Many animals wear their emotions on their faces. Those who find themselves in the unfamiliar atmosphere of an animal shelter communicate their worry and uncertainty with flattened ears, narrowed eyes and tucked tails. And when that fear and anxiety is captured in a photo, would-be adopters might pass that animal by.
Capturing the joyful, curious personalities of animals in shelters has become the life work of Nanette Martin, who operates the nonprofit Shelter-Me Photography out of Boulder, Colo. And in late January, she shared her skill in getting animals to relax and pose for captivating portraits with staffers and volunteers at the SPCA Serving Erie County and several local rescue groups.
Martin stayed for three days, teaching people how to get the animals comfortable, attract their attention by making unusual noises or squeaking toys, and photograph them from eye level in front of a brilliant blue backdrop.
The results are nothing short of spectacular. In the portraits from the visit, displayed on the Shelter-Me Photography Facebook page, cats stretch toward the camera, their enormous eyes gold or bright green. Dogs peer curiously into the lens, their heads tipped to one side and ears alert. Even a solid black dog with dark brown eyes has a bright facial expression, his eyes deep and soulful. They all look calm and happy.
“We hear time and again that people come in because of the photo online, and now that our photos are getting better, we hear it more often,” says Gina Browning, public relations director for the SPCA. “It’s not an unusual thing to hear anymore, that the photo directly led to the adoption. Granted, when the people arrive, the animal has to work it, they are not going to adopt the animal just because of the photo, but that’s what gets them in the door.”
“The goal is to take the shelter out of the dogs that are in the shelter, and to show people how they really are,” Martin said during a phone interview from her home in Boulder.
After completing three days of demonstration and teaching, Martin left the SPCA with a blue cloth backdrop, two high-quality professional lights and a camera that volunteers can use.
The backdrop and lights were being put to good use recently by volunteers April Cockrell and Tess Moran, who is a professional wedding photographer and was using her own digital camera to photograph dogs. In an alcove in the busy reception area, they steered the dogs, one by one, onto a soft cushion in front of the lights. For one photo, volunteer Tara Montgomery scooped up King Arnold, a tan pit bull puppy. He snuggled up to her and peered at the camera as Moran made a kissing noise, then shot his photo. Topagio, a majestic blue merle Great Dane, raised his ears and opened his eyes wide when he heard a high-pitched squeak from a toy hidden by Cockrell. He finally bounded forward to find it.
“When you get a good photo and the face is expressive and the eyes are glistening and clear, it appeals to people,” Moran said.
The special portraits take more time to set up, says Cathi Rugg, the photo volunteer coordinator. “There are so many animals who come through our doors, and there are so many photos to take that in the past they have taken them in more of a hurried way, just because there are so many animals,” she said. “This new approach is maybe not doable every day, but it’s something that we can try to incorporate into what we do.”
Three volunteers are needed to take the portraits — one to handle the animal, placing it in position and ensuring that it is not becoming stressed, a second to squeak a toy or otherwise assist the photographer, and a third to shoot the photos.
Right now, the portrait treatment is just being done for specific animals, said Rugg.
“We are trying to select animals that might be less likely to be adopted, such as older animals,” she says. “If a purebred puppy comes in, we are probably not going to take the time to do this, because that animal would be probably adopted by the time we go to post the photo. But there are animals who have been here for a while, and where I have done multiple photo shoots of the same animal.”
“One dog had three photo shoots,” she said. “He was just not a photogenic dog. Every angle was wrong. But he loved to play and he was a great dog. So finally we got a head-on photo of him with a big colorful ball in his mouth, and somebody came in and said, ‘I just kept looking at his photo!’ That photo united him with his owner.”
Martin, the operator of Shelter-Me, has been a professional photographer for years. She was on assignment for People magazine in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina when she first became aware of the desperate plight of homeless animals.
“Before Katrina, I was like most people in the country, I had no concept of animal rescue,” Martin said. “My path diverted in New Orleans, and I didn’t see it coming.”
After accompanying rescuers in boats who were able to save some animals immediately after the storm in late August but could not take others, Martin returned in March. She photographed dogs being loaded on a transport headed for Atlanta. “By the time they got to Atlanta, all the dogs were spoken for and one of the rescue workers said to me, ‘Nanette, your pictures are making the difference between life and death.’ Part of me felt really good, and part of me was absolutely terrified because what I heard was, ‘You’re never going to get another good night’s sleep.’ ”
Between 2005 and 2009, Martin personally photographed about 3,000 homeless animals. “I ran myself into the ground, financially, physically and emotionally,” she says. Then she hit on the idea of starting a nonprofit that would enable her to teach others to take the kind of beautiful photos that made the animals in her portraits so appealing. The Nestle Purina Pet Care Co. now sponsors her, paying for the backdrops, lights and cameras she leaves at the shelters.
“Purina’s mission was to change the way people saw shelter animals, and that was our mission, too,” she said. Martin does about eight intensive workshops a year at shelters, and “we’ve had quite a few requests. I’m happy to go as long as we have the funding to pull it off.”
At the Erie County SPCA, Martin said, she was impressed by the level of commitment she saw.
“I had a fabulous time and I so enjoyed all of the workers, the volunteers,” she said. “I meet the greatest people in shelters. They want so badly to do a better job and make better pictures, because there is no doubt, it’s like death and taxes, you take a better picture of a shelter animal and that animal has more chance of getting adopted than the one next to it that has a terrible picture. That’s the only difference.”
Martin enjoys meeting the animals she helps, and hopes that they all find loving homes. “The dogs and cats, they don’t care who they go home with, they just want to go home,” she says. “They just want to be loved and love back. Their love is unconditional, and I think their whole purpose in life is to teach us to love unconditionally.”
People who adopt animals from the shelter treasure the photos, which can be downloaded from the SPCA’s website, Rugg said.
“People who adopt animals from us have them for years and years,” she said, “and if they don’t get that animal as a puppy or kitten, this is their beginning, their stay with us.”
Western New York is full of people who love animals. We take cats, dogs and other pets into our homes and hearts, and devote ourselves to their well-being.
But it’s far from a one-way street. Many people realize that they have benefited more than they have given. A devoted pet’s unconditional love inspires and encourages us, sometimes even enables us to help others.
Through the twice-monthly Buffalo News feature Pet Tales, we’ve been sharing inspiring stories of animals and their people for three years. If you have an interesting story about how an animal has changed your life, please send it to Anne Neville at The Buffalo News, One News Plaza, Buffalo, 14240,or email it to email@example.com