Get to know the photographer behind “Flower Power” and our latest collaboration with PAWS!
I’d wager a guess that you’ve likely seen the work of award-winning photographer Sophie Gamand before. Perhaps you weren’t aware the image that caught your attention was the product of her imagination in particular, but it’s hard to ignore the undeniably adorable sight of a dog in a flower crown. I mean, that particular breed of cute has a tendency to command attention, right? Or maybe you’ve stood in rapt attention — as I have — in line at your local bookstore, paging through her book Wet Dog, laughing at the goofy and often arresting portraits of (wo)man’s best friend. Her work is at once attention-grabbing and adorable, thought-provoking and humorous, and at its heart, Gamand’s photographs of animals convey a powerful message of who we are as a society. Gamand, who hails from France and now resides in NYC, has made a name for herself in recent years through her work with shelters, rescue organizations, and the dogs and other animals in their care, most notably her portraits of pit bulls, the flower-crowned pups you’ve likely stumbled upon before, an all-too-often misunderstood breed that fills animal shelters across the country.
Free People has long been a supporter of rescue organizations, especially PAWS, a non-profit local shelter based here in Philadelphia, so when it came time to find a photographer for our latest project, our limited-edition FP x PAWS 2017 calendar which is available for pre-order today, we knew exactly who to turn to. Over two very fun days Gamand photographed 15 up-for-adoption dogs of all shapes and sizes (yes, that means YOU could adopt one!) in seasonal head pieces created in-house by our incredible FP design and display teams. Large dogs, small dogs, and everything in between, the calendar — and the portraits themselves — serve to champion not just PAWS, but the important work that Gamand and shelters across the country to do give these dogs the homes they deserve. But the difference Gamand makes with her photography goes beyond a pretty picture, as she explains in the interview below. A good photograph of an adoptable animal can be the difference between them spending just days in a shelter…or years. Proof positive: just days after the shoot, four of the dogs photographed by Gamand were scooped up and taken to their forever homes.
Read on to learn more about Sophie Gamand and her work, and then be sure to scoop up your copy of the 2017 calendar — all proceeds go to PAWS, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to saving Philadelphia’s homeless, abandoned and unwanted animals
Hi Sophie, thank you so much for speaking with me! In our conversation at PAWS, you mentioned that you’re self-taught in your photography practice. What first prompted you to pick up a camera?
I think I got my first camera when I was about 10. I grew up in a French village. My dad loved taking photos of my siblings and I during our vacations, in the glorious light of the South of France. I would drop off the rolls at the local lab, and they were selling cameras there too. I started saving — picking up leaves, helping my mom clean — until I was able to buy myself my own camera. Right away I got into portraiture, especially with animals. I was quite lonely and shy and photography allowed me to create intimacy without having to speak.
What do you love most about photography?
One of my dreams would be to be a writer or a painter. I think photography combines both, and is a quick way to achieve both: it allows you to tell a story with one image, and it allows you to give life to your visions, especially with all the retouching and enhancing tools we have today. To me, photography is not just about the story, it needs to have strong visual components, too. I think for a long time photographers relied too much on the story, not enough on the visual possibility of the medium. Now it’s definitively changing.
Was art always a part of your life? Did you have a preferred medium before you picked up a camera?
I have always been quite creative — I drew, I wrote poetry, I created jewelry, I painted, I sung opera even. I wanted to study the fine arts but I went to law school instead, and lost touch with my creative spirit until a few years ago when I became obsessed with dog portraiture. I don’t exactly see myself as a photographer, I have to say. It’s just the medium that works best for me at this time in my personal and artistic journey.
You began photographing dogs after moving to the US from France. Do you remember the first dog you photographed? What drew you to it on that particular day?
I moved to New York in 2010. I followed my husband-to-be, and left everything else behind: family, network, job… When I arrived here, I had no idea what the next steps were going to be for me. It was both exciting because I could reinvent myself, and particularly stressful! I picked up a camera as a means to discover the world around me. Once again, photography became a third element between the others and myself, a way to create connections. One day, I saw a vet clinic that looked inviting. I thought, how fun would it be to take photos of animals again? So I went in, and asked to speak to the manager. While I was waiting, I spotted an adorable bulldog with blue eyes, peeking from behind a wall. He looked worried and completely out of place. I snapped a portrait of him and it triggered my obsession for dogs (the photo is on my website, in the “At the Vet” collection). I started wondering: why are dogs accepting of everything from us? Is it fair to impose our urban lifestyle on dogs? Almost immediately I got involved in dog rescue, too.
And did things just take off from there?
Ha! That’s not exactly how it works! I searched myself for what felt like an eternity after that. Being self-taught also means you don’t have access to a network of your industry. You really have to make it all yourself, learn by yourself, every step of the way, which is a slow process. I was not sure who would be interested in dog photos. All I knew was that I loved what I was doing, and I thought I was kind of good at it.
Soon I was photographing dogs at shelters to help them get adopted. It was a way for me to “give back” to the dog community, and also sharpen my skills. My art became more meaningful, because it was helping save lives. And it was telling stories that needed to be told.
Everything took off — finally – when I shot my series “Wet Dog” in the fall of 2013, a series of miserable dogs during bath time. It was a huge hit online, which allowed me to sign a book deal with Grand Central Publishing. The book came out last October. The series also won one of the most prestigious photography awards there is, the Sony World Photography Award, in 2014. This completely propelled my career! Going viral gave me an audience. When I created Flower Power in the summer 2014, I was not expecting it would be such a huge success. I have not stopped working on the project since then.
Today, I am known for the work I do with shelter dogs. Most of my models are actually from shelters. It’s so ironic to me that I do this work to help dogs and rescuers, and in the end, shelter dogs have made my career and helped me find myself as an artist.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you prefer not to call yourself a “pet photographer” – why is that?
First, I find the title restrictive: when I photograph a dog, I don’t see a pet. I see a full being. I have always photographed dogs as if they were humans. I think that’s what makes my work special. And although I have an obsession for dogs right now, I don’t limit myself to that and I hope to photograph more animals at some point, and people too. There is just so much to be told when it comes to dogs!
Secondly, would we call William Wegman a pet photographer? Of course not. But because I am a woman, people always feel that it is easier to put me in the tiny, safe, “pet photography” category. I have so much more to say. And I think my work goes deeper than just a portrait of a pet.
The expressions you manage to capture are so amazing – you really seem to form a connection with the dogs while they’re in front of the lens. Could you describe a typical shoot?
I have always had lots of empathy for animals and people – too much, sometimes! It can be really hard to manage, which probably explains why I was so introverted growing up. When you feel other people’s feelings so strongly yourself, it can be maddening. With dogs, this trait of my personality becomes a tool I can finally use. I see them. I look in their eyes and I see them.
I would imagine there are plenty of challenges when it comes to photographing a dog verses taking a picture of a human – what’s a challenge we might not expect?
I honestly find working with dogs to be much easier. The challenge with humans is that you have to direct them and there are so many blocks: people are uncomfortable or shy, or self-conscious, or trying too hard, or they hate their nose, they want you to remove those wrinkles… With dogs, it’s much simpler. You can stage and prepare as much as you want, you just don’t know how the dog will react to the light and the camera, and to you. I love that element of surprise, and not knowing who my models of the day will be. For each one of them I have to find a way to adapt and capture their essence. It’s thrilling.
Let’s talk about Flower Power! How did the project come to be? When did you first put a flower crown on a pit bull and realize you were on to something?
I created “Flower Power: Pit Bulls of the Revolution” in the summer of 2014. What sparked the desire for this series was my own experience with pit bulls. I was quite apprehensive around them. I was mauled by a large herding dog as a teenager (a briard), which left me a little tense around strong, large, energetic dogs. In shelters I would always see pit bulls. After a while it seemed stupid of me to be apprehensive of them. I could tell that I was informed by what I had read in the media, and the fact that they are banned in my home country. I wanted to see for myself! So I decided to do a series about pit bulls. Working closely with them was the best way I knew how to get to know them and form my own opinion about them. For this project, I wanted to use models from shelters only. If pit bulls are dangerous, you would expect shelter pit bulls to be “the worst” of them all, because of all the abuse they endure, right? I wanted to photograph them in a completely unexpected way. The idea was to challenge our perception of pit bulls. I built a bunch of flower crowns and set up a shoot with a local shelter. The first model was Baby. She was gorgeous. As I secured her crown around her head though, I felt a little worried! The thought of her taking a chunk off my face crossed my mind! But Baby just sat there and looked at me with her deep, soulful eyes. She was so powerful, so dignified. I took her portrait. Or rather, she gave me her portrait. It was magical. I had never expected the dogs to actually accept wearing the crowns. I had never expected the results to be so beautiful. And I certainly had never expected the series to become such a big hit! I think it’s become quite iconic by now. So from a “quick summer project”, Flower Power became my main occupation. I have been working on the project since then, taking over 250 portraits of pit bulls wearing flower crowns. On Instagram, my #PitBullFlowerPower campaign is quite successful.
I think I saw one kitten featured earlier in the series (and to be fair, a couple of cats are also shown in the ‘At the Vet’ series) – what made you decide to solely focus on dogs, and specifically pit bulls for Flower Power?
What’s interesting is that when I started Flower Power, I hadn’t really realized how bad the situation was for pits. I mean, I would see them in shelters, waiting months or years before someone would adopt them. I could see that most shelter dogs were pit bull-type dogs. It’s only when I heard the numbers that the series became more than an art project for me, it became a mission: only 1 pit bull out of 600 will get adopted. America euthanizes between 800,000 and 1 million pit bull-type dogs every year. For what? Because we are afraid? It seems so absurd. Whether you like pit bulls or not, how can you live in a society where it is ok to discard life like this? These dogs are just produced for our entertainment, and killed and thrown away like trash because of our prejudices and shortcomings. Once I did my research and heard the numbers, I could not turn away. I had to continue the project. And the more pits I would meet and photograph, the more I would discover about their sweet nature, their gentle disposition. It’s insane to think that most people are afraid of them.
There are many voices for pit bulls out there. I think what’s different about my approach is that I am an artist. I know how to create an image that will stick with you. So my approach is probably quieter. I don’t force any belief on people. I just question. I challenge. I believe in the power of art, to change the way we see things. In the case of pit bulls, I was really curious to see if art could be powerful enough to change things. I think if we stop being afraid of pit bulls, they won’t attract so many people who want a scary dog, a status dog, people who are bad owners and abusers. It’s about time we re-appropriate ourselves to pit bull-type dogs. They are just like any other dog. There is hope for pits, and it starts with all of us not being afraid of them anymore, all of us taking our responsibility and educating ourselves to proper dog ownership. I hope Flower Power shows pit bulls for what they are: soulful, beautiful creatures who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.
Peanut is an older gentleman over 10 years old who likes social conventions to be observed. Peanut was brought into the shelter when his owners became ill and could no longer care for him. He is patiently waiting for the best lap to snuggle on in his new home!
It’s wonderful that you show the dogs who have been adopted on your site, it’s such a positive message – do you have animals at home? How did they come in to your life?
I don’t have animals at home, but we are fostering for rescues. Fostering is such a powerful experience. So far, each dog has taught me things about myself, about dogs, about our relationship to the world around us. I am learning valuable life lessons while helping save a life.
I love that you have tips available on your website for shelters and rescuers. What advice do you have for photographers looking to partner or volunteer with their local shelter?
It might take some convincing! I tried for a couple of years before a shelter finally opened their doors to me. Now I have a long waiting list from everywhere around the country, and even abroad! Photographers should remember that shelters deal with a lot of things on a daily basis, they are under lots of stress, have to make life or death decisions every day. Photographing their animals is usually last on their list. So keep that in mind and take charge. Make yourself available but don’t take too much of their time. Be persistent, be consistent, and do what you promised. Try and send the photos within a day or 2. I have spent the past few years teaching shelters about the importance of good photography. It really makes a huge difference, not just in adopting animals out, but also in improving the image of shelter animals in general.
Do you have a favorite all-time image?
I have several! But I am also eternally unsatisfied. So my favorite image is always the one I have not created yet.
You mention on your website that you photograph dogs to better understand humans – what have you learned so far?
Compassion. The way we treat animals speaks volumes about the kind of society we’ve built and the human beings we are. It’s fascinating. Even when I think of animal abusers, I think about the lack of love and compassion we have for one another.
Any exciting new projects on the horizon that you can share?
Always lots of exciting things in the making! I am going to start working on my next book soon! It will be focused on rescues. Also I will start filming a web series about shelter dogs very soon. I hope to find some time to shoot a new series too, at some point… But I have lots of traveling planned in the next few months, to expand Flower Power to other states across the country.
+ Grab your copy of the 2017 FP x PAWS calendar, all proceeds benefits PAWS!
Learn more about Philly PAWS here
Check out the Wet Dog Book here
Shop all Pet Project here
Behind the scenes photos taken by FP Julie & FP Emily all other work by Sophie Gamand