Alex Greenshpun is a photographer from Israel who has gained renown for her amazing photography of nature, pets and people. She has especially become known for her ability to successfully capture the expression and personality of companion animals, often photographing rescue animals searching for homes.
How did you get started in photography? Did you go to photography school?
“It was actually my dog that brought me to photography. We often take long walks in nature together and seeing the beauty around me, I felt an urge to capture and share it with others. At first, I simply used the camera on my smartphone and didn’t think of pursuing it as a more serious hobby. After a while though, friends had convinced me to get a DSLR.
I’m completely self-taught. The learning process is constant and comes only through practice.
Photography reminds me to be aware of the wonder which is life. It’s a connection with the essence of everything around and within. It teaches me to keep my heart open and still the mind. So, it’s actually a kind of meditation.”
So, what motivated you to begin photographing animals and rescue animals, in particular?
“Well, photography came into my life only about two years ago, but a love for animals has been with me ever since early childhood. Although my work mostly focuses on fine-art nature and portraiture photography, animals have such a special place in my heart that it’s only natural they would also be a part of it. My dog, as one might expect, became my first model and when we’d go to dog-parks, I’d photograph her playing with other dogs. This sparked my interest in pet photography.
As for rescue-animals, I’ve always had strong feelings regarding the welfare of animals and my desire to get involved and contribute to the cause grew after the adoption of our dog. Usually, the rescue organizations rely on their online communities to find homes for the animals and photos play a big part in the process. While browsing through some images of one such organization, I decided to volunteer as a photographer.”
How do you get the dogs in the right position in order to capture their expressions or to really capture the moment?
“One of the things I like most about photographing dogs is their spontaneity and how different their characters always are. Some dogs are calm, quiet and will gladly sit still if you promise them a treat. Others will prefer to run and jump around, with the life-affirming, joyful exuberance of a puppy and won’t stay still for more than a few seconds. Some are quite trusting and will curiously approach to sniff around you; while others can be insecure and timid with strangers and take a while to relax.
Before each session I try to ask questions about the dog on the phone and prepare accordingly. If the owner tells me the dog is quite energetic, I may ask for them to walk and play with the dog prior to our meeting. This way the dog gets to have fun and I get to meet a happier and calmer pup to photograph; it’s a win-win. I often play with the dogs during the session as well, to make it enjoyable for them and to create a stronger connection between us. This also allows me to capture the real character of the more active dog.
I believe that in order to create a good image, there has to be an unspoken connection between me and the subject, which would invariably show in the image itself. This is why it’s always very important to get to know the pup at first and even more importantly, to let him/her get to know me.
When I first meet a dog for a photo shoot, I don’t make any eye contact nor do I walk towards it. Instead, I stand relaxed and let the dog approach and sniff me. I may even squat a little and get down to his eye-level while he gets familiar with my smell. This is essential in order to establish basic trust. Trust is what allows me to capture the personality of the dog, as the animal relaxes and acts more as it usually does.
Then, of course, there are treats. It’s always great to have some with you when you’re out photographing a dog. I often ask the owner to help and hold the treat, so the dog’s attention goes right at it and I get to capture a great expression. For some dogs, this works better with a favorite toy or a ball. It should be noted that I use this mostly to capture the pup’s portrait from above, simply because they have the most adorable drool-filled expressions during those moments. However, that’s an exception to the rule, as I usually prefer to shoot at the dog’s eye-level. I like to show the dog from a dog’s point of view, and you’ll often find me squatting or even laying down while photographing them.
The whole process requires a lot of patience. Ultimately, however, once basic trust is established and the dog feels free to be itself, many wonderful photographic moments will happen on their own. All I have to do is capture the best ones.”
I noticed you do adoption photo-shoots. How did you get connected with an adoption organization? Were the featured animals adopted?
“The rescue organization I volunteer for is called ‘Dogs in the Shadow’. The organization was established a couple of years ago by three young women, who began rescuing dogs that were about to be put down in shelters around Israel, even though they had no funding whatsoever. Today, the entire organization relies on volunteers and donations only. I have long admired their work and followed their Facebook updates. At some point I decided to volunteer as a photographer, to help dogs find permanent homes through the images.
To my knowledge, with the exception of one or two very-recent photo sessions, all dogs I’ve photographed so far have found permanent homes.”
What is your favorite part about photographing pets and animals looking for a home?
“Frankly, just being around animals is a joy for me. The opportunity to help them find a loving home for the rest of their lives is a blessing. Animals in general and dogs in particular have taught me much about life and they continue to do so every day. I often meet dogs who have been through unimaginable hardships and still have their trust in human-beings; they still live every moment with pure joy and wiggle their tail as they see a person approaching. To me, they are heroes. Being around such animals puts everything in perspective and is a truly humbling experience.”
What is one of the most interesting situations that you have been in when photographing dogs or one of your favorite situations?
“Watching dogs at play is probably my favorite situation to photograph. They are so completely devoted to the present moment, so full of life, and it’s very uplifting to see. You never know what they’re going to do next, and so many amusing scenes happen when they play. I often take my camera to the dog park, to capture those moments.
For example, two dogs who were regular visitors to a dog park we used to go to had one game they always repeated. At first glance it looked like your average game of pull-and-tug: one of the dogs would grab a toy and the other would try and pull it away. However, whenever one of them succeeded in taking the toy away, she would approach the other and try to put it back into her mouth, while holding on to the other end. And so, the game would continue, as if to say: “it’s the journey, not the destination”. It was very amusing to watch and one of my favorite dog images is of these two holding on to a ball. It’s called “Whose ball is it anyway?”
Do you plan to further develop your pet photography? What are your future photography plans?
“My main work is fine-art nature and portraiture photography, so this is where most of my artistic efforts go. However, I plan to continue to volunteer for rescue organizations as much as possible. I’ve also been working on a documentary project that focuses on the connection between humans and their canine friends. In it I try to capture the various feelings and interactions, moments that often go unnoticed. It’s an ongoing work, the purpose of which is to show how special the bond between humans and dogs can be.”