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Doggie Gaga Photographer Takes on Shelter Project

By Colleen Williams
published: August 1, 2014 - updated: November 18, 2019 • 3 min. read

Perhaps best known as the guy who dressed up dogs as Lady Gaga in 2010, photographer Jesse Freidin is much more than a one-hit-wonder. The San Francisco-based artist is one of few photographers who still employs an entirely film-based process: producing stunning black and white images of his subjects by hand, utilizing natural light and a 1970s Hasselblad camera. Even more surprising? He only photographs dogs and their families.

We talked to Freidin, proud owner of 8-year-old Boston Terrier Pancake, about how he got involved in such a niche area of fine art photography and about his newest endeavor, Finding Shelter — a project meant to educate people about shelter animals and the amazing people that work with them every day.


Lots of people specialize in specific types of photography like wedding photography or portrait photography. How did you get involved in pet photography?

When I moved to San Francisco 10 years ago, I needed a job and was hired by a dog daycare facility. I lied and said I had experience working with dogs, but actually I was a little afraid of dogs at that point. My first day on the job I was thrown into a play group of big dogs, all of which were barking at me because I was the new guy. A huge pitbull named Lennox came up to me, looked right into my eyes, and we shared a very special moment. All the dogs stopped barking, and from there on out I was fascinated with the dog-human connection. Within the contemporary pet photography world I saw a real need for more honest and emotional images. “Pet Pics” were very much on the surface, and I wanted to tell a deeper, more evocative story about our bond with companion animals through my traditional portrait style.

What prompted you to start the Finding Shelter project? How does it work?

For the past few years, I have watched my colleagues in the dog photography world get caught up in the new trend of photographing adoptable shelter animals. What a great trend to be caught up in! It is powerful, generous and hugely important work, and tips the balance between survival and euthanasia for so many animals. When a shelter animal is represented with a flattering professional photograph, it is much likelier to get adopted, and thank goodness for those amazing photographers who donate their time. What I felt was missing from that trend was a wider view: these photographers were seeing the animal shelter (and the process of keeping those animals alive) as one-sided, which of course got me interested in telling the story of the other side: the human volunteers. I am approaching animal shelters and rescue groups around Los Angeles and San Francisco and inviting their volunteers to sit for my camera.

What is it about the human-pet bond that has been so moving for you?

What I began seeing as I started photographing Finding Shelter was that the volunteers were not only interested in simply sharing their affection with the animals, they also equally needed the love that the shelter animals gave back. I was thrilled to see such an emotional relationship between the volunteers and adoptable animals. 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. Though the topic is never actually discussed, volunteers find an environment of support and friendship within their relationships with the abandoned animals that keeps them coming back.

Are there any specific stories you can share that have been especially touching?

I have met so many amazing people while photographing for this series. My general style when photographing people and their animals is to simply be quiet and let that person interact with the animal, and with my camera, on their own terms. I am an observer, and through creating a quiet space, a blank canvas literally, for these volunteers to present themselves, what happens is that that quiet space gets filled with stories about how that person started volunteering, what animal they love most and why, or some other amazing account of love and dedication. I don’t ask for those stories. They just come out naturally, which is really beautiful.

For more about Jesse and the Finding Shelter project visit his site here.

colleen williams
By Colleen Williams

Over the past decade, Colleen has written about health, wellness, beauty, and even pets for The New York Times, The Cut, Refinery29, xoVain, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Seattle Met Magazine, as well as many beauty brands. She has a BFA in Art History from the University of New Mexico and an AAS in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design in New York.

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