In the story of an animal finding its forever after, we usually pick up the book at the ‘Gotcha’ Day’ chapter. It opens with an ecstatic portrait and a lucky pet driving off into the sunset, and boy does it feel good! But many pages precede that one, with a sprawling cast of characters working mostly behind the scenes to make the happy ending possible.
Massachusetts-based HeARTs Speak artist member Jesse Freidin has devoted much of his creative career to highlighting those selfless souls who are often just outside the frame — and he’s doing it by inviting them into the frame. His new book Finding Shelter is an ode to shelter volunteers, an examination of the bonds they form with the animals they care for, and a spotlight on the reciprocal nature of this special relationship.
Congratulations on your new book, Finding Shelter! Tell us a little about what it's working to highlight.
Thanks! Finding Shelter has a few goals, all of which focus on reinterpreting our nation’s animal shelters. First, I wanted to give the public a broader view into the reality of shelter life and shelter work and knew that using people (volunteers) as the catalyst would be a powerful approach. This book also uncovers how healing volunteer work truly is, and how shelter animals and volunteers end up helping each other through painful times, always with immense love and acceptance.
It’s time we told a new story about animals shelters – the old connotation of a dirty, sad shelter where ‘bad dogs’ go to be euthanized does not serve our society anymore. This book is my way of beginning to start a new discussion.
What inspired you to embark on this project?
My work as a photographer has always focused on the healing relationship between humans and dogs – whether through private commissions (the majority of my work), or other side projects. It’s what keeps me up at night, it’s what fills my bookshelves and it’s what inspires me. I was seeing so many wonderful projects coming out about shelter dogs over the past few years, but as an artist who is fascinated with the human condition, I became curious about the human side of the story – the volunteers. I wanted to know more about them. I wanted to tell their story, and in doing that, tell a new story about the shelter system. Also, many people in the dog world told me that it couldn’t be done, that volunteers were too shy of a group and that they’d never open up to me. I love a challenge, so that really lit a fire under me.
What's your favorite thing about working with animal welfare volunteers?
Volunteers are incredibly fascinating people. It takes a deeply selfless person to donate their time, and open themselves up to the pain and sadness, and also joy and beauty, that happens on a daily basis inside an animal shelter or rescue group. Each and every volunteer I spoke with told me stories about how the animals they work with have saved their lives, not the other way around.
This project was so exciting because it was an almost overwhelming living example of how deeply humans and animals are connected, and how both species thrive off of the other. I think animal shelters are where people are at their best.
What do you wish the world knew about them?
I want people to know that volunteering is for all of us. And that volunteers are our first line of defense in keeping abandoned animals safe. The amount of abandoned/stray/abused animals that come into shelters every day is astounding, and volunteers make it possible to care for all of these animals.
I hope that Finding Shelter encourages many people to become volunteers at their local shelters, or to make donations, or to adopt a shelter pet. It’s really all of our jobs to care for our nation’s abandoned animals because we have overbred them. Getting involved is as easy as showing up at the shelter, or dropping off some food, or fostering. Volunteering is for everyone.
Tell us about a typical day at a shelter shoot for you!
Shelter shoots are part ‘circus comes to town’ and part ‘well-oiled machine.’ Whether I’m working with my amazing assistants or running a shoot alone, it’s a thrilling and challenging experience. I have to strike the right balance between setting up quickly in a room I’ve never seen, utilizing what light I have available (85% of my shelter shoots are with natural light), and staying cool and collected so that I can meet each new dog and volunteer in a very calm way. I keep the room very quiet and kick out any extra people or animals, so that it’s just me, the volunteer, and the animal they’ve brought in.
As a photographer, I have to form a strong connection with my subjects so that they give up something authentic to me. I get about 1 minute to do that during these shelter shoots which keeps me on my toes, and I love it. The stakes are very high – succeed wonderfully or fail miserably. Getting people to open up to me and collaborate on an intimate portrait is one of my favorite experiences. That’s why I love photography so much.
What's next for you?
I’ve just started a new exciting project with The Good Dog Foundation in New York, where I’ll be telling the story of highly trained therapy dog teams, as well as a new program that gives shelter dogs to female inmates within the prison system to serve as surrogate family structures. It’s so incredibly fascinating, and I’m very excited about that big project. I’m also continuing to work on my ‘When Dogs Heal’ book, which takes me around the country photographing people with HIV and their dogs. And as always I continue to work with my private commission clients which keep me busy.