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Saved in a snap

Two photographers help shelter animals click with adopters

From Animal Sheltering magazine November/December 2014

Lori Fusaro was inspired by her own dogs, Gabby (left) and Sunny, to use her photography skills to get potential adopters to take a second look at older dogs.Photographer Fred Levy’s Black Dog Project aims to boost the popularity of the dark darlings, who may have a harder time getting adopted.

When Lori Fusaro began her photography career in 1996, the majority of her subjects were human—at events such as weddings and family gatherings.

But she had been around animals her entire life—her grandparents had a farm with rabbits, chickens, horses and goats, and Fusaro had cared for dogs, cats and hamsters—and her love of furry creatures showed no signs of waning. Over time at her private photography business, she naturally started specializing in animals.

She also wanted to adopt a dog and looked into fostering. During her online research, she came across out-of-focus and poorly lit pictures that sometimes captured dogs who looked frightened. Seeing such unappealing shots helped Fusaro realize her true photographic calling: She wanted to help shelters adopt out more dogs with better, professional-quality pictures.

Fusaro began volunteering to photograph pets at Los Angeles-area shelters, taking pictures of the animals that helped to capture their unique characteristics and personalities so that the shelters could use them on their websites. Fusaro initially found it overwhelming to see how many animals are euthanized for lack of space, but she put aside her sadness for the greater good of rescuing dogs.

It was there that Fusaro met Shady, a 16-year-old pit bull with cancer. She learned that the dog had been dropped off by her family. A shelter worker told her that—due to the dog’s advanced age, breed type and poor health—Shady would have to be euthanized. Fusaro’s heart went out to the dog, so she adopted her, renaming her Sunny. Then she started strategizing to use her skills to help more dogs like her new pooch.

The biggest challenge for many people considering adopting a senior pet, she says, is the possibility of opening their heart, loving an animal and losing them quickly. “And I used to think that way too, until I realized that if I don’t do this, these dogs are going to die alone in a shelter,” Fusaro says. “That, to me, was much worse than getting my heart broken.”

At that moment, she says, she decided she needed to raise awareness about senior dogs, and planned to publish a book of the portraits she took, but her Kickstarter project didn’t raise enough money. Eventually, she found an agent who shared her passion for dogs—the agent had adopted a Hurricane Sandy pet—and “we just kind of connected,” Fusaro explains. Her book, My Old Dog, is set to be released in spring 2015.

Taking pictures to capture the personalities of senior dogs, Fusaro lets the dogs’ natural behaviors shine through. “Although they might be slower, and not as animated and jumpy, they still have that zest for living,” Fusaro says. Whether she’s shooting a couch potato who loves being rubbed or a dog running around playing fetch, “I want there to be some sort of emotional connection when the person looks at the photo.” She gets around dogs’ unpredictability by using a whistle or other techniques to help capture them in moments when their expressions are likely to catch an adopter’s eye.

Through her work, Fusaro has already created positive results. She says about 350 people who have seen her photos or heard about her project have let her know that they adopted or fostered a senior dog—or started volunteering at their local shelter.

Backing Black

A simple conversation at a dog park—about how black dogs sometimes have a harder time getting adopted—prompted Fred Levy’s latest photography project.Levy, who has a 20-year background in photography and a degree in fine arts from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, wanted to take on what’s widely known in animal welfare as Black Dog Syndrome. Some people find black dogs scary, or believe that they’re more aggressive or bad luck, Levy says. Despite shelters offering specials to get more black dogs adopted, the problem still persists, he adds. (Note: Black Dog Syndrome is a controversial concept. ASPCA studies have indicated that perceptions of lower adoption rates for black animals may have more to do with black animals’ greater numbers than true reluctance to adopt them.)

One of the biggest problems for shelters—which don’t usually have a roster of skilled photographers at their disposal—is that black animals are harder to photograph in an appealing way. Their sweet faces tend to get lost in the darkness of their fur, making it harder for them to catch the eye of an adopter browsing through online adoption listings.

About eight months ago, Levy put out a request to his Facebook fan page asking local community members if he could photograph their black dogs. People would bring their dark pooches to Levy’s home studio for the shoots, and “one became two, two became four and so on.” Levy demonstrated that black dogs can be photogenic—all that’s needed is a little photography knowledge and practice.

If a picture’s lighting and focus are not done properly, he says, a black dog, “especially one with longer coat or curly hair … can be a black blob.” But proper lighting can brighten a black dog’s appearance and make him stand out. With an average camera on automatic setting, the picture will look too dark, but light overexposure will put black dogs in the right light. “It comes down to good light; it takes a lot of light,” he explains. “You have to overexpose the picture to get the dog to look right.”

Like Fusaro, Levy recommends focusing on a dog’s eyes—a camera may try to automatically focus on a dog’s nose, simply because it’s closer to the lens.

His pictures have been featured in coverage on websites around the world, including on the Huffington Post (a piece that he says resulted in a bump of his Facebook fan base from 500 to 2,000). He hopes to give people a different perspective before they adopt a dog. “If you’re looking for a good personality, you’re not going to see that on the coat,” he says.

About the Author

Thomas Hill