Photographer Jesse Freidin has been winning awards for years with his gorgeous black and white portraits that capture the bond between pets and their families. Recently, he turned his attention to a different kind of bond between people and pets: the magic between the volunteers at animal shelters and rescues and the animals in their care.
Finding Shelter is a unique storytelling project that celebrates the reciprocal healing that occurs when volunteers support companion animals during their time of need. It captures the joy and deep satisfaction that all of us who work and volunteer with animals are lucky enough to experience: to give is to receive.
I had a chance to talk with Jesse about his project, and the change he hopes it will inspire, on the eve of his big Kickstarter launch. 2017 Update: Finding Shelter is now on sale!!
Jessica: What inspired you to focus on the human side of sheltering for this project?
Jesse: I’m always interested in telling stories that aren’t being told, which is why I became fascinated with the volunteer’s perspective. So much attention gets paid to shelter animals and of course that’s crucial to educating our society about the reality of over-breeding, pet abandonment, the dangers of not spaying or neutering, and ensuring that more animals get adopted.
But no one has ever shone a spotlight on the humans who are the backbone of the shelter system, who are the ones keeping these animals alive. Without volunteers, there would be no animals saved. For me, this is where the real story is. It starts with the people.
You’ve written that, “The silent love a shelter dog gives to the human who cares for him is truly healing, making an animal shelter a place for humans and animals to heal together.” How did that element of the work reveal itself to you?
The concept of the human/animal bond being a two-way street is really central to all of my work. In our contemporary society we’ve been led further and further away from the roots of our deep connection with dogs, how we co-evolved and came to rely on each other for survival, and how both sides of that relationship benefit equally from the other’s company.
As a photographer who gets to observe that bond every day, I was very excited to use Finding Shelter as a platform to articulate how dogs and humans heal each other simultaneously. It was always a theory of mine that developed simply through working so closely with people and their canine companions, and after doing a little research on the topic realized that there is genuine merit to the concept. My goal is to help unveil that theory to the general public, and help pet owners foster a deeper relationship with their companions.
I love that your project focuses on the immense joy that caring for sheltered pets brings to volunteers, but we also know that the work takes a huge emotional toll on people. Does compassion fatigue, which is a normal response to caring for animals in need, ever come up in your conversations?
It certainly does, and it’s a fascinating piece of the puzzle. This is why Finding Shelter is a really important story. The work that is currently being done around shelter life shies away from the harsh realities of what it takes to work within the shelter system.
When I’m photographing volunteers for this project I am mostly just chatting with them about their experiences, recording their responses, and giving them permission to be completely honest about how volunteering feels. In that process I am hearing such incredible accounts of love, caring, survival, dedication, joy, heartbreak, sadness and of course the reality of compassion simply running dry.
But for every heartbreaking story of a healthy dog having to be put down, or a volunteer describing how compassion fatigue made them walk away from shelter work for years, there is always an equally deep account of how getting through that difficult experience gave that volunteer a sense of true hope. You cannot have one without the other, and Finding Shelter presents that balance in a way that I believe no other work has done yet.
What do you want the public (the folks who aren’t volunteering or working in animal welfare) to feel or think when they encounter Finding Shelter?
I want this work to be a welcoming access point for the public to easily understand that animal shelters are a place of joy and happiness, of healing and comfort, full of dogs, cats, and other pets that are ready to be adopted and provide unconditional love. Through seeing portraits of volunteers and shelter pets loving each other, I hope viewers are moved to adopt or become volunteers themselves.
The old stigma of shelters being depressing places where pets die does not serve us anymore. More people need to get involved in volunteer work, more animals need to get adopted, and I want this series to get us closer to that. This is a way to instigate change.
What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about pets in shelters and/or the people who care for them?
Shelters are full of people who take care of the animals for free. They don’t get paid to walk the dogs or clean up after them, nor do they get paid when they have to see hundreds of animals get euthanized. They simply care deeply about the welfare of those animals, which in turn makes the animals more prepared to find a forever home. I wish people were more aware of the dance that happens between survival and rescue for both the human volunteers and the abandoned animals, because it’s just so incredible.
If people would like to support your work, how can they do that?
2017 Update: Finding Shelter is now on sale!
Right now I need all the support I can get, as I am about to embark on a 15 day journey across the country photographing hundreds of volunteers for Finding Shelter.
Please visit my Kickstarter page which runs from August 11- Sept 11 2015, get to know the project, and donate what you can to help make this project into a beautifully published book. In return you can choose from some really special backer rewards- like a signed copy of the book, a signed print, etc.
You can also support the project by printing out this sign: fill it out, take a photo of your shelter dog/you and your shelter dog, share it with us on social media and tag #weallneedshelter
Thank you Jesse!
Follow Finding Shelter on Instagram, Facebook, and get your copy of this unique, life-affirming book here!