Dutch photographer Hellen van Meene was scared of dogs until she trained her lens on them. In creating these brooding, calm, unflinching portraits of teenage girls (her long-time muses) beside dogs, van Meene started to see the animals as less of a threat, and more as family. Here, we learn how.
I was afraid of dogs for many years, ever since I was bitten when I was six years old. In 2010, I was struck by this sudden inspiration to take portraits of dogs. From that moment—because of the idea, the dogs’ personalities, and the beautiful subjects—my perspective changed. This body of work became so close to me. I see personalities that resemble humans, like looking at a neighbour, or a family member, or friends you know. Now we have two dogs in the house. If you had told me a few years ago that I would have dogs in the house, I would’ve said you were crazy. That is the funny thing with life: everything can change.
Be patient. Bring lots of tasty treats. Work closely with the owner, and don’t just give in. Be very strict and clear, because that’s what dogs like best. If you know what you want, they will follow you. That is the best way to achieve your goal.
I once had to photograph a great Dane. When I saw this huge dog and heard him barking, I became quite afraid. Taking photos was my first goal, so I ignored my fear. Before I could even think about the moment itself, the dog put his head on my arm and walked with me. I sat on a chair and he put his huge head on my lap and looked at me as if to say, “I like you.” It was the first time a dog accepted me from the start. I became less scared, and that was the beginning of making this series.
Dogs have the ability, without knowing the language that humans speak, to understand us. If you are afraid, or sad, they feel your mood and act on it. This is something very special. Dogs have the ability to comfort you. Dogs are full of such good spirits; they constantly lighten our minds. In that way, it would be good for many people to have a dog, or work with them. Maybe the world would be a much better place if we all had a dog making us feel wonderful and loved. Maybe that is the answer for all the sadness in the world.
Working with dogs is not that different to working with teenagers or grown-ups. In the end, it was a big surprise to realise that dogs and humans, although we are different, have a lot in common. My fear of dogs is gone. I know now I don’t need to be afraid.
All images courtesy of Hellen van Meene
Article published at Four&Sons, Issue Ten.
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