Photographer Carli Davidson’s images of pets are frequently surprising. She does not attempt to capture animals at their cutest and cuddliest moments. Instead she’ll catch a big black dog mid-shake, its ears and lips flapping, or a mostly toothless Sphynx cat mid-yawn.
Some of the animals look shy; others look inspired. Some look like they’re about to tell you a secret or maybe make fun of your haircut. But one thing all of the photos have in common is that they speak. They express that these are people’s family members who have loved and been loved.
Davidson is able to snap these unexpected and seemingly hard-to-capture moments because her work stems from a deep place of love and respect for animals. Many people have come to appreciate the vast spectrum of animal experience and emotion thanks to the photos she’s shared via her online portfolio and Facebook page.
“I look for ways to capture my respect for them with my art,” she says. “I can see when an animal is comfortable, or stressed, or excited. I look for their strengths and amplify them. In a way, the animals direct the shoots.”
In many ways, Davidson’s career as a pet photographer has been a lifetime in the making. She grew up in a family who loved animals, and she and her sister were encouraged to explore nature, learning to catch snakes and build terrariums before they had Barbies. They “walked the streets on rainy nights, saving frogs and salamanders from a rubbery fate.”
She got her first dog, Dempsey, when she was six. “I remember going to get him from some godawful pet store in New Rochelle, New York,” she says. “He was a three-month-old brindle Boxer, all wiggly and exuberant the way Boxers are. That first night I slept with him wrapped in a big blanket at the bottom of our kitchen stairs, and he was my best friend for the next 13 years. I was a hyperactive, socially awkward child, and Dempsey comforted me through a lot of social challenges early on.”
She began sharing her love of animals and nature with others by volunteering at the local nature preserve and wildlife education center when she was in middle school. Bolstered by the encouragement of her creative parents, she took her first photography class a couple of years later, and she and her Nikon F2 were “inseparable for a long time.” Since then, her photographs of animals and people have become internationally known, and her unique perspectives of four-legged friends have captivated many animal lovers.
“I mostly shoot things I’m curious about,” she says. “I guess the feeling behind my images is that I’m working with my peers more than I’m photographing some animal. I’m curious about who they are, about their life story, just like I am when I do documentary work with people. Photography is just an avenue for my sense of exploration.”
One of her more recent series has been the Pets with Disabilities Project. While walking along an Oregon beach a couple of years ago, Davidson was inspired by a German Shepherd in a doggy wheelchair enjoying a game of fetch.
“It was so happy, a dog doing what dogs do, totally undeterred by its disability,” she says. “I felt inspired by the whole scenario. The owner made this choice, out of love, to do a little extra work every day to make sure his friend was happy and comfortable. I thought a lot about this pair in the following weeks, and decided I wanted to create a project showcasing differently abled pets … to show the world that they are happy, thriving companions. They are not sad; they are not in pain; and the owners and animals continue to be a great value to one another.”
One striking example of the resiliency and adaptability of animals is evident in the story of Ramen Noodle, a young poodle who lost both of his front legs in separate accidents before he was two years old. Amazingly, shortly after losing the second, he was up and running on his hind legs, almost resembling a tiny, furry person. He continues to live with the veterinary technician who rescued him after his first amputation.
“I can’t say I was surprised at how happy he was, how much he was just a normal dog,” Davidson says. “By the time I worked with him I had shot a few other dogs for the series and knew not to assume anything. That said, he is inspiring in how simple he makes it all look. He barks at strangers and loves playing with toys. He’s very much a happy, healthy young poodle.”
Prints of Davidson’s photographs are available via her online shop, with 10 percent of proceeds donated to Best Friends Animal Rescue in Utah. She hopes to continue communicating the acceptance and vitality of disabled pets through her photographs. “I really hope what people take away from these stories is information to make decisions for their own pets, an appreciation for the resilience of all animals, and ultimately a sense of normalcy from the photos and stories,” she says.