Q&A with Wet Dog Photographer Sophie Gamand

Irresistibly amusing portraits of wet dogs
By The Bark, January 2016

On our cover is Coffee Bean, whose portrait was taken by Sophie Gamand, a photographer who sees dogs  differently. For an example of Gamand’s unique viewpoint, consider her series Flower Power: Pit Bulls of the Revolution. Her pictures of smiling, solemn and saucy Pit Bulls, their heads adorned with colorful crowns of flowers, suggest that we reconsider what we think we know about these sturdy dogs. An award-winning French  photographer who has become well known as an animal advocate in her adopted hometown of New York City, Gamand will be celebrating the release of her first book, Wet Dog, this fall. Recently, she shared some of her observations and experiences with us.

BARK: Are dog-rescue groups active in France?

Gamand: Absolutely. Abandonment is somewhat less of an issue there than it is in the U.S., though. I once calculated that the ratio in France is about one dog per 660 inhabitants will be abandoned each year, whereas in the U.S., it’s one dog per 82 inhabitants. Thanks to my Wet Dog book, I was able to help the SPA (Société Protectrice des Animaux), the largest and oldest animal welfare and rescue organization in France. They fell in love with my wet dog photos and asked if they could use them for their nationwide adoption campaign this October. I was so proud to be able to help animals in my home country! (I even photographed wet cats for them, which was quite an experience!) The campaign ran in France, in the Paris subway stations and in SPA’s 60 shelters. I was told by their team that their adoption event was hugely successful, thanks in part to the campaign, which touched thousands and thousands of hearts.

In Wet Dog, you write that one of first things that happens to a dog at a shelter is a bath, and that marks the beginning of the dog’s new life. Is this why you decided to do the wonderful Wet Dog book?

My “Wet Dog” series was born out of a happy accident. I was at a groomer’s, working on a personal project about grooming and the hair-cutting process. Then the groomer started bathing the dogs, and I could not take my eyes off them! I’m not sure why I felt that intense connection with wet dogs. They make me laugh, but most importantly, they make me feel guilt, compassion and immense empathy.

Suddenly it hit me. That was exactly how I felt when bathing rescue dogs. It was interesting to explore those memories and feelings, and to realize how important bathing had been for me and for my relationship to rescues. I really believe that for the dogs, the bath is an initiation process, almost a form of baptism. They enter a new life, the abuse and the neglect and the suffering they experienced are washed away, and they become new. It’s a poignant and beautiful moment to share with a rescue.

You have volunteered a great deal of time taking portraits of shelter dogs. How important do you feel it is that their personalities are captured through good photography—does it make them more adoptable?

It is absolutely essential! Good photography helps in so many ways: It gives more exposure to the dogs on social media, and by extension, it gives more exposure to the shelters as well. It also brings more adopters to the shelters and creates more connections between people and shelter dogs.

I want my photos to be amazing, beautiful, exciting, fun, touching. I want people to see beyond the “shelter dog” aspect. I want them to witness the personality and uniqueness of these dogs. The photos, like the baths, are also a rite of passage. I want to give the dogs their dignity back. My photographs have been responsible for many direct and indirect adoptions— for people falling in love with a particular dog, or feeling more confident about getting a shelter dog. The photos remind us that these dogs could be our best friends. Their happy faces are so inviting.

How did you come to work with the Sato Project, and why do you say it was life-changing for you?

I met Chrissy Beckles, the project’s founder, in 2011. At the time, I was looking into volunteering with a shelter or a rescue group, but found many closed doors. Chrissy welcomed me and let me do my thing. Over the course of two years, I traveled extensively with her, documenting her work in Puerto Rico—specifically on Dead Dog Beach, an infamous dumping ground.

The work I did with the Sato Project profoundly changed me, personally, professionally and artistically. The first time I stepped foot on the island, Chrissy and I picked up a dying dog. He was beautiful and heartbreaking and in such a horrible shape. He died in Chrissy’s arms, and I was there with my camera, taking the photos and videos that would help Chrissy spread the message about her important work.

I called the dog Angel, and I captured his last breath with my camera. I still remember the way he looked at me; for a split second, I thought he was smiling, and then he expired. He was loved so much during the last few seconds of his life. This horrible experience bonded me with Chrissy and her organization in ways I can’t explain. It also bonded me with rescues and shelter dogs across the world. In many ways, we created dogs, and we are responsible for them. Teaching compassion toward all beings is such an important part of our humanity.

What do you hope people come away with from your Wet Dog book?

Wet Dog is meant to be a fun book. I want to celebrate the unique relationship we have with our dogs. I also hope to use it to spread simple messages, such as #AdoptDontShop, which is dear to my heart. People need to stop buying puppies in stores or off the Internet. One out of three of these puppies will end up in a shelter within their first year.

I also want to encourage people to look at shelters and help in small ways. For example, did you know that shelters are always in dire need of gently used towels and linens? It’s a great way to help, and to make shelter dogs’ lives a little more comfortable while they wait for their forever homes. Bathe your doggie, then wash the towels and donate them to your local shelter! Wet dogs uniting for shelter dogs: I like that idea.