Ginger and Wiggley, two adopted guinea pigs, inspired Julianna Koh-Blackwell to start photographing the secret lives of pets. Although her work is commissioned by a wide range of people, Koh-Blackwell is not interested in staged set ups. “Basically, I just want to make good documentary images” she says frankly. Photoshoots can last up to two hours, with the photographer making herself almost invisible, a talent which grants her access to very intimate moments.
We talk to the award-winning, Sydney-based photographer about story-telling, clients and the valuable lessons learned along the way.
First of all, do dogs and owners look alike?
If they deliberately make themselves to! Mostly, they mirror each other’s vibes, mood, mannerisms and sometimes personalities so they tend to appear alike.
How did you find yourself photographing pets?
When I was growing up, we had a few family pets and I struggled to find photographs of them—it’s as if they never existed except in my memory. These days, with everyone being so digitally visible, I think its more likely that pets get recorded—along with everything else in the family, which is great because that gives animals more of a profile. What inspired me to photograph pets for others is my ability to connect with animals quite naturally. I’m intrigued with how we live amongst animals and how they in turn, adapt to our lifestyle, our relationships with each other, our dependencies on each other and independence from each other, how we integrate, the rapport. I aim to present ordinary subjects in an extraordinary perspective; one with a bit of attitude is cool too. It gives people an opportunity to own something beautiful and artistic that is also personal. To a lot of modern day people who chose to be childfree, pets are their children.
Many people have particular hang-ups about ‘pet photography.’
Well, actually, pet portraiture has always been around—if you google vintage photographs, you will even see domesticated animals being captured. It wasn’t identified like it is now—it was more connected to the overall status symbol of commissioning art. I sometimes face the challenge where people don’t necessarily take me seriously when I tell them I photograph animals specifically domesticated ones; not until they see my work. People are lifestyle focussed—and this includes their pets. Photography can celebrate that. People are generally more interested in photography these days now that almost everyone has an access to a digital camera.
We especially love series like Bernardo, Napoleon or Boadicea&Odin, where you uncover intimate moments.
I’m glad you did! I try to portray animals in their environment—there’s something about it intrigues me, almost as if the animals know they are being photographed and yet it makes you wonder what they comprehend at that moment in time. I mainly shoot on location though I do some studio shots too if people ask. My goal is to tell a story, not just create a bunch of disjointed shots. Maybe in years (decades?) to come, people will learn about how pets and humans lived together during our time with these images, who knows?
Who are the people who commission your work?
Quite a large range of people—its hard to generalise. People who want to experience a photoshoot, have their lives at a moment in time documented and own personalised artwork. Basically, people who want something different and perhaps quirky—and who like my style.
Is there anything you would never do in regards to pet photography?
Posed mainstream shots in staged/scouted location for the sake of it (unless it’s a conceptual portraiture with something to say) or candid snaps of dog’s expressions. Running dogs/action shots at dog parks. Also showy overly processed hi def, over saturated/special effects shots, combining colour(s) with black and white, although again, it depends on the intention. It is a matter of taste I guess. And always treat pet subjects with respect.
This may be a loaded question: are dogs easier to photograph than other pets?
Generally, yes, especially when they are trained to follow commands. They can be easily bribed with treats too. Though you need to be safe as you can never be too sure about how dogs will behave no matter what the owners tell you—I got bitten once and it wasn’t a very nice feeling.
What’s the funniest thing that has happened on a shoot?
Sometimes you get ‘incoming’ dog collateral—I mean they charge you in a state of total dog joy when you are pointing your lens at them. There was one dog who sprinted at me faster and faster. I was expecting him to break when—bodyslam! I was on my butt getting seriously nuzzled, licked and slobbered on. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be too popular.
What’s been the most endearing encounter?
To document a story where you know the pet is near its end of life and there’s nothing more I can do about it except to do my best to tell their story.
Do you (or have you ever) own a dog?
Yes, a Samoyed when I was a teenager and she was poisoned the day before our neighbour’s home was broken into (not a happy story!) And I grew up with a couple of Boxers and Chihuahua x Samoyeds. I would love to have another dog though it depends on our cats’ approval.
Any personal lessons learned photographing dogs?
Take things easy and laugh at yourself, a lot. Everyone has a story, no matter how ordinary (or boring as some would say) you may think your life is. Live in the moment. Guard your bones.