Tell me a little about yourself, who you are, where you grew up, how you got into photos/ animal advocacy.
I am a French artist living and working in Brooklyn. I moved here in 2010 (from Europe). I grew up in a small town in France, near Lyon. Animals were always my thing. I was very lonely as a child, and felt very misunderstood. With animals, everything was much easier. I was very artistic and wanted to be a vet until mom explained I would have to put a lot of animals to sleep… So I scratched that dream! I saved and bought a small, cheap camera when I was about 10 years old. I did a lot of animal portraiture with my bunny and our family dogs. I would also go to the zoo and photograph the animals there. I think I wanted to belong, and these intimate portraits allowed me to feel a deep connection, even for just a moment. I wanted the animals to feel seen.
I then studied law, opera singing, created an art magazine dedicated to contemporary photography. I have had many lives. When in 2010 I moved to the States, I had to reinvent myself. It was the perfect time to shed myself of all these things and become was I was all along: an artist with a strong sense of justice. I discovered shelter dogs soon after moving here, and it was mind-blowing. The number of dogs languishing in shelters here. The number of animals euthanized every year for no reason. I had a camera, and a lot of time on my hands, so I started volunteering with rescues and shelters. By some kind of miracle, this has turned into a full time career.
When did you first decide to photograph pit bulls?
I had been volunteering as a photographer for rescues and shelters for a few years. I was always intimidated by pit bulls, and each time they would bring a pit to my set, I would tense up and not really seek contact with the dog. I decided to create a series that would force me to interact with these dogs, and get to know them. I also wondered if art was powerful enough it could rebrand them and change the way we treat pit bulls.
Since taking pictures, have you seen a change in pit bull adoptions?
The pictures have created a new dialogue. When you give an image like this to a dog who has been vilified for so long, you shake people’s perception and force them to re-evaluate how they think about this. The pictures being so shareable, I was able to share amazing stories of dogs who overcame horrific past, stories of regular people adopting these dogs. The more « normal » or inspiring stories we put out there about them, the more likely people will keep an open mind about these dogs. The shelters I work with definitively see an increase in social media following, donations, and dogs get adopted faster. Dogs who had been waiting for months or years often get adopted thanks to the portraits. It’s all about exposure, the right kind of exposure. This series does that.
Why is animal advocacy important to you?
Animal Advocacy is about humans, first and foremost. I am convinced of that. By helping animals, it’s humans I am trying to understand and help. If we can solve the human equation when it comes to animal welfare, we can make huge progress in the way animals are generally treated.
How do you choose which dogs to photograph in each shelter?
I let the shelters bring whomever they need me to photograph. I never pick and choose my models. I know I can get interesting portraits from any dog. And I love that element of surprise, when I don’t know whom I will meet and photograph. For Pit Bull Flower Power, I bring a suitcase of flower crowns with me, and when I meet a pit bull who could be a great crown candidate, I dig in my stock and try to match the perfect crown with the dog.
Do you make your own crowns? Do you reuse them?
Yes I do. I can spend between 1h to several hours making one crown. I never reuse crowns. Every dog gets their own, unique crown. I used to discard them after my shoots, but now I archive the most special ones. Sometimes I look at them again and they seem so small and sad, compared to the way they look on the portraits. I think the dog models bring life to my crowns.
Tell me about your photography gear. What do you use? Which camera? Which lens? What’s your light set up?
I don’t enjoy talking technique, and I am not particularly interested in talking about my gear. I believe you can achieve great work with pretty much any type of gear. It’s about your creativity and the way you use the gear. Asking a photographer what lens they use, is like asking a writer what typewriter he used to write his book. Does it really matter?
How do you think Artists have been able to create social change and challenge stigma around certain types of breeds/animals?
It’s in human nature to form opinions fairly quickly, and once those opinions are formed, it’s quite difficult to dislodge them. It takes one article, one book, one image for someone to form a lasting opinion on a subject matter. I think artists have this incredible capacity to create images and messages that can shake those opinions. The way art works, is by creating an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject matter. Once that connection is established, it’s not as easy to stick to your opinion. If you start connecting with the child refugee, you see the child as a person who suffers, it’s not that easy to support a system that will add suffering to that child’s life. If you stop to think about the life and fate of the meat you are about to ingest - a complete animal instead of an abstract piece in your plate - it’s not that easy to remain comfortable eating that animal. People don’t want to take the time to challenge their opinions because that would mean challenging and jeopardizing their entire lifestyle and system of beliefs. And that is scary. But artists can disrupt that gently. I think with breed and animal advocacy, artists are able to create these beautiful connections which force people to reevaluate how they feel about these animals. With Pit Bull Flower Power, that’s exactly what happened. People think these photos are cute, and when they realize these are pit bulls, they think « Wait. I never thought of pit bulls as cute ». Once that image is engraved in the viewer’s mind, it’s not easy to continue to blindly hate those dogs. Because all of the sudden, that animal has a soul, a life, character. And it disrupts our carefully crafted narratives.
What’s your favorite photo or series you’ve taken, and why?
I don’t know how to answer that question. I have a special attachment to all my work, for various reasons. Sometimes the dog was special, sometimes the location was special, sometimes I didn’t think I could create that image and when I did, I felt proud. In Pit Bull Flower Power, my favorite portrait is probably Frida’s, because I helped rescue her from Mexico. She was paralyzed. I helped bring her to New York, I fostered her and helped her find a loving home. Her crown took me about a day to complete. In my mind and heart, this was going to be my last Pit Bull Flower Power portrait, at least for a while. I also love my series Xolotl, although I never published it or exhibited it. This is a project that feels very dear and near to my heart. It was the first time I did a fine-art project on location, which I thought was very scary. Finding the dogs, the location, studying the light, making sure everything looked great, then letting the magic happen. I am really proud of that series and I hope to do another one like this one day. I also really love the work I do with my own dog MacLovin. He takes his modeling gig very seriously. He’s helped me in dark times, when I felt empty creatively. We work well together and he is always game (in exchange for a cookie!).
Do you have a dog?
I have a little rescue from Puerto Rico named MacLovin. He is a chihuahua / terrier mutt. I rescued him from a municipal shelter that has a death rate of probably about 99%. The shelter was a horrific place. I photographed “The Anatomy of Discomfort” there. In the cage next to MacLovin’s, a puppy died while I was taking photos. The shelter staff had to euthanized buckets of puppies every week. It’s hard to describe that place to people who have never stepped a foot in such horrible place. The smells, the sounds. I can never forget. MacLovin is a sensitive soul, and I am ok with that. I don’t know if his stay at the shelter (which was brief) traumatized him. I can’t imagine it didn’t. He was completely shut down in his cage, and the moment I saw him, I knew we belonged together.