Growing up, photographer Shannon Johnstone was completely unfamiliar with the shelter system. Fast forward to a few decades later, and she’s saving shelter dogs lives one photograph at a time.
As Johnstone’s website explains: These are not just cute pictures of dogs. These are dogs who have been homeless for at least two weeks, and now face euthanasia if they do not find a home. Each week for 18 months I bring one dog from the county animal shelter and photograph him/her at the local landfill.
At every photo shoot, each dog gets roughly two hours of one-on-one love and attention, a car ride, a walk, and some tasty treats. Johnstone then shares the portraits on her website and Facebook page, hoping to bring attention to the dogs who are at the highest risk of euthanasia. In just under two years, Johnstone’s photographs have helped get nearly a hundred dogs adopted since the project officially began in the fall of 2012. Out of the 92 dogs she’s photographed (at the time of interview) all but six have found homes or have been taken in by no-kill rescues.
“One part about this project that I love, is that it’s become a metaphor for these dogs,” says Johnstone, a tenured Associate Professor at Meredith College in Raleigh. The space she uses as a backdrop for her portraits was once a landfill that has recently been transformed into a public park. Johnstone says that by using the landfill as a backdrop, it creates a “metaphor of hope,” showing a place that was once full of discarded trash transformed into a beautiful, natural space. “I love that idea of turning that around, turning something that nobody wants into something beautiful and hopeful” she says.
Having grown up with both a love of dogs and photography, the project is a perfect fit for Johnstone’s skills and passions. She fondly remembers her first camera, which came inside a fast food happy meal, saying “I just carried that around with me wherever I went – I just wanted to remember everything.” And she’s been hooked every since.
Johnstone grew up with beagles. When she decided to adopt a dog of her own after graduate school, she stumbled upon a local rescue through the help of Google. “I had no idea about animal rescues,” Johnstone says. “I just Googled ‘beagle Triangle [her area in North Carolina]’ and the first thing that came up was ‘triangle beagle rescue’ – and I ended up adopting one.”
Johnstone became involved with her local shelter through her neighbor, who convinced her to volunteer. Johnstone reflects back on her first visit to the shelter, saying “I was like ‘Oh my god, what is this place?’ All the little noses and all the ears and all the emotional needs…I was just overwhelmed.” After her first visit in 2006, Johnstone became a regular volunteer and soon began taking photos for the shelter. “Then it occurred to me that if I didn’t know about this, I guarantee that there are other people who didn’t know about shelter dogs,” Johnstone says. “So I decided to start making work that might show the hidden part of our community. And I started out by becoming interested in photographing the euthanasias.”
Johnson started the “Breeding Ignorance” project in 2009 with the intention of getting the community involved with animal rescue efforts. “I was dumbfounded by the people who do that each week,” Johnstone says of the vets who conducted the euthanasias. “They’re tasked with cleaning up our mess. We created this and now they’re tasked to do this.” While Johnstone felt it was important to show the harsh side of animal overpopulation, the project actually received significant negative backlash – mainly from people criticizing the shelters and vets who were conducting the euthanasias. So shortly after Breeding Ignorance, Johnstone started to think about a different way to get people involved in saving shelter dogs by using more positive images. After a visit in 2010 to the landfill site, the concept for Landfill Dogs was born.
“I wanted to have a positive message, that made people feel more empowered than defeated,” says Johnstone. “In North Carolina, most of the shelters are on landfill sites or landfill roads, or have something to do with waste systems. To me that was so crazy, that these creatures, these pets, these living things, we see them as waste.”
Johnstone recalls a few special dogs whose stories stood out and whose lives were saved directly through her work. Like Carlos, a black pitbull who was given up because his owner was deported and had to leave the country. As she puts it, “Carlos was in a shelter and was a black pit bull, so he had two strikes against him.” Four days after taking his photograph for Landfill Dogs, Carlos was adopted, and now lives a happy life in suburban North Carolina, with two human brothers who love to play.
Johnstone has received substantial media attention and acclaim for her work on Landfill Dogs. After getting initial press coverage from local blogs and newspapers after a summer gallery showing in downtown Raleigh, word spread quickly. Things subsequently “went beserk” once BuzzFeed covered Landfill Dogs, which then led to a video segment on ABC News. The attention ultimately prompted Johnstone to start a Facebook page for the project, which now has over 30,000 likes.
“I’m completely surprised by the reception that its gotten. I had not expected it to go over this well, and I had not expected this many dogs to get homes either, so I’m really pleased,”she says. After the ABC News coverage, Johnstone made a small book of her photographs which raised $1,500 toward heartworm treatment for the landfill dogs. Small sample books can still be ordered online, with $10 of each sale going toward heartworm medication for the dogs through a HEAL A HEART fundraiser.
Johnstone is currently in talks with a publisher to create a larger Landfill Dogs book that is expected to come out at the end of this year or in early 2015. She says she wants to include more stories and pictures of the dogs in their adoptive homes, and also wants to visit shelters in all 100 counties in North Carolina.
Johnstone says the project has been a very joyful and positive experience. “I was prepared for a lot more sad situations, but I’ve had many more happy tears than I have had sad tears.”
Learn more about Johnstone’s Landfill Dogs project by visiting her website at https://landfilldogs.info/, or follow her on Facebook to view her most recent photographs. Click here to donate to the Wake County Animal Shelter.