Traer Scott Photography Blog
Starlings are exceedingly common black speckled birds with a surprisingly Quixotic past. So familiar and ubiquitous are these little shiny birds that their perceived banality is actually part of their name, but the inconceivably romantic (and ecologically irresponsible) history of the “Common Starling” in the United States is far from ordinary.
Initially only indigenous to Europe, the “European” Starling was introduced to North America in 1890 by a small group of well-meaning, yet seriously misguided Shakespeare fanatics calling themselves the American Acclimatization Society. The Society was determined that every bird mentioned in any and all of the Bard’s plays (there are over 600 avian species mentioned) should live and thrive here in the US. In 1890, they released about eighty Starlings in New York’s Central Park. By the 1950’s the Starling was well entrenched and found clear across America. Today, there are an estimated 200 million Starlings wreaking arguable havoc in North America, all descended from those original eighty poetic pioneers- and all thanks to a fleeting reference in Henry IV.
There is a highway in Seekonk, Massachusetts called Route 6 which is lined with every palatable form of corporate commerce that we cherish in this country. A giant Target flanks a TJMaxx which shares space with a Best Buy and Kohl’s, down the road is Bed Bath and Beyond, Walmart, Pet Co. and on and on… Every sizable town or district in America has their own Route 6. Some newer parts of our country are veritably defined by their strip mall habitats, but here in New England, they are generally shoved out to the suburbs, a result of centuries-old settlements with very little space or tolerance for modern development. (Don’t get me wrong, we still want our Sam’s Club and Cost Co., just not within the historic city limits.)
Several years ago, I happened to be driving down this main drag of mass consumption at sunset when I saw what at looked like a biblical style plague of winged creatures. Tens of thousands of squat little black birds were perched side by side on phone lines, roofs, street lamps and poles-every single viable landing spot- for at least half a mile. Their wavy, synchronous flight formations literally darkened the sky as they pushed and pulled as one, swaying up and down, back and forth, in and out before lining up and jostling for space on their temporary roosts. They chattered and preened until the color drained from the sky, apparently signaling an exit to the real roost spot in the surrounding marsh land where they spend the night. It was incredibly odd to see such a transcendent and timeless natural display amidst such artificial modernism. I was intrigued.
In early 2013, I began photographing the Starlings on a semi-daily basis. It’s hard. I get there early and wait and wait and wait. One bird flies in and lands somewhere, maybe on a telephone wire over Walmart, then another and another until there are a dozen or so birds hanging out. I wait. Is this it or will more come? Maybe they have other agendas today, maybe they’ve moved on. Often fifteen or more minutes go by with the sun slowly seeping into the marshlands beyond the strip. Then suddenly something moves in the corner of my eye and the sky seems to be shifting. Hundreds and then thousands of little black birds suddenly show up in less than 5 minutes. They glide in and land on the telephone wire, causing the line and it’s squatters to bounce and ripple. The birds chatter and tattle, perhaps about fruitful feeding spots, or unfriendly farmers or loose cats until only a tiny strip of light remains in the sky and then, like a line of synchronic chorus girls, they light from their spot and rise into the sky as a group. The massive swarm dips and dives, forming fluid masterpieces in the peach and crimson colored sky before finally flying off to roost overnight in the marshlands. No one knows exactly how or why the birds do this, but it is a true wonder to behold and it is called a ‘murmuration’.
Below them, rush hour traffic honks and bleats and piles up at red lights. Families tumble out of SUVs and into Applebees for dinner, exasperated mothers drag screaming toddlers out of Chuck E Cheese, and all the while, very few people seem to notice the stunning, borderline terrifying spectacle happening over their heads.
Centuries ago, long before the Starlings had been Americanized, Seekonk was home to the Wampanoag Tribe who eventually sold much of the land to early English settlers in the 17th century and Seekonk remained largely agricultural until well into the 20th century. When the first pairs of mated Starlings were spotted in the Seekonk area in 1910, only the occasional smattering of farms and homesteads would have been found amidst the bountiful forests, streams and marshlands that had sustained the Native Americans for centuries. The birds have witnessed quite a shift in the landscape over the last century and I often wonder if somehow, perhaps during those boisterous daily sessions of happy hour chattering that the flocks engage in, this information is passed down from one avian generation to the next.
Last spring, when the last of the Starling stragglers finally departed from the communal roost site in order to mate and nest for the summer, I felt a void. It seemed that it would be such a very long time until their inevitable return, but now, fall is upon us and soon the birds will be back. This year I will be there to greet them. Stay tuned.
In the middle of the fashionable French Concession district in Shanghai, there is a city park where life seems to exist on a more exalted plane. I had read of Fuxing Park on a travel website which featured an alternative Shanghai ‘bucket list’- or at least 10 of the most interesting, often overlooked places to visit. A photo of a couple waltzing en plein air accompanied the minimal but tantalizing text promising spectacle and novelty in this urban park.
One morning during my week in Shanghai, I accidentally woke very early, so after a hasty breakfast, I climbed into a cab and pointed to Fuxing Park on a tourist map. The name was written in both English and Chinese characters and I had circled it in pen, but still the cabby seemed irritatingly confounded. I later came to think that this is just a role the drivers play, particularly with tourists: the exasperated cabby throws up his hands, shouts back and forth to the Chinese valet- possibly seeking destination clarity or simply engaging in a routine gripe session about tourists- and then without notice, the cab lurches forward and off you go. It happened at least 5 times during my visit.
This was my first solo excursion in the enormous, engulfing city of Shanghai. Abandoning the comfort of ‘safety in numbers’, no matter how obviously clueless our little Anglo-centric group was, made me nervous, but I reasoned this away with the assurance that nothing dangerous or untoward happens at 7am, even in Shanghai. Despite the early hour, this cab, like all taxis there, sped jerkily through the crowded streets like a frantic wounded goose, honking, lurching and hurtling its way across town. Occasionally we would skid to a begrudging stop at a red light. Green light! The sequence started again from the top until finally, we drove up over a curb, down a pedestrian walkway and finally stopped across the street from what appeared to be the edge of a gated, tree-lined common area. The driver pointed irritably and stopped the meter. I paid the 24 Yuan, equivalent to about $4, hoping I hadn’t just risked my life for a mediocre, run of the mill city park, got out and walked through the hedge. As if I had just passed through an enchanted barrier, the noise and stink of the Shanghai streets immediately evaporated, exposing a shimmering, pristine park packed with people of all ages, each and every one of them, doing something absolutely fascinating.
Directly in front of me, a dozen or so people were practicing TaiChi in unison with unyielding focus and no discernible leader. A few of them stole quick glances at me, the blonde woman with a large camera, but most chose to ignore me, their fluid movements never faltering as I stood gaping and smiling at them. My eyes shifted to the common green just a few meters ahead which was punctuated by colorful kites and the whirring hum of Chinese yoyos. A scattering of people, mostly men, each occupied their own small piece of grass and as if engaged in a solo performance for an invisible audience, operated their yoyo contraptions without acknowledging each other or passersby. The Chinese are masters of the fourth wall.
I walked past the common area and deeper into the park, past thick greenery which in one spot, partially hid a man meditating. In another spot, I spied a woman with her arms wrapped around the trunk of a tall, thick tree. Apparently tree-hugging is a common Chinese warm-up stretch which loosens the arms, and in my opinion, raises public park morale. I found it impossible to walk by a tree-hugger and not smile.
Further little twists and turns of the path revealed individuals rehearsing operatic numbers, practicing wind instruments and chanting prayers, all in semi-private nooks and crannies of the park. The open sidewalks were full of people on morning walks, some moving very briskly, others ambling at a slower, more contemplative pace. As I slowed down to fumble with my bag, I saw a cat crouching amidst some dark green foliage. Then another cat cautiously peered out. Then, another. It dawned on me that like many urban oases around the world, the park was probably home to a feral cat colony. The Colosseum cats in Rome for example, are beloved by residents and tourists alike. I’ve seen them lounging in the shadows of the ancient arena, sprawling on fallen columns, and peeking out from the mouths of hollows which once housed Tigers, Rhinos, Hippos and other doomed exotic animals. Rome is notoriously fond of their Colosseum cats. So much so that they and other feline colonies living in several prominent ruins, have officially been declared part of Rome’s “bio-heritage” by the city council.
The Fuxing Park cats were neither as numerous nor as obviously healthy as the Colosseum cats, but they were, overall, living a pretty good cat life with mammoth trellises to climb, a park full of rodents to stalk, plentiful shade, fresh water ponds and lots of cat food delivered daily by park regulars. For the most part, the cats were exceptionally friendly too. Several would come right up and rub on your leg or plop down next to you on a bench. Some of the young adults used the park as a romping ground all day, stalking each other through the bushes and then leaping out in mock attack, clawing up lush arbor and hanging upside down as their kitty companions scanned the perimeter for them. They even co-opted discarded human detritus as playthings. One older kitten kept picking up an empty cigarette pack and carrying it over to a grassy area in front of a Venus de Milo statue where he would drop it as an offering to his playmate.
The Chinese park-goers seemed to either ignore or adore the cats. Either way, everyone appears to co-exist peacefully. This is by far, the overarching theme of Fuxing Park. In a city with 18 million people, it must be very difficult to find your own mental or physical space. While it is true that in Asia, the concept of personal space is not nearly as cherished as it is in the US, people still long to find fresh(er) air and a modicum of tranquility in a place where both are sparse.
I longed to photograph every person and every inch of the spectacularly choreographed scene that continually unfolded before me in the park, but my giant camera was just one more reason for sidewalks to part and mouths to gape when I passed. The average white person is not a super common site in Shanghai (although there are ex-pat areas loaded with them) but blondes are a very rare bird indeed. The Chinese do not attach the same stigma to staring as Westerners do. They indulge in it quite freely. They also feel no qualms about taking your picture without asking. I, on the other hand, am terrified of approaching strangers whom I wish to photograph.
Someone at a lecture I was giving recently asked me why I felt so much more comfortable photographing animals than people. The easy answer to this is that people make me nervous and animals put me at ease. There is no judgment, manipulation or disappointment in dealing with animals. In general, I feel that my people portraits are rigid and self-conscious. Someone once said that every portrait is in fact a portrait of the photographer, so maybe I simply don’t like what I see. It is rare that I am deeply inspired by the human activity around me, certainly not enough to justify the vulnerability of dealing with strangers, so Fuxing Park was a big exception.
I returned to the park on my last day in Shanghai. It was a warm, sunny Sunday and instead of emptying out with the morning rush, the flow of people and fascinating activity continued all day. On my second trip, I was bolder. Although I still shot furtively and more or less from the hip, I stayed all day and actually did directly approach a few people for photos.
Under a gazebo type structure, a small, seemingly random crowd had gathered to sing what appeared to be traditional songs or anthems. There was a conductor standing in front of poster sized lyric sheets, who led the people through the songs, accompanied by a sprinkling of acoustic instruments. The crowd sang with solemn, patriotic gusto. Many, like the man I photographed, proudly puffed out their chests, breathed from the diaphragm and belted out each word. I came upon at least two other such choral gatherings in different parts of the park that same day. Apparently these semi-impromptu choral gatherings are quite common in Chinese parks, which traditionally, are a place for people to come together whether it is over a game of mahjong, a cup of tea, or even a silent but shared tai chi practice.
Just like in the US, parks are a very popular place to take kids. Although there was no playground, Fuxing had an ‘amusement’ midway catering to young children featuring a traditional western carousel with beautifully painted, glistening ponies, refreshment stands and a bizarre, antiquated kiddie ride tantamount to toddler target practice. Here, small brightly painted cars ran on a track encircling a lush, jungle-themed island of vegetation. Lurking in the overgrown green, were chipped and weathered statues of tigers, lions and monkeys with circular sensors on them. Parents swarmed to buy tickets so that their toddlers could ride in the little cars around and around the island and shoot at the animals with plastic guns which were mounted to the dashboards. The guns made the customary Hollywood laser gun sound (PEW, PEW, PEW) that we have come to identify with futuristic, make-believe weapons-and the kids were delighted. I seemed to be the only one who even remotely found this attraction ironic or disturbing.
Politically incorrect carnival games aside, I think that I was acutely aware of all small children that I saw in China. My journey to Shanghai was the first time I had been apart from my 13 month old daughter since her birth, so I looked a little longer when a child passed and often paused to smile when I would have otherwise kept walking. As a result, I began to notice several things. One is that the Chinese positively dote on their wee ones. The other, was that almost all of the children- everywhere- were boys. Although this shouldn’t be surprising, it was still a little unnerving. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that about 8 out of 10 children under the age of 5 were boys. China’s one child policy implemented 34 years ago in 1978, is notorious, and it’s no secret that Chinese culture bears a strong “son preference” but whether what I was seeing was due to an actual surplus of males, or the fact that female children are more often left at home, I don’t know.
Although gender itself seemed evenly matched among adults in Fuxing Park, what did seem to be missing were young women. There were plenty of middle aged women and a great deal of elderly women, but very few young, under-30 women. Perhaps they were pursuing other activities or maybe two generations of forced family planning is catching up with China.
Although China’s average life expectancy is actually lower than ours, they have the largest population of elderly people (over 65) in the world. The general presence of older people is also much more noticeable than it is in the US. Although a number of cultural differences are most likely responsible for this, including the fact that the Chinese are less sedentary and far less prone to obesity than us, the fact is that the elderly seem to be viewed differently, and are therefore more visible in Chinese society. It was, therefore, no surprise that Fuxing Park was full of retirees, grandmothers and wizened mahjong players, but what I didn’t expect to see were the Birdmen. The Birdmen are national icons, a staple of Chinese culture comprised almost exclusively of old guys.
Songbirds are extremely popular pets in China. Perhaps it’s because they take up so little space, or maybe it’s simply because their delicate song stirs something in the hearts of Chinese men. It is said that hearing the songbird’s serenade first thing in the morning brings the owner his greatest joy, so ensuring the bird’s happiness is essential. Bird enthusiasts believe that keeping a pet bird cooped up indoors will make it depressed, despondent and ultimately, less likely to sing, so for centuries, men have taken their birds for walks.
Very early in the morning, you can see men walking the streets swinging bird cages covered in dark cloth. Usually, they are headed to a park where they will hang the cage in a low tree branch and sit on nearby bench enjoying fresh air and conversation with other birders. The birds, very often Thrushes or Larks, hang in the trees for hours. I came across a lush little park lane with about 10 cages each hung from a small tree, and containing an individual Thrush who was singing and flitting about. I kept coming back to see them and couldn’t help but feel that the birds were chronically frustrated by the fact that nature had been put within sight but not reach of them. It seemed slightly cruel to me, but I think perhaps all caged birds make me a little melancholy. At least these pets were treasured and got a daily dose of sunshine and socialization, which is something we can all benefit from.
My impression of Shanghai was of a city in transition, where old ways and traditions are wilting alongside smog choked flowers. It is a place where progress and ambition and western culture are converging to create a chaotic place with a confused identity, not unlike many major cities in the world. Most of the city did not interest me beyond being innately appealing as a tourist destination, but my days at Fuxing Park made the 26 hour plane ride worthwhile. It was like nothing I have ever seen before and I long to go back to breathe it in again and again. Fuxing Park and its people, a great entanglement of humanity whose collective energy produced the most spectacular sight I have ever seen, were sparkling, transcendent and truly alive.
This past month, I had the honor of seeing my series Natural History featured in National Geographic. Four images spread over three pages were interspersed with captions wriiten in first person but actually crafted by a Nat Geo writer based on several interviews. The segment is called Photo Journal and it is run in the magazine several times a year. The work chosen is always art photography that has a scientific or naturalist bent. During the lengthy pre-production process with Nat Geo, I was asked to submit many things, one of which was a support essay of sorts; in effect, a slightly more personal footnote to my artist statement. While writing it, I remembered things which haven't surfaced in my mind for decades and I was struck with a comforting sense of serendipity:
There are many tastes, smells and visual vignettes that I recall from my solitary summers spent in the Natural History museum: the Moonpies and Mountain Dew that I often ate as a mid-day snack, procured from a distinctly southern 1930’s lunch counter on the ground floor; the slightly fetid smell of the animals’ cages- mostly a mix of cedar and musk; wearing a Corn snake around my waist, coiled deliberately through my belt loops in meticulously planned casualness to impress visiting children; proudly and proficiently operating the temperamental levers of the manual service elevator that would often became stuck between floors; the hissing cockroaches from Madigascar who would emit a puff of air when you pressed on their armored backs… and of course the dioramas which I sometimes watched the staff construct or alter, but mostly just gawked at while lurking in the spot lit halls. Oddly enough though, one of the things that stands out the most about my long, shadowy summer days in the museum is National Geographic.
Either because they liked me or because no one really had the time to care, I had full run of the place including keys and punch codes. Behind the education rooms where my mother gave live animal demonstrations to groups of visitors was one of the museum’s informal archives rooms. At the front of the cluttered, windowless room was a tall bookcase filled with every issue of National Geographic since the 1890’s. At the time, I wanted to be an archaeologist (no doubt influenced heavily by Raiders of the Lost Ark) and so for years I had associated all things “old” with mystery and treasure. I was immediately drawn to the magazines’ obvious age and antiquity: the crackled, yellowing covers, thick fibrous paper and fascinating photos. I don’t recall reading the articles at all and don’t even know that I was interested in who or what the subjects were, I really just craved the photographs. I hungrily analyzed the clothing and the environment in the images and was possessed by the notion of staring into the eyes of long dead people. I still do this. As an adult I began collecting Victorian photographs and still feel the same uneasy fascination with holding the subject’s gaze. It is the same sort of disquiet I experience when looking at dioramas.
When I rediscovered dioramas through the Natural History series, I felt a sense of satisfaction and completion, like perhaps a few of the loose ends from my youth had been neatly tied up and even finally made themselves useful. An argument could be made that this series is a celebration or remembrance of a time of quiet discovery for an introverted child. Alternatively, it could also be a way of mourning a very difficult time in my life when my family was falling apart and I learned to seek solace alone, valuing things that other children had no time for.
The rest of my childhood is not nearly as clear as those summers at the museum, I remember very little from the next several years. People, school and home life are vague at best but I do remember that the sense of solitude never really left me.
During the past month, I have received really wonderful feedback from all over the world: letters from museums, photographers and other diorama fans. This letter from diorama artist Gary Hoyle really made my day:
Dear Traer Scott,
I was delighted to see your work in the recent issue of National Geographic Magazine. It's really wonderful to see a new take on the wildlife diorama motif. My mentor in museum exhibit art, Fred Scherer, began work at the American Museum of Natural History in 1934. His first duty was to assist in making plants for the Mountain Gorilla Group; later he became a background painter at the AMNH. After Fred retired and moved to Maine, I was fortunate to work with him one day a week for ten years at the Maine State Museum. Today, March 1, is Fred's birthday. He is 97 and still painting.
Your work brings relevance to an exhibit mode that many designers see as archaic, and it makes those of us who do this work feel that we are not "dinosaurs." Thank you.
Not only did Gary work with a legend, but he has produced beautiful work in his own right. Below is a sculpture of a box turtle that Gary did for the Maine State Museum. This piece is completely freehand, he did not use any molds or casts.
Gary and an elite group of artists have lovingly and painstakingly brought spectacular flora and fauna to life in museums all over the world for generations of wide eyed viewers. Even with television, Imax and the internet at our fingertips, these beautiful habitats frozen in time behind glass still delight. Anyone who doubts this need only spend an hour at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. I have been there countless times and witnessed school groups, scout troups and an endless array of summer campers flood into the exhibition hall. Without fail, the dark, cavernous room is instantly filled with screams of excitement. Children point, jump and shove- their eyes as big as saucers- literally about to burst with excitement at every single diorama they encounter. Now THAT is art.
After half a century spent quietly fading into the forgotten corners of American consciousness, Detroit has recently been thrust back into focus by a seemingly repellent quality: spectacular failure. The Motor City’s immense and thoroughly disquieting collapse is now officially typified by its tens of thousands of abandoned and moldering buildings.
I first eyed a photo series of Detroit’s “feral” houses about three years ago which featured former homes, mansions and institutions in various stages of severe and usually irreparable decay. Some remnants were almost completely obscured by hungry vegetation that had been slowly suffocating their skeletal remains for decades. The lots to both sides were empty, the lots behind were empty; strewn with garbage and fragments of material life. A great expanse of nothingness seemed to surround these once functional, even majestic monuments to prosperity and progress. Could this really be Detroit?
Like many, I was intensely moved by these images of decadent decay. While it’s true that I felt the normal, cursory emotions: sadness, disbelief and even fear- I have to admit that what I really felt was a pang of photographic lust tinged with the titillating sixth sense of opportunity. I could do it better- but I would have to do it fast. Although the two periodically coincide, the business of photography is ultimately about who can do it first, not necessarily who can do it better. Timing is everything. Little did I know that I was already way too late.
By 2009, photographers had already begun flocking to Detroit intent on documenting the visual catnip that was an estimated 70,000 abandoned properties: houses, theaters, train stations, schools, shops, churches; amidst what used to be a major American city. People like me, seduced by the strange creative beauty that beckons and blooms within deconstruction, justify these projects as being noble because they document the ever important ‘state of things’- but are there truly any unselfish motives to our hunger or are we just vultures picking at a corpse in the name of art? I often think about the fine line between discovery and exploitation, particularly in my field, and can honestly say that I consciously strive to create empathetic work which somehow always leaves the subject better off rather than empty and used up. I’m sure there are many who would argue that from time to time, I fail. However, I don’t think anyone can dispute the fact that exposure, for better or worse, inevitably brings some form of change.
Within the following year, several major, epic photographic books were published (Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins by Dan Austin and Sean Doerr; Detroit Disassembled by Andrew Moore; The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre) This kind of proliferation is generally perceived by the rest of the photographic community as a clear-cut cue to throw in the towel- that the fat lady has indeed sung. The once edgy subject of Detroit had reached relative saturation in the photography and publishing world and was now mainstream, as banal as photographing kittens or cathedrals. Recently the media even clinched this saturation by officially naming the once fringe obsession with the superlative decay of America’s Motor City. It is now referred to as “Ruin Porn” a literal “fetish for decay”.
Despite the implied masochism of “Ruin Porn”, these books, blogs, news stories and documentaries have made the American public and larger media somewhat more aware of what’s been happening in Detroit. For a long time the city’s leaders were reticent to shout defeat from the rooftops, but now it seems that reform and resuscitation have become a priority and they are embracing the media in all of its fickle glory. Coverage has now moved beyond a voyeuristic peek at decay towards a jubilant, ‘up from the bootstraps’, roll up your sleeves approach. However, amidst the fury and the fuss of the past few years, while everyone was busy breaking into abandoned theaters, stalking secret entrances to haunted train stations and generally exploiting deterioration in the name of record and rebirth, new tenants were quietly taking over the sprawling abandoned and burnt out neighborhoods. Dogs. Tens of thousands of them.
The majority of abandoned houses in Detroit are just that- abandoned. Their owners finally left after years of frustration, encroaching violence, and the crushing financial reality that accompanies literally worthless deeds. Buildings are selling all over the city for $100 or $500. (Of course in many instances you inherit the tens of thousands in back taxes rendering the already sketchy properties in truly sketchy neighborhoods even less appealing). With the decline and desertion of the city and its property has come the inevitable abandonment of thousands upon thousands of dogs, many just turned out onto the streets when their owners were finally forced to leave their homes. The city shelter has long since run out of room and resources. Detroit animal control consists of a mere handful of officers who have little choice but to round up animals for certain death.
I consider myself fairly plugged in to what’s happening in the world of animal welfare, yet I had heard no whisper of this issue until author Ken Foster (The Dogs Who Found Me and Dogs I have Met and the People They Found) called me in fall 2010. We were ruminating about projects to do together when he mentioned the street dogs of Detroit. In April of 2011 we embarked on a reconnaissance trip to investigate and begin documenting the situation. The goal of our three day visit was to create a dozen or so sample photos and some sample text that would be used to further pitch the project. Once we received funding we would then return and collect enough material for a book. Due to a number of roadblocks (some were anticipated but others were unforeseen) months have passed and I still have no idea what will become of this project. I certainly hope something does, but for now, there are encounters which still loiter in my mind, persistent and unshakable, that I want to share.
It is said that there are approximately 50,000 stray dogs on the streets of Detroit. Some people, like one convivial postman we met, think these numbers are completely overblown while others view it as a conservative estimate. It’s nearly impossible to get an accurate head count when so much of the population in question is very skilled at hiding.
The dogs of Detroit have adapted to life outside the realm of domestication in precisely the same way as the strays that I followed in Puerto Rico and Mexico. They have banded together in the fight for survival. When their needs are no longer met by humans, dogs tend to revert almost immediately to strong, innate pack instincts that are often quashed, distorted or simply not needed in the role of “pet”. The clear-cut roles of pack structure coupled with the obvious benefit of safety in numbers, make hunting for food, defending against predators and raising young much more viable for newly cast off canines.
The one thing the Detroit dogs have going for them that strays in other countries often lack, is shelter. With so many empty buildings, the dogs have no shortage of structures to choose from. Some properties are tightly boarded up, but we found many with unlocked doors and open or smashed windows. The dogs are clever and they find a way in. They make beds and little nests out of the debris left behind: often discarded clothes, mattresses and blankets. When none are available on site, they collect nesting material from people’s trash, the makeshift dumps that are everywhere or from other properties.
We kept seeing yard after yard strewn with stuffed animals, most of them decapitated or partially disemboweled. Eventually we discovered that the dogs were actually collecting them and bringing them home to play with. I was both fascinated and saddened by the notion that these animals who have lived unimaginably difficult lives, still felt the need not only to play, but to seek out and stockpile toys amidst the wreckage.
We navigated what felt like every square inch of Detroit searching for dogs. Sometimes I was glad to find them, and other times, I was relieved not to, but as we drove, I was repeatedly plagued by a weighty sense of déjà vu. Flooded with memories of long, painful months spent tracking dogs in Puerto Rico and Mexico, I felt a familiar sense of despair, but this was somehow different and even more unsettling. The most striking and obvious difference was that we were in Detroit- in America- but Detroit looked more like a second rate apocalyptic movie set with one neighborhood after another burnt out, abandoned and deconstructed. We needed armed security guards with us at all times. This was not so much to protect us from dangerous dogs but from dangerous people. The neighborhoods where these dogs live quite literally top every “worst” list with murder rates nine times higher than that of Los Angeles (2010 stats).
On the last day of our short trip, Ken and I followed a tip and went searching for dogs on a street called Elgin. The scene was pretty familiar at first: empty lots, a rusted, overgrown playground and street after street of desolation -but then we turned a corner and suddenly came upon five large dogs sprawled carelessly in the middle of the road. They appeared to simply be lounging, soaking up the weak sun on the sparsely traveled black top. We stopped the van about 20 feet away and two of the dogs immediately approached us.
The most gregarious dog was a stocky orange pit mix with a scarred face and injured, gimpy leg. A muscular male with floppy ears and a wide, smiling face, his whole body wiggled with excitement and joy when he approached us. The second dog, a young Collie/German Shepherd mix with an extremely long, bushy tri-colored coat was the second to make direct contact. She slunk slowly forward, tail wagging lazily, head bowed in unmistakable submissiveness until she was almost in my lap. The other three dogs, stocky black and tans who looked to be Rottie mixes of some kind, held back. We had hot dogs and began feeding them.
I think that what immediately struck us about these dogs was how trusting they were. Unlike many of the other strays who had learned (with good reason) to fear people and were all but unapproachable, these dogs seemed to yearn for human contact. Within minutes of stopping, the orange pit was belly up with Ken rubbing his exposed stomach and the Collie was actually nuzzling me. They seemed so vulnerable and were in a word, utterly ‘savable’.
It was heartbreaking to know that at some point we had to get back in the van and leave them there, having made their lives no better except for filling their stomachs with a few lousy hotdogs.
Although we only spent a few hours that day with the ‘Elgin Pack’, Ken and I were both riveted by the highly obvious and delineated pack order that we observed amongst these dogs. Their body language was so pronounced and unambiguous that it made discerning ‘who’s who’ almost effortless. The orange pit was clearly a beta male, ruled with an iron paw by the pack leader and alpha male, a rather puny Rottie mix. He closely guarded a youngish female who greatly resembled him and consistently used force in order to get the orange pit to submit. The scars on the latter’s face had almost definitely come from scuffles with alpha. The Collie seemed to be at the very bottom of the pack order, possibly a newcomer or even hanger-on, with one other stout Shepherd/Rottie mix female falling somewhere in between. Of course we will never know how these particular dogs ended up together in this particular neighborhood. Were they related? Did they know each other before being abandoned or did they somehow band together one by one until finally forming a pack?
The area they inhabited was quite a ways off the main road, comprised of a couple of streets lined with abandoned houses in various states of deterioration. Some were completely burnt out while others were simply boarded up and moderately decrepit. Many still sported old, lopsided signs declaring the property ‘condemned’ that hung on the boarded up windows and doors but one lone house at the very end of the last block was occupied. Although the house was aging, the property was immaculate and almost cheerful looking with a green, manicured lawn, new fence and even a few flowering plants. An elderly white man was outside mowing the grass. He was literally the only human resident left on the street and was clearly trying desperately to maintain a (perhaps pointless) sense of order and normalcy amidst his bleak reality. It must have been his trash that the dogs frequently scavenged for food.
After an exhausting evening filled with frantic attempts at organizing a last minute rescue for these dogs, we returned the next day, defeated but determined to see them one last time before flying home that afternoon. We assumed that the pack had made a home in one of the many burnt out houses nearby and after not finding them in the grassy fields adjacent to the rows of houses, decided to systematically check out some of the buildings. One of the most poignant photos on the shot ‘wish list’ for the trip was of dogs actually inside one of the abandoned buildings- but this had proved both elusive and downright dangerous since the structures were usually extremely unsound and the dogs very prone to fleeing. I was five months pregnant and much more cautious than usual so Ken would go into the houses first to check for rotting stairs, sunken floor boards and other dangers, and then I would follow.
Ken tiptoed into a two floor partially burnt out, boarded up wooden house at the top of the street to check for signs of dogs. I started to follow. The silence inside these houses was absolute and almost electric. I remember feeling a prickly rush of heightened awareness coupled with a sickening thrill of fear. The silence hummed in my ears and seemed deafening. We paused briefly to hear the usual creaks and groans emitted by the decaying wood as it was whipped by the Michigan wind. Then suddenly there came a loud scuffling noise and the frenzied sound of movement followed by a flash of fur that blasted down the stairs and out the back door. Several of the dogs had been inside and we had unwittingly flushed them out into the adjacent field where they then gathered, staring at us as we emerged from “their” house. The sweet Collie was absent. Maybe she was off looking for food or perhaps she had never been part of the pack to begin with.
When we approached the dogs this time, they didn’t come running up to greet us but instead hung back, watching from under the jumbled branches of a straggly tree dappled with tiny new spring leaves. We had quite a bit of time before needing to be at the airport and decided to just sit and watch them- watching us. After a few minutes, they relaxed and laid down in the sparse shade under the tree, popping their heads up every few minutes to monitor our movements. The eldest female went trotting off into the neighborhood.
After about 15 minutes, we noticed the female returning carrying something in her mouth. The others ran up to greet her and then fell into a line forming a little procession through the tall grass back to the cropping of trees. As she drew closer, we were able to make out the white plastic grocery bag filled with trash that she carried jauntily in her mouth. Her walk was crisp and proud. The other dogs, gamboling with tails wagging, were clearly excited about her find.
The bag was loosely knotted and bulging with what appeared to be a mixture of paper products and food scraps. We waited to see what would happen next. The little pack congregated near the tree and the female laid the bag carefully on the ground. Then she looked up at us. We waited, expecting to see one of them rip open the plastic and strew the contents around the field- but they didn’t. All four dogs just sat and watched us; clearly guarding the bag and definitely unwilling to open it while we were there.
We tried sitting very still at an old picnic table in an abandoned playground across the street, but they remained vigilant. We tried hiding in our car, but they were not fooled. The dogs simply sat and waited patiently for us to leave. I found this remarkable because self-control, particularly when it comes to food, is not something I find to be very common amongst the average canine. Add to this the fact that it had probably been months since these guys had experienced the luxury of regular meals, and you have some really fascinating behavior.
Exhausted and distressed by our experiences of the past few days, we finally had to admit defeat, climb into the rental car and head for the airport vowing to try and help these dogs- somehow.
Many months have gone by now and I our project has not yet moved forward. I think of the Elgin Pack daily, wondering if they are still alive. Maybe one of the local rescue efforts was able to help them. Maybe at least a few are safe in a loving home- but maybe not. With thousands of homeless dogs in need of help and no shelters, foster homes or even potential adoptive homes to send them to, the future is bleak for these dogs. Now it is winter and bitterly cold in Detroit. Many dogs will freeze to death. Hopefully our pack is huddled together for warmth atop a mound of salvaged detritus left by Detroit’s former human tenants.
Hope in Detroit seems to be rising but its dawn is much like the winter sun: late and weak. Many claim that the city's restoration has begun, other say things are worse than ever. Either way, help will come too late for thousands of dogs that a city forgot.
I am a self proclaimed movie junky. I watch what is undoubtedly, an absurd number of films every week - a cumulative number which, in the interest of preserving my professional reputation, I will not disclose but suffice it to say...a lot. I am however, a lazy and thrifty addict, relying almost exclusively on Netflix and a carefully chosen court of premium movie channels to deliver my fix. I rarely see movies in theaters because I find them overpriced, full of distractions (yes, YOU who fiddle with your shrink-wrapped candy throughout the entire film) and most importantly, impossible to pause or rewind.
So recently, I was sitting in the movie theater with my husband, enduring preview after ever loving preview, trying as usual, not to be annoyed by the fact that there were actually other people in the theater when suddenly, a trailer for Cats and Dogs II The Revenge of (ummm) Kitty Galore came up. Half way through the clip, I saw two giants photos on a billboard which seemed very familiar, but alas, they were gone before I could even blink. When we got home, I found the trailer online and realised that I was not barmy and they were in fact my photos on that giant orange billboard which a dog wearing an out of control jet pack careens through. The crash takes out the face of the cat on the right, leaving the wry image you see below.
In 2008, I shot a national campaign for the ASPCA using animals who were currently waiting for homes in their NYC shelter and these are two of the images from that shoot. It was a rare and unexpected treat to see them on the big screen even if no one else in the audience knew they were mine. Plus, I was thrilled to see such prominent placement for the ASPCA in a massively mainstream Hollywood film (AND every single version of the preview).
What's this?? An unequivocally positive animal welfare message in a big budget Warner Brothers kids' movie? Alright then.
You can watch the entire preview here.
It is no secret that the dogs who end up in shelters are the unlucky ones. These are not the dogs that get to nose open Christmas stockings, or who trot down the street with designer collars. They are not the dogs who sleep under the crisp bed covers at night or ride gleefully with their heads hanging out the windows of cars. More times that not, these are the dogs who are viewed as being expendable by their owners. They are the ones who get loose or get dumped and no one comes to look for them. Many shelter dogs have rarely seen the vet...or been given a simple $20 vaccination that protects them against Parvo. Their bad luck however, is the only way in which these dogs are inferior. They are just as smart, just as loving and just as beautiful as any other dog. Sometimes, more so.
Last week, a quiet, faceless enemy swept through the shelter where I volunteer. This time the antagonist wasn't time, but a faint trace of bright red blood in the dogs' stools which became proof positive of Parvovirus. So far, the outbreak has left a body count of 21, all Pit Bulls.
Every single dog that I nurtured, named, photographed, wrote Petfinder bios for, played with and taught skills to, is now dead. The staff who fed, watered and cared for these dogs all day, every day now goes to work in a quarantined facility that is oddly quiet yet full of ghosts.
There are so many things that make this devastating, not the least of which is the fact that at least 3 of these dogs had been at the shelter for almost 4 months, while myself and the staff tried desperately every week to place them. The trio survived several culls for space, almost constant confinement, a severe lack of mental stimulation and a level of stress that most human beings can not even fathom. They triumphed over all of this- just to be taken out by a virus that spread silently from one infected carrier...a virus that is almost 100% preventable.
When I first heard that the shelter was closed due to Parvo, my heart fell into my stomach, but I had no idea how widespread the infection would be. The next day, I received a list with ten or more infected dogs on it, the following day, another 6. One by one, all of these lives which we fought so hard to save, were extinguished. All of this from a virus that hung in the air, clinging to our shoes and our hands, spreading evasively since late June.
I am so saddened and angry at this needless loss of life. Angry because these dogs didn't deserve to be there in the first place and even angrier because if any one of them had been current on their shots, they would still be alive.
Over the past 15,000 years, we have succeeded in domesticating and thouroughly dominating a species that now is completely dependent upon us to survive. The gray wolf, which the dog was once domesticated from, hunts for it's food, breeds autonomously, possesses natural immunities to disease and lives a life completely free of and in fact, antithetical to, human existence. Dogs on the other hand, have been bred for millenia to serve humans: as companions, workers and protectors. They are utterly subservient to our treatment and rely entirely on us for food, shelter, affection, amusement and good health.
All they really require is the most minimal of care and compassion and we continue to fail them.
We allow them to breed rampantly and then kill 4 million every year in shelters because there isn't enough space; we make them into designer breeds like Labradoodles and Cockapoos because it's a charming mix while 30% of the homeless dogs in shelters are pure breds; we abuse them, neglect them and even fight them until the death.
Don't we owe these ancient companions more respect? We show more reverence and good will to the very least and most despicable of our own species while constantly using and abusing the faithful creatures that have been at our side for centuries.
I write this in memory of Sasha (pictured), Huckleberry, Bandy, Tiger, Summer, Damon and all of the dogs who were needlessly lost last week due to public enemy #1, ignorance.
Today I was among tens of thousands of New Englanders who manically flocked to the beach in order to both celebrate and survive the first noticably hot Friday since Summer's inauspicious beginning.
Every year at the start of the season, I re-visit my fascination with the mystical allure of the ocean and the perplexing dichotomy that is our relentless reverence and exploitation of it. There's no denying that a swim in the sea on a hot day is refreshing. But so is a cold shower, air conditioning, or a dip in a clean suburban swimming pool. What is it about the beach and the tempestuous, primordial ocean that so enthralls us?
While shooting my last book Wild Horses, I was stationed in Ocean City, Maryland for a week. With it's legacy of unpretentious pastel motels, elaborate putt-putt courses, tacky souvenir shops and every fast food chain known to man represented on the same street, Ocean City is an intoxicating, sentimental masterpiece of Americana camp and capitalization. I found myself powerless to resist it's ironic sincerity and timeless appeal. The Pizza Hut there still has a salad bar.
Like any and all of America's seaside oddities, Ocean City's retro splendor was drawn there decades ago by one thing and one thing only: the American public's overwhelming need to journey to the ocean. Every square inch of coast is flanked by something and behind that something are several parallel rows of other somethings that weren't lucrative enough to deserve beachfront property.
Had I arrived in Ocean City two weeks later, I would have been trapped in what locals describe as "amateur month" when high school and college kids arrive en masse to drink, puke and blister in the sun. Fortunately I got to witness the calm before the storm. And what an eery calm it was. The beaches were barren, the few open restaurants empty, and the epic mini golf palaces and boardwalk still closed for repairs. The stillness and lack of people amidst so much tawdry infrastructure created a sweet, familiar lonliness for me. At dawn, before I spent the day chasing wild horses on the starkly contrasted pristine, unblemished shores of Assateague National Seashore, I wandered in somewhat of a trance through the aging, seasonally forsaken man-made spectacles of Ocean City.
That week I began what has become a long term project of documenting our complex and contradictory relationship to the ocean.
I will never live land-locked. Despite the inevitable crowds, traffic and stupidity, over the past few years I have continued to invent more and more excuses to be in or near the water almost every day. Whether any of the bikini teen queens, metal detecting septuagenarians, football tossing jocks or other predictable beach characters realize it, I believe we are all drawn to the ocean in a need to reconnect with the infinite. The question is, will there be anything worthwhile left to connect with in 50 years?
The choice to become a volunteer lead directly to the creation of my book Shelter Dogs, and subsequently to the rest of my life.
I can actually remember the exact moment when late at night, sitting in complete darkness except for the sickly glow of my computer screen, I decided to act. It was then, browsing through photo after photo of dogs that were dead - completely innocent victims of overpopulation and ignorance - that I finally thought of a way to channel my anger and devastation. My sole purpose in creating Shelter Dogs was to make a tangible memorial to these animals in the hopes of saving others yet to be abandoned or even born.
The book, which met with immediate and completely unforseen success, officially kicked off my career with a bang. Now, almost 5 years later, Shelter Dogs has been re-released in paperback, sold in countries all around the world and translated into Japanese. We have raised tens of thousands of dollars for the ASPCA and hopefully inspired many other people to act in some small or perhaps great way.
I am still volunteering every week despite my deepest hopes that one day I will wake up and no longer be needed.
Since December, I have been the sole volunteer at my shelter in Providence. In that time, I have had to step up to responsibilities that I never thought I could handle. In truth, I can't handle them but am trying to hold on for a few more weeks at which point I have been promised that we will get more help. Every week is a desperate struggle to save the dogs that have been unlucky enough to end up there. Every week more come in. Every week, some die whether it is due to space, illness or behavior issues. Every week, I delete these beings from existence when I hit "remove" on Petfinder.
However, almost every week, a really great dog finds a really great home. Bleu (see image) is this week's success story. Given his stocky stature, enormous head and of course, Bully Breed status, I didn't think he stood much of a chance, but last Friday, a couple came in and fell in love with him. Although Bleu has had to remain at the shelter this week to await neutering, the family has come to visit him everyday. Sometimes they come seperately on their lunch breaks. Today, the husband brought all three of their children. They have food, shampoo, a bed and all imaginable comforts waiting for this big lug for when he finally goes home on Tuesday.
Now, this family found this dog on Petfinder after viewing the photos that I took of him and reading the description I posted. When they came to meet him, I was there and spent over an hour talking to them to help them pick the right dog for them. This is an instance where I know that what I did actually made a huge difference in the life of this dog. This is the miracle of volunteering. How often do any of us actually get to say that we saved a life?
Volunteering on the front lines is definitely not for everyone, but everyone does have something, somehow to give. That is why I encourage every single person regardless of your occupation, age or financial situation to consider giving just one or two hours a week to a worthy cause. Analyze your strengths, talents and resources and share them. Graphic designer? Offer to re-design the logo for a local non-profit or create a brochure or calendar or new website for them. Lawyer? Offer your legal services or involve your firm in a charity drive. Plain old normal person? Collect towels and blankets for an animal shelter, help the local food bank, the list goes on and on.
If your passion is animals, then think about this: If just ONE new volunteer in every town, village or city in America helps find a home for just ONE shelter animal a week, then together we would change the destiny of over 25,000 animals EVERY WEEK, and over 1.3 MILLION a year.
Inspiration, gratification and immense personal growth are predicted side effects.
For lots of volunteer opportunities visit: Volunteer Match
Apathy is not acceptable.
One of my purest joys in life, other than dogs and aiming a camera at things, is the ocean. In warmer months, I spend as much time as possible in the water swimming, snorkeling and yes, also photographing.
Frustrated by the length of New England winters and my compulsive nightly dreams of diving beneath waves and gliding noiselessly through reefs, I finally decided to acquire the necessary gear to snorkel and swim in cold water. Last week, I made my third attempt in the 48 degree Atlantic waters in Jamestown, Rhode Island. Although the thick, restrictive suit, hood and gloves take some getting used to, it has been a great joy to get back in the water several months before it's warm enough for bathing suits and bare skin.
I am beginning an underwater photo series on the Narragansett Bay Waters in Rhode Island and Southern Massachusetts which will feature a glimpse at the varied landscapes just below the surface of the water. This is one of my favorite images of all time: my husband and pit bull, Audrey swimming together in the St. Lawrence River in Ontario.
The past five years have brought many changes in my life. Indeed in more recent months, the defining difference has been a lack of change. From 2005-2008, I was in a career whirlwind with book signings, media events and shooting assignments which swept me to many corners of the globe. It became standard for me to be traveling about 5 out of 12 months each year. While the experiences were truly unforgettable, after the release of Wild Horses, it was time for a little break to catch my breath and allot time for work on several personal series which had long been put on the back burner.
With the help of a Fellowship Grant that I received from the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, I have been able to devote time to working on The Hungry Ghost and Natural History. The former is now completed for the time being but the latter is still growing along with my scope and vision for the project. I will be returning to New York next week to gather more images and hope to also expand my shooting to include candid imagery from museums in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
A great honor that has just recently come my way is an invitation this fall to photograph the much endangered Asian Elephant through Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand. This opportunity is exciting on so many levels and I'm thankful beyond words that my generous hosts thought of me for this project which will hopefully span many different aspects of the modern threats facing Asian Elephants. I travel to New Hampshire next week to meet with Katherine Connor, founder of Boon Lott's (making a rare trip to the US) as well as MaryLou Hecht of Dyad Communications, an activist and champion of the sanctuary.