Shannon Johnstone is a photography professor at Meredith College in North Carolina. She's also the brainchild behind Landfill Dogs
, an internationally acclaimed photography and activism project that has garnered major media attention.Landfill Dogs
tells the stories of homeless dogs who will be killed if they aren't adopted. Instead of shooting them at the shelter, however, Shannon takes them to a municipal landfill site.
Most obviously, this is where the dogs will end up if they don't find a home, trash buried among other discarded possessions. More subtly, county animal shelters are managed by the same government department as landfills, suggesting, as Shannon says, that "homeless cats and dogs are just another waste stream." Homeless animals at picturesque landfill sites also represents the idea of trash transformed into beauty: animals on death row reveling in play and affection, buried garbage a breathtaking background.
Shannon's goal is to put individual faces on the problem of animal overpopulation and to help facilitate adoptions. Each photographed dog enjoys a car ride, a walk, treats, a few hours of much-needed individual attention, and an improved chance of finding a home and avoiding death. (The story of a dog named Greyson in Shannon's car, below, will crack the hardest of hearts.)
How did you get the idea for Landfill Dogs?
I have been volunteering at my local county animal shelter for about 10 years, taking the standard headshot photos for their website. I was struck by the high turn-over rate in the kennels, lingering on what happened between each photo shoot. So before Landfill Dogs
, I worked on another project called Breeding Ignorance; Discarded Property
. The focus of this series was to illustrate the euthanasias necessary as a result of animal overpopulation.
I thought if people could just see what goes on, could see this hidden tragedy, they would want
to spay and neuter, and stop breeding, pets. I thought if I made visible the euthanasia process, and the loneliness, confusion, and despair of these creatures in waiting, people would want to do better.
But this is not what happened and the work did not have the impact I wanted it to. It seemed to turn as many people off as it attracted. I got angry emails and people demanding to know where this cruelty was taking place. Many people blamed the county shelters, which really upset me.
The euthanasia of pets is ubiquitous, and the photographs in this series represented the best possible scenario for euthanasia—lethal injection under the supervision of a veterinarian. (At the time the photographs were taken, 14 counties in NC still used a gas chamber. "Gun shot" is still an acceptable form of euthanasia here.)
The county is carrying out our dirty work. While the burden of ending these poor creatures lives is forced upon the shelter workers, the culpability lies with our society as a whole. In the eyes of the law, these dogs are merely excess property to be disposed of. And people are free to breed as many more dogs as they like, whether for profit or simply out of an unwillingness to alter their animals, creating this epidemic of overpopulation.
I spent a few years thinking about this and realized I needed a new visual approach. I wanted to work with this same idea, but I realized I needed to come about it from a different angle. So I decided to photograph the dogs alive and enjoying life. Not only does this make the image more appealing, it also gives the viewer a chance to change the course of this dog's life before it is too late. Even if the viewer can't adopt the dog, they can share his/her picture, and help in process of finding them a home.
I really like the interactive aspect of Landfill Dogs
. It gets people involved in a positive way, and also hopefully gets them talking and asking questions, such as about why they're being photographed on a landfill site.
Landfill Dogs has garnered international attention. Did you expect this to happen? Why do you think it resonated with people?
Not at all. When I began Landfill Dogs
I had no idea what would happen with the project or the dogs who I photographed. I comforted myself with the fact that even if they didn't find a home, at least they had a good walk and some extended time outside of their kennel. I remember the first few photo shoots wondering if the entire procedure was worth it. The subsequent smell of urine in my car was not helping either. I made myself commit to doing it for at least three months before I accepted defeat. However, the project started to take off after being shared on several blogs and after the Facebook page
started in 2013.
I think the project resonates with people because I am just sharing one dog at a time. It is not as overwhelming as seeing a room full of dogs in need. Another reason it may resonate (and the one I hope is true) is that the project offers multiple levels of engagement, all with the same outcome. If someone is interested in sharing a photo because they like it, or sharing the photo because they want to help find the dog a home, or sharing the photo because they want to make a statement about endless stream of unwanted animals that exists in our communities—the result is the same—that it will only help the dogs get exposure.
What role do you see photojournalism playing in the animal rights movement?
I love this question. One of the things I love about art is its ability to persuade on an emotional heart-felt level. Photojournalism shares this power and extends it to an even wider audience and more diverse contexts. This is of utmost importance as the animal rights movement moves away from a fringe interest, and takes center stage.
Although animals have been used as subjects in art throughout time, they are often depicted either anthropomorphically or symbolically. Rarely do we see animals in art as subjects worthy of our moral consideration. For instance, even in contemporary photography and art, photographing pets is seen as low-brow imagery—one that needs "elevation" to be considered art (I put that in quotes because it comes from a conversation with a big city gallery owner).
I think this is an example of how culturally we still view animals objects, property, things to be bought and sold; or perhaps a frivolity that is not as important as a humanitarian concern. However, attitudes are changing quickly, and I think a big reason for this is because of the accessibility of images that expose the cruelty animals in our communities endure, and the commitment of artists who have made animals worthy of being subject matter all on their own. Seeing images of animals as beautiful, sentient beings with hopes, fears, desires, and instincts just like our own challenges our ability to look away and ignore their experiences and the cruelty we inflict on them.
You're a professor of photography. Do you encourage your students to use their skills for social change?
Yes! I actually teach a class called "Photography and Social Change". I am really excited to teach this course again this upcoming fall. In this class I require the students become volunteers so that they can better understand what they are photographing.
That sounds so cool! Can you tell us more about the content and learning objectives of the class?
The goal of "Photography and Social Change" is for students to learn to use digital cameras to make images appropriate for the Internet (size, color management, metadata) while also learning about animal overpopulation and what is being done to combat it. As part of the course, students must become volunteers at a county animal shelter (a public, open-admission shelter. Sometimes these are unfairly called "kill shelters"), keep an online journal, and track the animals they photograph. This semester I am also going to have them research an artist who uses photography as activism, and develop their own project as inspiration.
Are there any particular images or animals that have been particularly important to you?
Oh, this a tough question. Each dog is special to me, but here are four stories. They matter to me because each provides an example of how photography planted a seed that grew into people reaching out and doing something extraordinary for an animal in need.Flora / Amanda Britt and family
: This is perhaps my most favorite story. In January 2014, just after Landfill Dogs
was featured on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer
, I met Amanda Britt and her family at the animal shelter one evening when I was coming back from a photo shoot. They had recently lost their beloved pit bull, had seen the ABC piece, and came to the shelter looking for a new family member. They introduced themselves and Amanda expressed interest in volunteering since she is also a photographer.
About a week later, Amanda and her family not only adopted a Landfill Dog
(Flora), but she also became a volunteer for the animal shelter, and now helps me with just about every Landfill Dog
photo shoot. Since Amanda is a photographer, she has great ideas for photographs and is always encouraging me to try something new. She is also excellent with handling dogs (not my strength), so we are able to get much better photographs together.
Amanda's daughter, Madison, is a Girl Scout. Her troop has worked together to raise money for the animal shelter. Madison also uses her painting skills to paint pictures of dog paws, and then sell them as part of the shelters annual online auction to benefit the heartworm treatment for heartworm positive dogs (many Landfill Dogs
are heartworm positive). Recently Madison raised $261. Amanda's husband, Charlie, has also come out to help with photo shoots. I love that Landfill Dogs
has become part of their lives and in turn, they have helped so many more Harley
: Harley is a 10-year-old senior dog who had spent two months in the animal shelter. After his Landfill Dog
photo shoot, the SPCA decided to rescue him. Concurrently, a Landfill Dog
follower who lives just outside of Atlanta saw him on the Facebook page
and decided she could not live without him.
Worried that someone else would adopt him from the rescue group, she made the eight-hour journey the next morning to adopt him. She arrived just before they opened so that she would be first in line to adopt him (she was the only one in line). The woman is an end-of-life nurse, and said she wanted to make sure Harley only knew love for the rest of his days.
I absolutely love this compassion. It makes me cry. I also love the collaboration between the SPCA and the county shelter. It makes me so happy that the public and private shelters are working together to help animals in need.Paco / Weezy
: In May 2014, I called the family that had adopted a dog named Weezy. I try to do follow-up photo shoots with all the families that adopt Landfill Dogs
to show the dogs in their new homes. Unfortunately, in this case the adoption had not worked out. After Weezy had destroyed some furniture, the family had taken Weezy to the their local shelter in Davidson County.
I feel a special connection to all the Landfill Dogs
, so I needed to help him. After several phone calls, I discovered that Weezy was scheduled for euthanasia via gas chamber at the Davidson County shelter. The Wake County Animal Center, where Weezy had spent 194 days waiting for a home, agreed to take him back and give him another chance if I transported him.
However, when I went to pick up Weezy in Davidson County, they brought out a different dog. In a case of mistaken identity, the wrong dog had been spared from the gas chamber. It turned out that Weezy had been euthanized days before, and the dog standing before me with a wagging tail was just a nameless stray dog who had never been claimed. Just one of the statistics. He was one of the some 200,000 animals destined to be euthanized in NC each year due to overpopulation.
I named him Paco (nickname for St. Francis, the patron saint of animals). We made him a Landfill Dog
in June 2014. He was adopted later in the summer and is now in a loving home. The people who follow Landfill Dogs
even raised an additional $1000 for the adoptive mom to take him to dog training classes.
This story illustrates the message I am trying convey with Landfill Dogs
. Every dog deserves a chance at a loving home. The shelters do the very best they can, but in the end, there are too many cats and dogs and not enough homes.
People do not need to buy a pet from a breeder. There are good ones waiting at the shelter right now. If everyone did this, we could save all the Weezys and Pacos.Willie (now Jack)
: Willie was a 6-year-old pit mix who has been in the shelter (without foster care) since February 9, 2015. I was actually at the shelter the day after he came in and I remember meeting him. He was such a friendly gentle soul. I remember petting him and telling him he wouldnt be in the shelter long enough to be a Landfill Dog
Week after week went by and Willie grew more despondent and detached. On March 31, we took him for his photo shoot. As we were walking Willie back to the car, a fire truck pulled up behind us and slowed down to turn into the trash drop-off site. For some reason, I asked if I could photograph Willie on the truck. They agreed, and I photographed him on the fire truck.
A few days later, I was out running in the park a guy recognized me and asked if the dog I photographed got a home. He told me his name was David and he had been the driver of the fire truck and asked several questions about Willie's history, temperament, and which shelter he was in. David told me that he had thought about Willie since the day we photographed him, and when he saw me in the park he said "well, it was meant to be."
David went Monday morning before the shelter opened, with cash in hand, because he didn't want anyone else to adopt Willie. When he met Willie that Monday morning, Willie didn't seem to care much about him. The person at the shelter told him he had withdrawn from humans and was depressed. This did not deter David. He simply said, "This is my dog." Willie is now named Jack and lives with David and his wife, Stacey. They love him dearly. He is the only pet they have had "besides goldfish."
Is there anything else you'd like to be asked about, or you think we should be asking about?
I want to take a second to talk about breeds. I didn't intend to focus on pit bulls. In fact, I asked the shelter staff to choose the dogs for me based on who had the most need. Week after week, I found myself photographing pit bulls. Unfortunately, pit bulls and pit bull mixes are the dogs who are left over in my community. Pit bulls are also the most frequently discarded dogs in Wake County and the last to find homes.
Before starting the Landfill Dogs
project, I bought into the negative stereotypes about pit bulls. I thought they were unpredictable, untrustworthy, mean, and scary. What I have experienced, however, is that pits are some of the most bouncy, snuggly, obedient, and loving dogs around. The first time I was kissed by a pit bull, I was stunned. I was expecting the dog to grab me with her mouth or possibly head-butt me. Instead, she gently kissed me and looked up shyly to see if it was okay. I was surprised that she looked me in the eye (my Walker hound never looks at me) and chose to stay next to me rather than pull on the leash.
Greyson, who was the second Landfill Dog
, is a pit bull, and he is the dog responsible for changing me. Greyson was the first pit bull I remember being alone with. I didn't know what to expect, and I was cautious. We went out for our walk, and he was very good. Nothing remarkable happened until we got back in the car to go home—Greyson flopped down in the backseat and immediately fell asleep. It was a warm day, so I turned on the air conditioning. I played the radio, and Greyson slept all the way back to the shelter. When we pulled into the parking lot, he was still sound asleep. Before I shut off the car, I looked at him and started wake him but stopped. I watched him soundly sleep, snoring occasionally. He looked so content. I thought about how noisy the shelter is with all the barking. I thought about how there was no air conditioning in there, and it occurred to me that this was the first good sleep Greyson had enjoyed in a while.
It never occurred to me that a pit bull would be sensitive, or might feel discomfort, or find it difficult to sleep. I guess I thought his tough exterior and gigantic head would somehow steel his interior, almost warrior-like. But pit bulls are anything but warriors. From my experience, given their capacity for affection and ability to jump, I would liken pit bulls more to a cross between a goat and a teddy bear.
Greyson was afraid, confused, and stressed in the shelter, and this car ride provided a soft, cool, and relatively quiet place to sleep. (I later learned that the stress of the shelter caused him to lose weight and hair.) So I sat in my car and thought about waking him up, but instead turned on a Depeche Mode CD from 1984 and let him sleep. I sat with him and thought about how wrong I had been, and how much I loved that Greyson the pit bull was soothed by new wave 80s music—not at all the vicious beast I imagined his breed to be. I sat in the car until the CD played out. I promised I would come back for him the next day and let him nap in my car. Thankfully, he went into foster care the next day, and is now in a loving home.Thank you so much, Shannon! Your work is beautiful and inspiring. Interview by Anna Pippus and Jo-Anne McArthur for
We Animals. All images by Shannon Johnstone for Landfill Dogs.