Early early early (did I say early) on in my photography career development, a friend asked me if I could possibly photograph some kitties at a local shelter. I started my business officially in 2014, so the years 2012-2013 are what I consider the "early developmental years."
I was absolutely excited about this opportunity. Why? Two reasons. I could help animals (BIG REASON), and I could practice my skills under many different environments and circumstances.
I had been involved in my own rescue scenarios since 2000. To read more on that, check out this past blog, entitled Rescue Really is My Favorite Breed. Or this one: How to Rescue a Dog. It appealed to me to be able to somehow help homeless pets, and maybe even shelters who might not have the time to focus on the "good picture" aspect of rescue.
Shelter and rescue photography, if used correctly, can assist in putting the homeless pet in a very good light, exposing their true personalities, and attracting would-be adopters to open their homes to a new addition.
Some Warning Signs
During the three-year period I was working heavily with shelters and rescues to photograph animals, I noticed some things. My background is in Organizational Development, and I directed a quasi-governmental non-profit for 23 years. Successfully. So I am often watching for signs that all might not be what we see on the surface.
Exposed to a number of different shelter environments, it became clear that some shelters:
(1) Had organizational issues
(2) Developed small volunteer fiefdoms and factions
(3) Were operating in crisis mode (reactionary rather than proactive)
(4) May not have seen the importance of good photography to showcase their residents
And who could blame them? When you are fighting daily fires, you are looking for water bucket carriers, not paparazzi.
In one case, an overwhelmed marketing person asked if I might help take care of their Facebook page and post the photos, as well as make timelines for the group. I did. For a bit of time. At least the photos were being used. The shelter eventually reorganized, and honestly, didn't show much of ANY of their animals for adoption on their Facebook page or other social/marketing media. Instead they just ran fundraiser after fundraiser through.
Elephants. Elephants everywhere.
Believe me, no one has more respect for shelter and rescue folks than I do. Seriously.
What a difficult job. I can't even imagine working in a kill-shelter environment. Most of the shelters I worked with were not kill-shelters. But I had photography friends at the time who would take a photo of an animal, only to come back the next week, and find the animal had been euthanized.
Photographers who work with shelters have major burnout at some point, and have to step away and take a break.
I was a member of a few rescue photography groups (still remain in some of them), where it was often discussed how difficult shelters were to infiltrate, how depressing some kill-shelters were to work in, and I admired greatly one woman I met, who despite no guarantees on whether the animal she photographed would even live to the end of the day, showcased every beautiful furry face to its best advantage.
The lessons came over a period of time, with networking and experiences of my own.
(1) Find a community of like-minded individuals (photographers), where ideas and education could be shared.
(2) Only work with a contract, even if you expect NO REMUNERATION for your work.
(3) State clearly your expectations for the alliance, and ask the organization you are going to work with for their expectations.
(4) Work with ONE contact. (That contact must be on staff, and not a volunteer.)
(5) Train someone (a volunteer or staff person) to take the type of photos that will get their pets homes.
I have been an Artist Member of HeARTs Speak for almost eight years. Their motto: SEEN = SAVED. The HOME page of their website states:
"This year over 4 million animals will enter shelters across the U.S. We supplement the lifesaving work of animal shelters by providing artistic partnerships, hands-on training, and creative resources to get pets across the globe into homes. "
I have learned much through their vast array of materials for photographer and artist members. Including getting that contract together for working with any rescue or shelter organization.
And I never charge for my services when working for a rescue non-profit. My time is volunteered. But my contract does stipulate certain considerations for image use. I have a brand to consider now.
The contract works out things like who the contact will be, whether there is anyone on staff or among the volunteers with longevity who would like to be trained, and the nuances of that training.
HeARTs Speak is one of my absolute favorite non-profits! Their enlightenment and support of pet photographer volunteers has been game-changing for me.
Still Offering Services to Shelters and Rescues
I do still work with several rescues and non-profits. I am also a rescue transporter. I always take a photo for the rescue when I transport, and one for the new adopter.
I also offer my studio to foster families. They can bring their pets for photos at no charge through a referral by the rescue with whom they are fostering. The studio is open to shelters who would also like to take advantage, perhaps for hard-to-adopt prospects or senior dogs who need a new/happy photo to promote their availability.
I do attend and support shelter and rescue events when I can, and provide the organization with photos from the day.
I am here to help. What shelters and rescues need to consider is that pro bono does not mean my time and my work aren't valuable. Instead, I place a high value on putting my time and work to good use -- helping homeless pets to find a good and loving home.
And finally, I am leaving you with this great blurb on "what not to say" on rescue and shelter social media posts. Donate instead.
I am part of a weekly blogging group of professional pet photographers located all over the planet. To see what others have blogged about in this week's topic, start with Angela Schneider of Big White Dog Photography, launching another book and a goal to raise $10K for the Spokane Humane Society. Then find the link at the end of each blog to click to the next photographer.
Have a great weekend!