Sophie Gamand’s Doggy Style

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE WORLD OF HIGH FASHION AND DOGS MEET? THE ANSWER IS ONE THAT FINE-ART PHOTOGRAPHER SOPHIE GAMAND IS WELL ACQUAINTED WITH. SINCE 2010 SHE HAS BEEN FOCUSSING HER LENS ON DOGS AND THE HUMAN RELATIONSHIP WITH THEM. GAMAND HAS CREATED A STIR WITH CANINE-CENTRIC PROJECTS RANGING FROM AN EMOTIONALLY-CHARGED DOCUMENTARY OF STRAY DOGS IN PUERTO RICO, TO DISSOLVING MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT RESCUED PITBULLS BY STYLING THEM WITH FLOWER CROWNS.

 

This photo series captures a milieu that many people never see. What is it that attracted you to this scene?

I started photographing the dog high fashion sub-culture in 2010. In parallel to this work, I was photographing stray dogs in Puerto Rico. So both series are very linked that way. Back then, I was just starting on photographing all things dogs, and I put an ad out to find people who do eccentric things with their dogs. This woman answered and sent me pictures of her wearing matching outfits with her chihuahua. At first I thought it was one of the most amazing, yet pathetic things I had ever seen! I started going to all their gatherings. This group meets regularly and there are dog fashion designers fighting for the spotlight. It’s very similar to the world of child beauty pageants. The focus seems to be on the dogs, but really it’s all about the doggy moms and dads. These outfits usually are sold for several hundred dollars, up to a couple of thousands. Designers compete for best designs, moms strut the runway with their dogs, it’s a highly competitive circle, and very catty (no pun intended)!
The more I followed the group, the more empathy I developed for them. What struck me is how lonely and emotionally immature these people were. Their dogs were their everything. Their dogs replace spouses, friends, and the only social gatherings they attended were through their dogs. I followed them for about four years.

What are your thoughts on intimacy and vulnerability between the photographer and subject? How do you feel this difference (or not) between your human and canine subjects, and even the two subjects themselves?

It’s interesting because with this project, at first I wanted to document it, expose the sub-culture that seemed so crazy to me. But as I started getting to know these people, I felt lots of compassion for them. And I tried to photograph them the best way I could, to make them look beautiful, to celebrate what they were about.
Photographically, nothing worked though, and my work wasn’t good. I gathered thousands of images in four years and was feeling very frustrated with the project, then I had to stop being involved because I started working on other projects that took all my time. After a few months without being immersed in this group, I revisited the images I had taken all these years, and started making a selection. It wasn’t based on my feelings for these people this time, but a little more clinical, based on images that spoke to me, conveyed a story. It was like taking my rose coloured glasses off and seeing that scene for what it is: dirty, sad, overwhelming. Behind all the glitter there is a very touching story, simple human beings wanting more from life, but really, they are bound to the harsh reality of dog poop and social conventions.
With hindsight I think I spent too much time and energy trying to bond and deeply understand my subject. it became too personal, which at the time prevented me from really photographing them the way I wanted. As a documentary photographer, this is a tough balance to achieve. You want to be close and empathise, but you need to free yourself from the guilt, the idea that you are exploiting your subject, in a way.
When I photograph dogs, I don’t have the same issue, because I don’t try to create a social relationship with them. I might feel like I am “using” my subject at times, but the dogs don’t care, and there is no social pressure of any kind. When I photographed stray dogs, though, I felt a similar social pressure to make my subject beautiful and dignified, in situations that were less than beautiful and dignified. I also felt guilty “using” my subject, especially when a dog was dying in front of me, or scared. So both the stray dogs and the fashion dogs taught me a lot about photographing a story. I have not really done documentary work since then, and have been focusing on portraiture. But I am curious to revisit the genre.

See more of Sophie Gamand’s work on www.SophieGamand.com or on Instagram @SophieGamand.