Martin Usborne has a dark side. He first exposed it in The Silence of Dogs in Cars, a series of hauntingly beautiful portraits of dogs in cars. It conjured feelings of fear and longing—feelings that Usborne shares with his silent subjects. The photographer’s new project, Nice to meet you, digs a little deeper. It features unhinged shelter animals, and Usborne captures their varied neuroses through varied facades. “I’m fine” finds a hound dog furtively eyeing the camera under a mantle of smoke. “I Love You” reveals a chagrined greyhound engulfed in bleeding light. And in “You Look Great,” a snarling white wolf comes into focus amidst a turbid fog. Usborne took a detour from his animal welfare project, A Year to Help, to shed light on his work.
You’ve studied philosophy, psychology and animation. How did you get into photography?
It bubbled up inside me. I’d always been interested and found I had a fairly good eye. So I got on and learnt it! I remember the first exhibition that woke me up to photographs. I saw Bill Brandt’s work in New York about 20 years ago and fell in love with the black-and-white prints of old streets in London. I thought, this photography craps all over paintings!
Why did you start photographing dogs? Are they more difficult than human subjects, given that they can’t pose?
Ah, that’s easy. I’ve always loved dogs. My two dogs are sitting at my feet as we speak. I actually think [working with animals] is easier because there’s no self-consciousness, no barriers to break down. The wilder the dog the better, actually. I love capturing the unexpected.
You received a great deal of acclaim for The Silence of Dogs in Cars. Do you suppose viewers connected less with the dogs, and more about the feeling of being left alone in the dark?
Possibly, but there was also a bit of dark humour in it too. And as you know, everyone loves a dog picture. You have to be careful about the attention you get online—you can never be sure if it’s for the reason you might think. It could be some drunk person cracking up at the idea of a dog in car, which is of course a valid reaction.
What inspired your new series, Nice to meet you?
It’s a sort of riff on Dogs in Cars. As with the previous series, canines are used here to reflect that unspoken, instinctive side of our nature. In my own experience it is dogs—along with some other animals—that have the ability to communicate certain feelings most directly even though they have no words. But the series is also about the voicelessness of animals, about their hidden pains and silent needs that to many people are not so apparent. Many [of the dogs] were nervous or aggressive so I didn’t need to do much to get something raw out of them.
Did your experience with depression play a part in this series?
My experience of depression is key to almost all my work, and is certainly key to my connection with animals. My depression comes from a deep feeling of voiceless or powerlessness that I think I picked up a young age, and around the same time I really connected with animals. They also seemed vulnerable and without a voice.
You once said that your “key interest is man’s relationship to (other) animals.” What have you discovered about this relationship by working with dogs?
I’ve discovered that A) we are very similar and B) we act as though we are not. Our relationship is amazingly screwed up, and it’s one of the greatest tragedies of our time. The way we dominate, control, silence and abuse animals is utterly horrendous. It’s why I’m spending a year to help animals—a sort of apology for all the years of inaction on my half towards helping other creatures.
You’re a Year to Help project is so inspiring. What gave you the idea?
I’m a failed animal lover. Oh, I love animals so much! But I also love to eat them! Hang on…something don’t add up. I thought I had better straighten out my soul. No point just taking pictures; better try to do something positive. I have no idea if I have really helped but I feel myself sliding uncontrollably towards veganism, which is a fairly scary prospect for my fridge.
We are thrilled to introduce Dog-Friendly, a collection of city guides for dog-loving people, created together with our long-time contributor, photographer Winnie Au, and fellow enthusiasts, indie publisher Hoxton Mini Press. Available for purchase here.
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