing for an image… It feels more personified and [there’s] more dignity in that than a dog bouncing around.”

Of course, the story of dogs is not all adorable and fluffy. “Its important for me to cover [dogs in shelters] not just because they need help but also to understand the side of dogs that’s not happy all the time,” Elias told me. He created the Give A Dog A Bone program, where you can buy a dog bone online and Elias gives it to a dog in a shelter and photographs the moment. Part of the proceeds go to the shelter.

But, ultimately, he’s a dog photographer, and that means looking for “visual interest and contrast and crazy color patterns and hair dos and crazy breeds and eyes that don’t match and outfits and bow ties… things that make you say ‘oh my god look at this’.”

After we’re done talking, Elias spots an adorable puppy across the park and I watch his process. He sprawls on the ground and gets the dog’s attention with a squeaky tennis ball and treats. The puppy never stays in one spot for longer than a few seconds. Later on that day, I saw the picture Elias got (below). It’s almost unbelievable — you can see the dog wondering what this random guy is doing.

Ultimately, I agree with Elias when he says, “what makes a good photo is turning something ordinary into something dramatic.” In New York City, there’s a dog on ever corner, but Elias presents them in a way that lets us see their individual personalities, much like how a portrait of a human gives us insight into their emotional state. And, yeah, it’s always super cute. What else do you want?

You can follow The Dogist on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr. You can pre-order The Dogist book by clicking here.

Julia Pimentel is a freelance writer, blogger, and graduate student at the New York University Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Her twitter is @julia_rdsp.