Long hours rehearsing lead to late nights strutting up and down the cat … err … dogwalk. Flash bulbs, wolf whistles, pulsating beats. Pomp, ceremony and there’s always some Schnauzer with a new trick up their designer sleeve.
The world of dogs has fascinated Sophie Gamand ever since she decided to become a photographer. Her forays into how canines fit into the lives of humans has revealed a schizophrenic landscape where toy pups perform on stage for New York society while in Puerto Rico stray dogs starve on the beach. In vet offices sick pets are cradled in loving arms and in the pounds dogs are lined up to be euthanized. This one animal means so many different things to different people.
“The center of my photography is an exploration of this bond and this relationship we have and really what it means about us as people,” says Gamand. “The way we treat dogs means so much.”
At the top of the doggie social strata are the hounds of wealthy New Yorkers, a group of predominantly women that Gamand met when she was looking to photograph people and their pets. The circle of friends rented halls and periodically threw pageants, entering their dogs in fashion and talent competitions.
When she first showed up to shoot one of the events Gamand thought it was absolutely bonkers, but over the four years she’s been attending her perspective shifted. These dogs were the center of their owners’ lives, the child they never had or the partner they never found. It reminded her of her own move to New York and feeling isolated in the hustle and bustle of the city. For the pageant crowd, their animals were the stars of their show, so Gamand tried to emphasize how the women saw their pets and by extension themselves.
Focusing on the glitz and glamor of the events requires tact. Out of frame there’s dog doo splattered on the floor, dog beds thrown in corners, and forgotten kibble everywhere. Rivalries flare up between owners to a soundtrack of barking and snarling. Although the dogs have been trained since birth to wear costumes and perform on command, some are clearly miserable. But they’ll do anything to please their people, even wear a tiara. They get rewarded with closets of gowns, pampering and love.
“Their dogs are everything to them,” she says. “As somebody who tries to understand people through their dogs it’s a fascinating world. I’ve learned a lot about people and about New York by observing these women and how they are with these dogs.”
These dog pageants do also raise money for animal charities, and Gamand contributes in her own way: volunteering her time and camera skills to photograph pound puppies up for adoption.
She’s learned that one breed in particular, the pit bull, has a terrible image problem. Flower Power, Pit Bulls of the Revolution is her response to learning that over one million pits are put down annually. To soften their reputation in the American consciousness she adorned her subjects with crowns of flowers, putting together a calendar of portraits to raise funds for the shelters where she photographed.
“I’m actually playing with the idea of touring the US to take photos of pit bulls in different shelters to raise awareness,” says Gamand. “People’s bias is insane. It’s crazy, in America we euthanize upwards of one million of pit bulls every year. One million. I don’t know where those dogs are coming from. We need to address this situation and we need to solve the crisis. This project, I think it’s important. I’m not a pit bull advocate per se, I was never a pit bull lover, but I do recognize that there’s a crises and that we need to address it. We can’t just sweep pit bulls beneath the carpet and euthanize them in huge numbers and pretend they don’t exist.”
Four years ago Gamand left Europe for a new life in America. She had already lived a full one. The Lyon, France native had earned a master’s degree in law with an emphasis on art stolen during conflict. She’d spent time in Switzerland, had worked for a UN-affiliated organization, and dreamed of becoming an opera singer.
She had even founded a photography magazine, inspired by discovering Flickr and seeing overlooked talent on the site that she wanted to highlight. After publishing 17 issues, she had burned herself out.
So when she came to the U.S., Gamand decided to revisit her childhood hobby of being a photographer herself and signed up for a documentary class. Her comfort zone was immediately challenged when the assignment was to tell someone’s story in five pictures.
“Holy shit, there’s no way I can do this,” Gamand says. “My English was good but not that good, and I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t even know my neighborhood. I had just moved a week or two before, I didn’t even know the name of my street. It was very scary. I went out and I was walking in my neighborhood with my camera in my hand — sweaty hands, it was horrible — and then I saw a vet clinic. I opened the door and I asked to talk to the manager. I thought, maybe I could tell the story of a vet. I don’t know why. There was a dog in the waiting room and I took its photo.”
That photo began a new journey. She documented the vet clinic and made friends with the staff, gaining more access and meeting more pups. She also met Chrissy Beckle, founder of The Sato Project which rescues strays in Puerto Rico. An invitation to fly to the Caribbean was extended and accepted.
Going from the sterile confines of a veterinary office to the frantic pace of a rescue operation was a shock. Fresh off the plane, Gamand and Beckles found an emaciated stray near death. It was her first time seeing dogs neglected and unloved.
“I had no experience and I had no idea how to use the light,” she says. “I had a flash because Puerto Rico’s sun is very harsh, so I knew I wanted to use a polarizer filter and a flash. And here I am flashing this tiny little dog in the face trying to get my shot and it made me feel disgusting. It was very weird.”
The stray couldn’t be saved, but the trauma of watching it die in Beckles’ arms proved to be the crucible for both Gamand’s birth as a serious photographer as well as her obsession with the dynamics between dogs and people. She dedicated herself to working with The Sato Project.
The work became all-consuming, swallowing time, energy and artistic focus. For a year and a half she traveled to Puerto Rico to photograph rescue efforts, helped organize volunteers and looked after the website. Last year she realized that she was barking up the wrong tree.
“Rescuing dogs is very rewarding, and it’s hard, and it’s exhilarating and heartbreaking — you have all these emotions,” says Gamand. “It’s an amazing adventure, but it’s not what I’m meant to do with my life. So I stopped traveling there and I quit my position as a volunteer. It was like a full time job at that point, it was draining me of everything. So last September I made the very difficult decision to say, I need a break from this because I need to figure out what I’m going to do with my photography and where I’m going to take it.”
Where she took it was into a grooming salon, and over the course of a single day shot her crowd-pleaser Wet Dog. Suddenly she was giving interviews and taking calls from industry insiders. She now is represented by a Parisian gallery, will have her first book published next year, and is being courted by producers interested in a reality TV show. The attention has been a stressful and exciting whirlwind which she’s trying to ride without trying to exert control over which direction it takes her.
Until her portraits of miserable mutts in the bath caught fire Gamand had trouble convincing shelters to let her volunteer. Now she’s shooting all around town, with a personal best of over 50 dogs in under four hours. If given the opportunity, by sponsorship or crowdfunding, she’d like to tour America expanding on Flower Power. Or to go even further.
“One of my dreams is actually to travel and document stray dog populations in different parts of the world,” she says. “I would be very interested to see if there are physical similarities and also how local residents interact with these dogs. Is there a similar relationship? Because I learned a lot about stray dogs and the whole dynamic in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is an example where you have pets, you have rescues, and you have stray dogs, you have feral dogs — some dogs are completely wild in Puerto Rico — so you have all these groups and I think it’s so interesting that a dog can be so many things.”
One thing a dog won’t be is Gamand’s pet. The apartment she shares with her husband doesn’t allow pets, and after growing up with them running free in the backyard she doesn’t think it’s fair to keep one penned up all day. Distance also keeps the novelty fresh for her, and her fresh for her subjects the next time she’s setting up the camera.
“I don’t feel like being a servant to a dog and picking up their poop every day,” says Gamand. “If I wanted to do this I would probably have a kid.”