Every day when I login to Facebook, I find my newsfeed sprinkled . . . sometimes drenched . . . with photographic content that I would just as soon do without most days. I call this my McLachlan feed. Yes, the part of my newsfeed dominated by my many animal welfare friends and acquaintances, and reminiscent of Sarah McLachlan’s now infamous ad for the ASPCA in which shots of sad, mistreated animals roll across the screen while tv viewers everywhere either pick up the phone to donate, or dash for the remote in an attempt to change the channel. That one.
Unfortunately, the content in my newsfeed is never accompanied by the melodious sound of McLachlan’s voice singing “Angel” nor is it nearly as well-crafted and thoughtfully produced as the ASPCA’s commercial, which was so wildly successful that it raised over $30 million in less than two years after it first aired. The commercial works . . . because it’s well done and the proof is in the $30 million pudding. As for my newsfeed full of “Urgent case” dogs on the brink of euthanasia and picture after picture of tortured horses and abused cats . . . well, the jury’s still out on that one.
When you work or volunteer in animal welfare, you inevitably reach that media saturation point when you either grow numb or impervious to the constant barrage of disturbing content you’re met with everyday, or you find ways to create emotional boundaries and intellectual boxes, or perhaps avoid the content altogether. Which is unfortunate, because every once in a while you stumble across something unique and truly exquisite, and you wonder, why can’t more folks share things like this?
That’s how I feel about Shannon Johnstone’s recently launched Landfill Dogs project that continues into the fall of 2013. Each week, Johnstone, an art professor at Meredith College in North Carolina, takes one shelter dog on an afternoon outing and photographs them playing, wandering and living at the state landfill where many of them will end up after euthanization. Click here to see the most up-to-date set of photographs from the project. As Johnstone 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 (late 2012–early 2014) I bring one dog from the county animal shelter and photograph him/her at the local landfill.
The landfill site is used for two reasons. First, this is where the dogs will end up if they do not find a home. Their bodies will be buried deep in the landfill among our trash. These photographs offer the last opportunity for the dogs to find homes.
The second reason for the landfill location is because the county animal shelter falls under the same management as the landfill. This government structure reflects a societal value; homeless cats and dogs are just another waste stream. However, this landscape offers a metaphor of hope. It is a place of trash that has been transformed into a place of beauty. I hope the viewer also sees the beauty in these homeless, unloved creatures.
As part of this photographic process, each dog receive a car ride, a walk, treats, and about 2 hours of much needed individual attention. My goal is to offer an individual face to the souls that are lost because of animal overpopulation, and give these animals one last chance. This project will continue for one year, so that we can see the landscape change, but the constant stream of dogs remains the same.
Johnstone’s dual talent as a volunteer/advocate and artist/photographer is stunning. Her pictures don’t make me sad or stressed. They don’t keep me up at night, and they don’t make me feel helpless in the fight against homeless pets, as so much of my Facebook newsfeed often does. These photographs are empowering, heartwarming and full of potential. Because they juxtapose the ugly with the beautiful. How can you help people learn to see the shelter animal problem with new eyes? Make it hauntingly beautiful.
For me, what has been even more powerful about this material is that it’s accompanied by a sister project titled Breeding Ignorance, in which Johnstone intimately documents the euthanasia process inside the shelter where she volunteers. The photographs in this project are not for the faint of heart, nor perhaps for those made of steel. But, like the Landfill Dogs, this project is beautifully executed and shaped with a commendable understanding of America’s shelter animal problem and the need to find new and productive ways of addressing it.
Note to self: Spend less time on Facebook. And more time looking for original sources of good content. Or perhaps I could flood my friends’ Facebook feeds with the kind of content I long to see on my own?