In Focus - Shelter Dogs

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Every year, between 6 and 8 million dogs and cats enter US animal shelters. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that approximately 3 to 4 million of these animals are euthanized each year. Their last days are often spent alone, separated from all they have ever known. Despite the efforts of shelter staff who work incredibly hard to make the pets as comfortable as possible, most dogs have tremendous difficulty coping with the stress of being in a shelter at all. 

Noise, cement floors, walls made of mesh or bars. 

Film and photography enable one to shine a light on something that might otherwise go ignored or unnoticed. Even focusing for just a moment can make way for profound change. 

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These are the words of Christiaan McPherson, a local photographer currently in film school who is connecting the dots between two things he holds dear: animals, and bringing important issues to light — ie, mass consciousness — through film. 

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McPherson recently completed Shelter Dogs in cooperation with the Humane Society of SW Washington. “This series of photos challenges peoples’ perception of shelter dogs, making them more difficult to ignore,” says McPherson, explaining the spirit driving the project. “When I work with dogs I am constantly struck by how sensitive and aware they are,” he says.

McPherson says dogs feel deep feelings and that their experiences are as varied as those of their human counterparts. “Some [dogs in shelters] exhibit a shutdown behavior,” he says, “others profound fear.” Some, he says, still “jump up for joy no matter how difficult their circumstances.” 

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Shelter Dogs is comprised of 20 black & white images of canines behind bars in the Washington shelter. The bars, says McPherson, illustrate separation and convey his inability to interact directly with them. “This brings about very real and intense emotion because dogs are such social creatures who need the interaction of the pack,” he says. “The separation causes extreme stress, which is not easily conveyed.”  

Thus the high-contrast lighting and extreme focus of subject. “I used a macro lens in some shots to get very close up, uncomfortable photos to convey to the viewer the stress and separation the animal is experiencing. In others I pulled back to emphasize the separation. Certain dogs were so despondent that I tried to focus entirely on the bars with the silhouette of the animal in the background — this in an effort to show the feeling of being forgotten almost to the point of disappearing. 

Contact McPherson at