Professional Photographers are Snapping Pics and Saving Shelter Pets’ Lives

Getting shelter pets adopted is all about marketing -- and a good photo can make all the difference.

Crystal Gibson  |  Nov 1st 2013

Sometimes, something as simple as a well-taken photo can save a life.

Just ask Zulu.

The gentle blue-nosed Pit Bull with deformed front legs was on death row at Tangipahoa Parish Animal Control in Hammond, Louisiana when a photo saved his life. Professional photographer Nanette Martin and volunteers with Shelter-Me Photography (SMP) were in the right place at the right time for Zulu, and a portrait taken that day of the friendly but tired dog prompted a local rescue group to immediately pull him from the shelter. Zulu then went to Fur Angels Animal Sanctuary — a special-needs rescue in Indiana — before being adopted by Sarah and Monica, animal rescuers who already had three other special-needs dogs, but made room at their home for Zulu. Today, Zulu is happy and healthy and wears a special brace on his front leg to help with mobility. For Martin, Zulu’s journey from a shelter cage to a new life in a loving family is the only one she’s seen full-circle, but she knows that the photos she’s taken of other shelter pets have resulted in many other lives being saved.

Martin began volunteering as a photographer for shelter animals in Louisiana in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. In March of 2006, while helping to transport shelter dogs from Louisiana to Georgia, Martin was asked to take photos of the animals so that they could be viewed online while en route. She did, and nearly every dog was spoken for by the time they reached their destination. From that success grew Shelter-Me Photography, a 501(c)(3) non-profit animal welfare organization co-founded by Martin and her wife, Sonja Andreasson, in 2009.

Shelter-Me Photography’s mission is to facilitate and accelerate the adoption of shelter animals by volunteering to take professional portraits that show off their personalities and beautiful traits. Far from typical shelter photos of scared or nervous dogs huddled at the back of a kennel or shot through the bars of a cage, SMP strives to capture the spirit of the animal and create an emotional connection between the animal and the viewer.

In addition, SMP has been working with Purina One since 2011, and Martin divides her time between photographing shelter animals, teaching photography workshops for shelter employees, preparing reference materials and participating in “How To” instructional photography videos. When she is not traveling around the US or shooting for Purina, Martin continues to perform her duties as executive director for SMP.

And all that hard work and dedication has certainly paid off for the animals in front of the lens.

“Shelter-Me Photography has been able to photograph over 6,000 animals in more than 75 shelters across 16 states,” says Martin. “I’ve personally photographed over 9,000 animals, including 3,000 prior to founding SMP.”

The photos themselves can help change the public’s perception of shelter animals by helping to convey the spirit and beauty of the animal, regardless of the dog’s breed, age, or color. Something as simple as a well-composed and properly lit photo can make a shelter manager think twice about euthanizing an animal or trigger an emotion in people that encourages them to come see the pet in person.

“Our images have increased traffic at every shelter, rescue and foster organization we have visited, which in turn has led to increased adoption rates, some as high as 100% for the animals photographed,” Martin says.

And some breeds need all the help they can get.

Pit Bulls are often victims of prevalent, negative stereotypes and are routinely euthanized at shelters, or can wait months (or years) in a cage before being adopted. Martin knows that the power of a great picture can and has saved these dogs’ lives. “I can think of five [Pit Bulls] that I photographed within 12 hours of their scheduled euthanasias, and the pictures got every one of them out alive,” she says.

Hilary Benas, a professional photographer who volunteers with Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue, is responsible for catching the shot of Captain Morgan being reunited with his foster mom that went viral. For her, organizations like Shelter-Me Photography are important in that they reach out to teach amateur photographers how to better use their cameras in order to snap potentially life-savings shots of shelter animals in their own communities.

In fact, the trend is certainly catching on, and Martin says she regularly receives emails from people all over the US and in other countries who wish to start a similar program to Shelter-Me Photography.

But for Martin, the technique for capturing great shots of shelter animals is anything but new. She shows up at shoots with all the necessary equipment in tow (including — but not limited to — squeaky toys), and will keep shooting until “we run out of pets to photograph or they kick me out!” she says. “When conditions are right, it takes me less than a couple of minutes to photograph one dog,” she adds. “Our best record is 188 pets in 6 hours.”

Unfortunately, Shelter-Me Photography’s Colorado office was severely damaged by the September 2013 flooding in Boulder, and the group lost thousands of dollars worth of valuable photography gear and supplies. As a result, much of their volunteer work photographing shelter animals has been postponed. To help them replace their equipment so they can continue their mission to save these animals, please consider donating to the fundraiser that has been set up specifically to rebuild SMP following the devastating flood damage.

And for those interested in getting involved with SMP or for more information on how you can help, please check out their website or email them at

About Crystal Gibson: A child-sized Canadian expat in France who is fluent in French and sarcasm. Owned by a neurotic Doxie mix, a Garfield look-alike, and two needy Sphynx cats. An aspiring writer and pet photographer with a love of coffee and distaste for French administration, she can be found blogging over at Crystal Goes to Europe.

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