Editor’s note: Sophie Gamand’s enthusiastic response to my request for a photo story was very encouraging in this new series. She is passionate about the creative process and knew exactly what I meant when I asked for a story about creativity rather than just technical information. Fortunately for us, the history of her viral series “Wet Dog” fits this theme exactly. She gave us this riveting narrative about how years of preparation plus one day of just letting go can change the course of a career.
Several years ago I decided to quit the corporate world and focus on a more artistic career. Before that, I had tried very hard to comply to society’s demands (I have a Master in law, worked for a UN-affiliated organization, etc.). Once I made the decision to give my artistic career a chance, it became a struggle. I was interested in many different things. I focused on singing (I am a classically trained singer and thought opera would be my career) and photography (I was doing a lot of self-portraiture and artistic series).
At the end of 2010, I moved to New York. That meant leaving my family, friends, jobs, networks behind me [in France]. I was following a man (my husband-to-be), so it was not a bad time at all; quite the opposite, but it also meant starting from square one. Both photography and singing were careers that required a network. I sat in our new apartment wondering what my next step would be. At that point, it could not be singing, because it would take months – years maybe, before I could rebuild a network. And I am not the patient kind. So photography took the front seat.
I always believe in challenging oneself. Find the things that scare you and face them.
I thought: “I am used to studio work and self-portrait. What is the absolute opposite thing I could possibly do?” And I signed up for a street documentary class. I always believe in challenging oneself. Find the things that scare you and face them. My first assignment was to document someone in my neighborhood. I was terrified to approach a stranger with my camera, and my English was great but not that great! As I wandered in the streets of my new neighborhood, I saw a vet clinic that looked inviting. I pushed [open] the door.
In the waiting room, there was this dog peeking out from behind the wall. He looked worried; out of place. I snapped a photo and that triggered my fascination for dogs in the city and all the things we do with and to them. I started following “crazy” dog people – people that dress up their dogs, rescuers and stray dogs, etc. I wanted to understand the relationship between dogs and people, and also what it means about us, as a human society.
After a couple of years I had professionalized my activity, [and] opened Striking Paws, a pet photography business, to support my photographic exploration. But like many artists, I just wanted to focus on my art, and creating new series (perfecting my style) took all my energy. So trying to sell myself on top of that was just too much.
I did not feel ready to be a commercial photographer, but also knew I could not really be an artistic photographer. Who wants to see pet photography in competitions and galleries? Except for a few big names in the photography world, pet photography is discarded, viewed as an inferior form of art; a bit like baby photography or wedding photography (although things are starting to change for the latter). I felt there was no future for me. I did not belong in any category.
I knew this series would make my career. I had a list of 200 magazines worldwide and I sent them my press release. None of them responded. None. Dog Vogue was never picked up, never published.
I had spent over a year on my big series Dog Vogue, which was dedicated to dog high fashion. I put a lot of care in this project, casting dogs and commissioning outfits [from] the designer, choosing backgrounds that would match the outfits, etc. Once the series had been ready, I had a press release, a website running. I knew this series would make my career.
I had a list of 200 magazines worldwide and I sent them my press release. None of them responded. None. Dog Vogue was never picked up, never published. I submitted it to 2 photo competitions. I was certain I would at least be in the finalists, but nothing happened. The day the Sony Awards announced their finalists in 2013 and I saw I was not one of them, I wrote on my calendar: “All I wanted was a sign”. It was a pretty dark place.
At that point, I came to the realization that my photography could not be a career. I was volunteering with dog rescue groups, animal-related charity events, and shelters, so that became my full-time activity. My photography was at least, I felt, meaningful to those. But the thing about volunteering is that it does not pay the bills, and it also, long-term, drains you of your energy, and demotivates you to pursue your own needs and desires. It is easier to do for others than it is for ourselves.
By the summer of 2013, after a year-and-a-half of full-time volunteering for a rescue group, I was at the end of my rope. I loved helping others and their rescue work; it felt fulfilling to a certain extent, but while volunteering, I was not doing much for my own career and dreams. What had been an “easy way out” had become a heavy weight on my shoulders.
In August, I took the decision to resign from my main volunteer position. I wanted that decision to have sense. I owed it to myself but also to the rescue group that I was leaving. I needed to show them and myself that I was leaving for a good reason, and that I was going to give it a good shot. I was also scared of the empty days. Nothing to do; no project. So when I “quit”, I set myself a goal of photographing a new project every day for a week. That was September 2013. I booked shoots I had been wanting to do for a long time and worked tirelessly. All that work that I had been able to give to others, I was going to give it to myself, and for my own career. It felt incredibly selfish, but I knew it was necessary. It was a bit of “swim or sink” for me.
That Saturday, I had to travel all the way to the Bronx, with my equipment, to photograph the work of a groomer. As I arrived on the premises, negative thoughts crossed my mind: “Why am I doing this? Who cares about dog photography? The room is too small, too dark, I am never going to be able to make it work.” I brushed those away and set up my equipment. That meant just a light stand with a light and an umbrella. A very simple set-up, easy to transport (I usually work with more light and complex set-ups). During the process, I would ask the groomer to stop, bring the dog to the set, and I would take photos. I wanted to see the before/after/and in-between. I wanted to photograph those dogs with cut fur piling on each side of them, as the groomer shaved them. It was like a metaphor of the wild dog becoming a pet. I called this project Metamorphosis. That day, I was ready to photograph anything that would come my way.
And [then] the groomer started bathing the dogs. I knew I had something. I loved the color of the tub, its texture – the dogs were battling under the water, shaking. I loved the way the fur looked when it was soaked. It was so tactile. It also reminded me of all the stray dogs I had bathed while helping the rescue group. Suddenly, everything came into place. I photographed for 11 hours that day. When I got home with my precious cargo of thousands of images, I sat in front of the computer, and went straight to the wet dogs. My husband walked past me, took a peek at my screen and gasp[ed] with excitement. “Oh my god,” he said. “What is THIS???”
As I got ready to release Wet Dog to the world, my state of mind was very different than with Dog Vogue. I had a renewed passion for my work, and instead of thinking in terms of “Who is going to be interested in this?” I started thinking: “I am going to show the world what good pet photography can be.” I wanted to be the one to change everything. I was inspired by Jill Greenberg for her visuals and how she brought animal photography to the highest grounds of artistic photography, and by William Wegman, of course, for the way he has been photographing the same breed for the past 40 years, and all the daring images he created. He was truly a pioneer of dog photography. I wanted to take his light and carry it to the next generation. I was trying to convince myself it was not too pretentious!
And [then] the groomer started bathing the dogs. I knew I had something….Suddenly, everything came into place. I photographed for 11 hours that day. When I got home with my precious cargo of thousands of images, I sat in front of the computer, and went straight to the wet dogs.
I released Wet Dog on my website and social media. People responded well. Then a couple of weeks later, I did something I never do: I submitted the series to a blog. It came a bit by accident. I was browsing Facebook and a friend shared a photo series that the blog had published. I thought the photos were really good, and I visited the blog, and felt my Wet Dogs could fit in nicely. So I emailed the blog, and one hour later got a response that the team loved the series and was going to publish ASAP.
From there, it went nuts. I was sitting at home looking at my website’s counter going up. It went up to 100 000 visitors. I started getting emails and requests from all around the world. Unlike Dog Vogue, I was so unprepared for this! But in a way, it was so much better. Because I did not have such a strong attachment to the project, I felt free to follow any lead that would come my way. Several people contacted me to make a book – book publishers and agents. I love books. As a matter of fact, I used to be chief editor of a photo magazine in France, and I always loved paper and holding a beautiful magazine/book in my hands. So all of a sudden, there was a new career for me: making books? My agent submitted the book project to several publishers and 7 of them were interested! Everyone considered Wet Dog as the new “Underwater Dogs” (Seth Casteel) or “Shake” (Carli Davidson). I was in shock. Those were big success stories. Could it happen to me? Unlike them though, I never considered myself a dog photographer in the sense of an animal photographer. Their work is very much about the dog as an animal. My work is about the dog as a persona. So I convinced myself I had more to tell than any other dog photographer before me. Ha!
As my series went viral online at the end of 2013, I decided to reapply for the Sony Awards. But again, I felt like my photos did not belong in any category. They don’t have pet photography as an option. The only category that would work would be the “Portrait” one, but how daring of me to submit dog portraits in that category! I hesitated, but that is how I see my work – portraits of dogs seen as people – so why not embrace this? So I entered the competition. And did not think about it again.
Until they announced their finalists early February 2014. There was my name. I am a finalist of the Sony Awards with my wet dogs. Not only is this an amazing opportunity and honor, but it also comforts me in my vision and my work: I am going to show the world what pet photography can be. I want to revolutionize dog photography, like William Wegman did before me. My Wet Dog series is a finalist of the Portrait category of the Sony World Photography Awards 2014. Talk about a sign!
Photo Stories is a series that provides a look at how our favorite images were made.