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Good Exposure: How Better Photos are Saving Lives

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Every homeless animal has a story. not all of them get told. Fortunately, chicago’s homeless animals are reaping the benefits of some talented people committed to giving them the chance they deserve.

Recognizing the importance of good images to highlight each animal’s true personality and beauty, local photographers are helping to increase adoptions, one photo at a time. Forget the “mug-shot” type images of adoptable animals—it’s all about capturing happy-go-lucky pictures that draw people in and show a completely different side on an animal, who may have been terrified and shaking in her cage just hours before.

Josh Feeney

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What drew you to contributing to the animal community?

I felt that photographing animals and trying to “market” them, so to speak, would be the single largest impact that I could have.

Why is the work you do with shelter animals so critical?

The most important thing any shelter animal needs is exposure, pure and simple. Our city’s shelter has the highest amount of animals for adoption, yet has few resources outside of volunteers to bring the animals into the public eye. There are many well-known and well-funded private rescue groups, but the city shelter is not often the first place potential animal adopters turn.

You have a “regular” job as a realtor. How do you make so much time for the animals?

This is a tight rope that I have walked for three years now. Luckily my job is flexible and I am not stuck at a desk from nine to five, which allows me to get to the shelter regularly. Most of the time I am running there very last minute—it’s hard to plan ahead given the nature of my work.

What do you think you see from behind the lens that others may not see?

The funny thing is that a lot of times I am not 100% sure what I caught until I come home and start going through photos. The neat thing about photographs is that they capture a split second of time that you never saw coming and will never capture again.

What’s your favorite experience photographing animals so far?

For me, it’s always more about the story than a simple photo. The photo shoot that resonates with me the most was the very first calendar photo I took for Safe Humane Chicago in 2012. A family on the North Shore was looking for a dog to adopt when they met Bruno, [who I was photographing and] who most people would classify as a Pit Bull. The adopters’ family and friends told them they would not bring their kids over to play if they adopted this dog. Long story short, this one dog changed many people’s perceptions about the breed, and Bruno is now the star of the block.

What is the best part of your job?

When someone reaches out to me and says that one of my photos led them to adopting.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The first thing is knowing that not all animals make it out alive, because we still live in a world where people choose not to spay and neuter their pets. Resources exist for free or reduced-cost spay and neuter surgeries, so anyone can make the right choice. The second is the misconception that so many people still have about what a “Pit Bull” type dog is. I wish that people would educate themselves before making generalized assumptions.

What advice do you have for volunteers who are promoting adoptable animals via social media and online images/descriptions?

Keep it short and sweet. Every shelter dog has a history and usually the truth is unknown. Focus on the happy pictures and what this dog’s life should be in the future, not on the past.

Best photography tip for beginners?

Start shooting in manual. You will never take good photos unless you actually know how a camera works.

Visit JoshFeeneyPhotography.com

Sheri Berliner

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Why is the work you do with shelter animals so critical?

My photos and [their] biographies are quite possibly an animal’s only chance of having a real life with a loving family. I want to portray them in the best light possible, so the perfect family comes forward.

What is the best part of your job?

Realizing my work has helped animals who have been sitting in a cage for months—in some cases years—find someone to love.

What is the hardest part of your job?

When I realize that no matter how hard I try, there are certain animals or people that I just can’t help.

What advice do you have for volunteers who are promoting adoptable animals via social media and online images/descriptions?

Be honest. Don’t waste people’s time with descriptions that aren’t honest, accurate, or detailed. You don’t want to find just any home for an animal who has already been through so much—you want to find the right home, so he will not re-enter the shelter system.

What do you think you see from behind the lens that others may not see?

I have the opportunity to spend time with the animal and see her strengths and weaknesses. Generally when I’m in my photo studio and out of the shelter, I can get the dogs or cats to play and relax, as opposed to the fearful behavior they often exhibit when stressed or shutdown in their cages.

Best photography tip for beginners?

Learn the settings on your camera and be patient for the moment to happen. A lot of people take one shot and walk away without actually capturing what they could have.

Visit Petraits.com

David Sutton

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David Sutton was one of Chicago’s first professional photographers to focus on animals. And while his dog and cat portraits are hugely popular, his most compelling images are about relationships. They capture the pet/ human bond in pet-centric families, showing people together with their pets—even if the humans are just suggested.

Sutton Studios has had a long and solid commitment to supporting the community, and over the course of more than 20 years, has helped raise more than a million dollars for both animal and human welfare organizations.

For ten years Sutton published the Dog Days Calendar, a fundraising effort featuring his stunning photography. He and other local partners printed 10,000 copies to give to shelters and animal welfare organizations at no charge. Those organizations sold the calendars for $10 each and keep 100% of the proceeds. The most recent calendar was published in 2011, but there are plans to revive it for 2017.

Sutton continues to do quite a bit of pro-bono work for local rescue organizations, and was recently named the official photographer for SitStayRead. He is also a producer of the documentary Dog By Dog, focusing on the politics behind puppy mills.

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Visit SuttonStudios.com

Ashley Fischer

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The Warm Noses Project
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Volunteer Duties: Photographs adoptable animals and events for PAWS and The Anti-Cruelty Society, as well as for The Bickell Foundation. Currently seeking more shelters to add to her list.

What is the best part of your job?
Knowing that my images help save animals who may not have found their forever family otherwise.

On the days when you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, what keeps you going?
I remember that some people don’t get to do what they love everyday. I do my best to not take my position as a creative person with an unconventional job for granted.

Is there a favorite quote you use to keep you motivated?
John H. White, one of my favorite professors from college taught us to “keep in flight.” No matter what happens, you just have to keep flying.

Ashley’s 10 tips to take better photos of your pets:

  1. Get on their level.
  2. Don’t forget the treats.
  3. Make sure the sun is behind them—backlighting increases the quality and makes the photo more interesting.
  4. Make noises. Chirp, talk, snap your fingers… whatever it takes!
  5. Run around.
  6. Think unconventional backgrounds—don’t be afraid to take your pup to new locations for some cool shots.
  7. Have their favorite toy on-hand.
  8. Limit distractions. Having other animals around can make it much more difficult to keep your pet’s attention.
  9. Use natural light.
  10. Be patient—it’s always worth the wait!

Groups That Give Back

Organizations focusing on using images to help animals find the loving homes they deserve:

Photographers for Animals

Mission: To inspire positive change on behalf of animals; to support those helping animals; and to document animals and the efforts being made on their behalf.

This not-for-profit organization uses film and photography to inspire positive change for animals. It produces documentaries, online videos, and photographs independently and in conjunction with other animal protection organizations to raise awareness of animal issues.

One Picture Saves a Life

Mission: To provide shelter staff and volunteers with the resources to successfully groom and photograph shelter animals, making them more adoptable via photos that show off their true personalities.

On average, eight million dirty, scared, and disoriented animals enter shelters each year. Upon intake, they have a picture taken. These initial photos are usually what people see when looking to adopt. Teaching shelter staff how to take positive pictures of a well-groomed, more relaxed animal means a better chance at adoption.

Shelter Me Photography

Mission: To change the way people view shelter animals through compelling, professional photographs.

This organization, founded in 2009, offers photography workshops to teach animal welfare staff and volunteers how to take better photos—greatly improving an animal’s chance of getting our of the shelter and into a loving home.

HeARTs Speak

Mission: To create a united voice for animals through art.

HeARTs Speak goes beyond the camera. It is a global network of photographers, writers, graphic designers, sculptors, painters, illustrators, and animal advocates who provide time and professional services, pro-bono, to animal welfare organizations in their communities.

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