In 2006, Traer Scott published Shelter Dogs, a collection of black and white portraits of the soulful and charismatic animals she worked with in Rhode Island shelters. The book was a surprise hit, selling more than 50,000 copies and launching Scott’s career—she went on to publish four more books, all featuring animals. For her latest book, Finding Home: Shelter Dogs and Their Stories, Scott returns to her original subject, following a new set of dogs in the shelters where she volunteers, photographing them with the same passion but with more maturity. Better equipment and better resources led to better pictures, she says, and a deeper involvement with her subjects. Released during October’s National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, a percentage of the book’s sales will go to support shelter causes. In addition to portraits and short histories of each dog, Finding Home profiles several dogs from the time they enter the shelter to the time they leave, describing life in the shelter, the joys and challenges of adoption, and the sad fate of dogs that ultimately don’t make it out. The result is broader portrait of life in shelter system, a topic that’s gained tremendous attention since 2006.
The idea for the new book began when Shelter Dogs went out of print two years ago, after the publisher downsized. Scott began approaching other publishers about reissuing the original as a new edition, but eventually decided it was time for a whole new book. “It [had] been nearly ten years, the old one [was] out of print, and I have a lot more experience and some new things to say,” she tells PDN. “I was hesitant because I didn’t want to have a sequel per se, but when I started doing some test shots I realized I’ve become a much better photographer.”
In part, that improvement came from being less engaged with the dogs she was photographing. “In 2006 I was heavily involved in animal rescue, to the point where I was the sole volunteer at the shelters I worked at. I was there every day taking those dogs out, getting them medical care, getting them adopted,” says Scott. “I was so emotionally invested in them. Now I still volunteer but in a much more detached way.” Outside of her work on the book, Scott’s photos are used as profile pictures on Petfinder, an adoption website. “I go in and take the photos of the dogs that are going up for adoption, and I send the photos in and they use them.” Her distance allows for better concentration. “This time I had a wonderful group of women I work with locally who would go out there in the freezing cold and help wrangle these dogs, hold up treats for them, and tell me about their personalities. I think I was able to get better shots because I had help.”
Her equipment was also more sophisticated—Scott shot most of the first book using a consumer grade point and shoot Olympus she bought from a friend for $50. Although she had better quality film cameras at home at the time, she was taking hundreds of shots a day and couldn’t afford to shoot the project with them, or risk using them in the shelters. “I didn’t want to take my Mamiya into the shelter because I was afraid it was going to get dropped or broken or drooled on by the dogs,” she says. But with more help, “I can use my Nikon, I can use my nice equipment and get better quality pictures.” All the images were taken outside using available light, which Scott prefers with dogs. “I like the way it illuminates their fur and their eyes. I think everything comes out in softer, greater detail,” she says. It’s also easier to work with the dogs outdoors, where they are more comfortable and Scott has more room to work. “The dogs get really nervous when you take them in a room and there are lights set up.”
Motivating the models is another challenge of working with dogs—the key is discovering what excites them, usually hot dogs and cheese. “I would say most dogs—about 90 percent—respond well to food,” she says. Others like toys or sounds. “Sometimes it’s something you wouldn’t even imagine, like a shoe.” Scott has learned what motivates other species as well. “With bunnies it’s dried cranberries. With sloths, it’s lettuce. You have to research or have someone there who knows.”
For Scott, although the photos she makes are beautiful, the dogs she records are not exceptional—instead they stand in for many like them around the country. “I really do believe that every dog in the world is photogenic,” says Scott. “Some of these dogs look pretty beat up when you see them at the shelter. I think my job is to bring out the inherent beauty in these animals, because a lot of them you would just pass by in the shelter and not even notice. Hopefully with these photos you would say ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful dog.’ If you look closely they’re all very beautiful.”