The Rural We: Jesse Freidin
Photo by Sarah Deragon
Published this month, the book Finding Shelter presents 100 black and white portraits of shelter dogs and volunteers from across the country, along with their personal stories. The eye behind the camera, Jesse Freidin, is one of America’s leading fine art dog photographers, having been awarded “Best Dog Photographer” in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as in Los Angeles, every year from 2010 through 2015. The Boston-born Freidin is also the creator of three viral photography series: The Doggie Gaga Project, When Dogs Heal, and Finding Shelter. His work has been featured in Vogue, The Huffington Post, Live! with Regis and Kelly, MTV and many other places. Although he works with private clients across the country, Freidin is now based in North Adams, Mass., where he lives with Pancake, a Boston terrier. He’ll host signings this spring to benefit area shelters featured in his book, including ones for The Little Guild of St. Francis and the Berkshire Humane Society in May, and at Water Street Books in Williamstown, Mass. on Wednesday, April 19 at 4 p.m.
I fell in love with photography in college and taught myself, using Polaroid cameras. I got my first digital camera only two years ago. When I moved to San Francisco, I started working with dogs and noticed how powerful it was and the joy people had when they were with dogs. I apprenticed at a portrait studio for a year, photographing families. Then I took my Hasselblad and photographed a friend’s dog, and it was an eye-opening experience. I thought, I can do this in a different, fine-art way and I started building up a business. I have wonderful clients that I cherish and we build relationships together. A lot of it is word of mouth, but also social media, the website, and work of mine that appears in magazines. To be a working artist, you have to hustle hard. I’ve been lucky in that I have a unique style and approach.
I love New England, and when I was in California for 10 years, I missed it a lot. I’d always dreamed of having a studio with big windows and a loft, but all of the ones where I lived were so expensive that I was priced out. I’m a country person, and I really wanted a space with other artists in a small town. The price was really good at Eclipse Mill and I moved here without knowing anyone.
I got the idea for Finding Shelter after photographing dogs for 10 years and being involved with animal rescues. Through working with lots of dogs that came from shelters, I saw that people still, in 2017, don’t want a shelter dog because they think they have issues. There’s a reputation of sadness that deters people from adopting and volunteering at shelters. I wanted to show what is beautiful about that world. It’s been proven that a good, professional photo of a dog will get them adopted. But I don’t like silly photographing; I prefer something with depth and feeling that shows the relationship between people and dogs. Shelters are full of beautiful stories — it’s not just the dogs, but the volunteers that get healed.
I started the project three years ago, in San Francisco and Los Angeles. With funding from a Kickstarter, I then selected groups from coast to coast, choosing an even amount of underfunded groups with a high-kill rate and some that were no-kill because they were located in wealthy neighborhoods.
Photos taken in Pittsfield and West Cornwall
In every shelter, the ratio is about 25 percent paid staff and 75 percent volunteers. Without volunteers, they wouldn’t be able to run or even exist. Humans overbreed pets and they don’t know enough about the importance of spaying and neutering, so many animals get abandoned in one way or another. The shelters aren’t so big that they can hold every animal, and there’s not enough money to pay that many people The only way to keep it functioning is to have volunteers. Volunteers walk, feed and clean for zero money. Once they start, they often do it every day for years.
For every shelter I photographed, they received high-res digital files that they’re allowed to use on their website, in the shelters themselves and for other marketing purposes. They can set up book signings, and I’ll go there to raise money for them directly. The shelters also can purchase the books at a discount and sell them to raise money or auction them off at fundraisers.