When Frank Bruynbroek first visited the US when he was 21, he had no idea the path that he would end up taking. He actually studied to be a teacher and this is what he did at first, teaching school children in Louisiana. However, he began to be interested in photography and it became an engrossing hobby for him.
After Louisiana, he ended up pursuing other artistic ventures, including acting in Hollywood, to finally end up devoting himself to his photography. After his dog died, he focused this gift towards photographing rescued dogs and in doing so, his work has become world renowned. He has published a book-Compawssion-and has a website under the same name that features his work.
You are originally from Belgium but living in the US now, right? What brought you to the US?
“I moved to US when I was 21 and got a job working as a school teacher…I taught French to kids in Louisiana. I stayed for 2 years and was completely open to anything…New experiences were just a gift of everyday life. Louisiana taught me a lot of things…The hospitality of the south is exemplary and I had no idea it existed before.
When I went back to Belgium, though, I never fit in the system. I started doing all kinds of other jobs that led me to the arts…I then came to LA to study acting. I knew I was at a crossroads in my life and needed something exciting and new and I never knew I would get hooked. The first 15 years in LA were like the blink of an eye…I decided to stay and one thing led to another. In LA you can jump into different things, different passions and photography was always a hobby…I started taking pictures of actors for their portfolios. When I started taking dog pictures, the transition was not smooth at first because I really thought it was something I would do just on the side…But the overwhelming response led me to pursue this.”
What motivated you to begin photographing rescued dogs?
“One of my dogs died…Also, before he died, I was taking pictures of people before and one day I turned around and snapped a shot…I shoot film and when you shoot film you don’t shoot randomly because you don’t want to waste…This was my first photo of dogs and my last of her because she died soon after. I felt it was time for me to give back, to contribute more. I promised her to work on a book of Portraits of Rescued Dogs. I then started taking pictures of dogs that had been saved from a tragic fate and then luckily adopted. Often i would ask people on the streets if i could photograph their dog or i would often go at my friend’s dog rescue foundation and snap a few shots…”
That’s quite the journey-from teacher to actor to photography!
“Yes and everything in between…I always had this fear almost of routine and boredom and being stuck. Having to do one thing only and just because it’s your livelihood…So from a very very young age I always pushed myself to find other things to do and ways to make a living…Because of this, I’m not the kind of photographer who wants to shoot all the time. I want to keep it fresh and exciting, not a chore. ..
The most interesting part is I had no idea it would take me to where it has taken me now… Those dog pictures were to me, at first, something I started out of grief. I had no idea where I was going…For years, I started taking pictures of dogs and not showing them to anyone…I wanted to come up with the final product, to just say “here you go, the book is finished” but one day someone had me show some of my work and the response was just amazing …so I began, in a way, to believe in what I was doing.”
Have you always had a passion for dogs?
“When I moved to LA, my first girlfriend there was really into dogs. She always traveled with dogs and always had a dog with her. This was a normal fit for me…The energy is very similar to kids-an innocence, a purity, an endearing quality and that’s really easy for me to tap into. For some reason the dogs feel safe, so it’s probably easier for me to take the pictures I take…”
Do you also take pictures of animals that have a challenging temperament or were abused?
“Whenever I take pictures of dogs that owners think will be challenging, they are the easy ones and the ones people think are easy are the difficult ones…If I were just taking pictures of sleeping and eating, that would be different. But I need them to sit and to connect. That’s the challenge…It’s rare to have a dog that is so well trained that they will just sit…so it’s always difficult. I work with treats a lot and need a lot of patience. I then wait for the right moment so I don’t shoot too many rolls of film…It’s a process every time and an adventure because I’m in other people’s homes. Sometimes I don’t know what I am going to find when I go to people’s homes.
It’s more challenging than a studio. However, the dogs have a feeling that I’m there for them, they just know that…If I wait long enough and they know I am there for them, I get the pictures with expression and get to where the dog is finally surrendering.”
Is your work impacting humans as well?
“Yes, there are so many lessons to be taught if we pay attention and listen.If you think about these creatures, they are nearly perfect with so much love to give, amazing devotion, loyalty, intuition, smart, and their ego is out of the way…The lesson of all the lessons is to get egos out of the way. I think that the world would be a better place if we could operate with less ego. There would be less of any kind of conflict. It’s really the biggest lesson and I think that’s why my pictures stir a lot of emotions that go beyond dog photography…
There is nothing like a powerful picture because time just stopped and it’s right there…It’s very powerful…like a mirror to who we are…
Also, we all have to live an extraordinary life…sometimes we misconstrue this and think that we have to climb Everest and save the world, but to live this we just have to tap into the bright light that shines within each of us…Sometimes because of life the light gets dimmer and gets a lot of dust. Our job is to really make this light shine. I think that we are all born with this light. We have almost like a duty to make this shine because then we give permission to others to also have their light on. It’s a ripple effect…
The idea is to be inspired by something or someone. Eventually without knowing it, you give back. When a person walks into my gallery and feels better than when they came in, they made my day. I know that they will go out and somehow unconsciously do the same. This is why trends-good trends-are very powerful.”
So, what does your book contain and who is featured in it?
“The book consists of over 100 rescued dogs that have been saved and adopted and 25 interviews with well-known celebrities who have a rescued dog-Diane Keaton, Jackie Chan, Brigitte Bardot, Sharon Osborne and Katherine Heigl, to just name a few. So, you have 25 stories of a rescued dog with the dog’s portrait. Also, Cesar Milan wrote the preface and the famous dog photographer William Wegman wrote the forward.
We are motivated because there is an overpopulation of dogs and the only way to stop it is through spaying and neutering. It’s an overwhelming fight. We kill between 8 and 11 million pets a year behind closed doors just because we don’t have enough homes! That’s why we urge people to adopt and spay and neuter. I wanted to interview celebrities and people in the limelight because they can have anything they want but they choose to save dogs and people tend to be influenced by personalities like that.”
Why do you choose to use black and white photography?
“I love black and white because I think black and white is more challenging. Without color it strips everything away and I can’t rely on a crutch like color. And I think it’s timeless, you frame differently, you capture the moment. My dad was a painter. We had five kids in a family and he couldn’t make a living with his painting, so he had jobs he never was passionate about. So when he was painting it was very daunting images and they were all black and white paintings, but they were always paintings with a message-gloomy messages but a message. Maybe it was a seed in my brain that got planted then. He went for what was essential, the part he wanted to express would show white or creamy. So, maybe that’s where I got it.”
“Yes, all have been adopted from various situations. Most are from really bad situations…In my book, I interviewed world personalities, like Dr. Jane Goodall, Diane Keaton and Jackie Chan and all of them were actually talking about the difference between a dog that is bought from a breeder or store and a dog that you gave a second chance to. Usually, it’s like a dog that has been bought has some sort of entitlement as opposed to the rescued dog that feels like they know they were given a second chance. If they are as intelligent as we think they are, I am not surprised that they know…”
The dog I own right now was rescued from a land fill…and was trying to protect herself from being attacked. She then turned into this totally gentle dog with the occasional thing that kicks in…but otherwise she is a completely changed dog…she is completely amazing…
As people that’s what we are looking for-to give that love and receive that love…That’s why the name of my book is “compawssion”-not just for people but all living things…the ‘w’ in paw is a reminder that one letter can change everything…Basically what my work is all about is to hopefully have one person who will get some sort of message of love, respect, joy and compassion.”
So what’s next for you and for Compawssion?
“Actually, I’m working on a big event, something bigger than myself, to really be able to take my photography to a multimedia event and travel the world. I originally thought that this work was because I promised my dog I would work on a book to contribute back to what dogs are giving us each day. I had no idea the work would take me this far…My plan A is to shoot for the moon and if I catch stars I will be happy. So the “moon” is the event. Not just an exhibit, but to create an event that goes beyond dog photography. The event will be on the strong connection between nature and us. There will be a message about our differences and how we should love one another as living beings…The quicker we put our differences behind the better this world will be…In the end, we see ourselves in those pictures and I want to carry this to an event. Too often, we think we have nothing to give because we get lost in the years of our life. We have a short amount of time to make a stand and I want to show people how they can contribute in this event.”
***To see Frank’s work, visit: www.compawssion.com