When you don’t have a voice of your own, it helps to have an advocate, especially if you happen to be a Pit Bull — one of the most misunderstood and mischaracterized dog breeds. Lucky for them to have found a formidable champion in Sophie Gamand, an artist — self-taught in photography — and animal advocate who is doing her part to shift perceptions and counter the stigmatization that has long plagued this breed.
Gamand left a career in law and her family behind in France, but brought her fiancé and her dreams to find her artistic outlet in a new place — Brooklyn. What began as a passion project led to the creation of a movement that helps present shelter dogs in the most flattering “light.” In her work, the light source used was crowns of flowers she sourced and crafted by hand to adorn her subjects, who receive additional “powers” from wearing her creations, for they not only enhance the dogs’ features, but also boost their chances of becoming adopted.
In her words, “a little beautification softens the edges and allows the beauty of their expressions, their soulful eyes, to shine love in the eyes of the viewer.”
In Gamand’s case, it wasn’t about just taking the perfect dog photo, it was about telling the animals’ stories and presenting these often sad or neglected pups in the most positive light. “I feel like I’m a free electron in the scene,” Gamand says. “I’ve taken a part that’s up close and personal. The economics are not the driving force. My mission is to be a voice for the animals and the people around them.”
Gamand conceived the idea for her “Pit Bull Flower Power” series in the summer of 2014. She was kicking around ideas for a while — the process causing her sleepless nights when the notion of a crown of flowers popped into her head. Of the process, she says, “The idea just came to me and then I thought, what a dumb idea — being just inches away from the faces (of these dogs). Plus, I had never used a glue gun.”
Turns out that Gamand had been attacked by a large dog — not a pit bull — when she was around 13, she says. Still, undeterred, she persevered. “I created a special project that would force me to get to know them — portray them in a way that had never been done before. The reaction on social media was enormous.”
Throughout the project, Gamand created more than 800 custom flower crowns. No crown was reused and each was tailored to a specific animal. Talking about the first attempt, she says, “I sat one day with a bunch of flowers and made maybe 20 to 25 crowns, packed a suitcase and went off to the shelter.” Her first subject was a mature dog who had been at Sean Casey Animal Rescue in Brooklyn for months. “Her name was Baby,” Gamand says.
“I didn’t know how to make a dog sit when I started, but in that moment I realized I was the one who was going to have to do it. My hands were sweating. We were both in the same space. The look on Baby’s face told me, ‘I don’t know you, but I want to trust you.’ She was sitting there (with her crown on her head), but she didn’t move. We really connected. Two shots and I had the portrait.”
Once the “Pit Bull Flower Power” series took off, she realized she needed to take it on the road — and in print. For her self-published book of the same name as the series, she worked with 30 different organizations around the country, taking some 500 photographs over a period of about four years. To what sounds like her surprise, she has managed to make a living from her work, one that affords her the ability to fly to areas where shelters are underrepresented and often in dire straits and, almost always, as elsewhere, overrun with the beleaguered Pit Bull.
She has mounted one-woman exhibitions and produced artful canvases, calendars and accessories from which she either generates revenue to support her solo efforts, or from which profits are generated to benefit rescue groups, particularly in hard-hit areas. She says that the one event that was particularly ambitious occurred in a vast space in Brooklyn when she launched her book, which is available through her website, in the fall of 2018.
She had exacting quality standards and specifications for the book — that it be a hardbound, 9 by 12-inch, full color book with thick paper. Gamand raised funds on Kickstarter for the book and, once she had completed taking all the photographs, began a 9-month intensive period, choosing the final 280 images and writing the animals’ stories. “I could not use all the images in the book, so the editing process was really, really hard. I didn’t want the stories to be repetitive, so no two stories in the book are alike. I didn’t realize how impactful it would be. I had to dive into these stories, talking to rescuers and adopters.”
Each of the featured animals had an accompanying status at the time of publication — available for adoption, adopted, deceased or euthanized before adoption. Happily, many successful unions between the shelter dogs and humans occurred as a result of her series and the book. Gamand’s skill in coaxing these creatures to tolerate their “makeovers” causes such wonder, to me, as I’m sure it does to her loyal fan base around the globe. Through her depiction of the animals, and via her robust platform on Instagram, she has amassed more than 240,000 followers.
“I am all about supporting the work of the nonprofits, but I have a foot in the business world,” Gamand says. “I wanted to build a career using social media and live in that realm, but I don’t sell ads. I keep the platform very educative and I’ve been fortunate to protect my mission and not sell out.”
Her book, like much of her other merchandise, is unique, tasteful, creative and smart, much like the artist herself. This superpower, who meekly set out to use her camera to settle into her new city, says that many of her subjects become adopted, others do not, but, collectively, they have been afforded a special opportunity for exposure and promotion.
In the realm of pet rescue, there’s a tendency to sensationalize the often harrowing and tragic stories that accompany this breed. That’s not what Gamand is about. Through her work, she depicts the empathy and love she has developed for a breed that represents the highest demographic of shelter dogs throughout the United States and around the world, with significant concentrations in urban and rural areas alike.
Gamand has been adept at controlling the message and she speaks about the enormity of the responsibility. “I have a holistic approach to rescue in that I care as much about the humans (involved in these cases) as much as I do about the rescues. Everything for me was always about justice — having a voice, finding a voice and reaching the perfect moment in my life where I feel parallel to that mission — to increase responsibility toward companion animals and humanity’s relation to them.”
For more, visit sophiegamand.com.